For practitioners and enthusiasts who have been following the region, the recent wave of normalisation agreements between Israel and newfound regional allies taking place within the framework of the Abraham Accords came as no shock. With extensive informal cooperation already in existence for a number of years, many were more surprised that the public nature of already existing cooperation indeed took so long to come to light. Although a significant emphasis has been placed on the security benefits of these agreements, and particularly the common interest in countering the ever relevant Iranian threat, we must be wary of laying the foundations of these accords upon the shifting sands that are security interests.
History is replete with historical arrangements that due to a lack of firm grounding, disappeared as quickly as they appeared. Not many remember the 1983 US brokered peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon. At the time, this was naturally hailed as historic progress towards the mutual recognition of territorial integrity and sovereignty, alongside the potential it harboured to facilitate security cooperation. Although shy of a full-fledged peace agreement, the signing was at the time compared to the then recent peace accord with Egypt. It was thus hailed by the New York Times as, “the second Israeli success in recent years in concluding a formal agreement on peaceful relations with an Arab neighbour”.
The Abraham Accords, and particularly the normalisation agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, have been similarly hailed as historic and depicted as groundbreaking. Aside from these being the first instances of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours in over 25 years, the enthusiasm surrounding these developments have also been a result of the potential for people to people engagement. Relationships, both personal and business focused, between Israelis and the people of the Gulf have been depicted as strongly underpinning these burgeoning ties. The emergence of these are already being seen in the UAE-Israel agreement, with visa-free travel being approved by both countries, alongside around 15 flights a day between the UAE and Israel taking place a mere 12 weeks after the signing of the accords.
The symbolic geopolitical shift that the accords have heralded in has also been apparent. This has been underscored by Sudan joining the list of counties establishing diplomatic ties with the Jewish state. Although not a central regional player, Sudan’s joining was symbolically important in light of the role it played in the promulgation of historic Arab ‘rejectionism’ and specifically, the infamous three “No’s” stemming from the 4th Arab League summit in Khartoum in 1967.
While the true essence of these deals are currently only known to those closest to the respective administrations, they were undoubtedly encouraged by realpolitik. This includes the regional need to broadcast seriousness in relation to the Iranian threat, a Gulf desire to continue to be seen as stalwart supporters of the Palestinian cause through “halting” annexation, alongside both Benjamin Netanyahu and former US President Donald Trump’s own internal political considerations. With the long-term prospects of these agreements still uncertain, if they are to withstand the test of time, they must be deep rooted in issues more comprehensive than simply the potential for people to people engagement and fleeting security considerations.
The Marshall Plan for the Middle East white paper, produced by the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum over the course of 6 months, explored the potential which wide-ranging multilateral aid and development initiatives in the Middle East can and should play in underpinning these newfound alliances. Echoing the focus of the original Marshall Plan, the project, led by Professor Dr. Malik R. Dahlan, considers the potential contours of both economic reconstruction and harmonisation across the region’s war-ravaged and peaceful nations.
Although the project was commenced before the Abraham Accords became a reality, research informed by the transatlantic Marshall Plan drew from the success of post-war European integration to understand what applied history can teach about the role of reconstruction aid in shaping the region’s future. This has been most evident in Libya today, where reconstruction has been the focal point of the foreign powers seeking to ensure their own long term interests, often to the detriment of American and European strategic aims.
While previous multilateral development plans in the Middle East have in the past failed due to a lack of broad regional support networks, MENAF is of the opinion that the newfound framework of the accords can provide exactly the constellation needed for fostering long-term regional stability. While much of these efforts have to date been bilateral in nature, the region currently faces a unique opportunity to forge a more cohesive and profound common approach. A modern Middle East oriented Marshall Plan indeed introduces an additional, credible economic benefit for integration and cooperation between new allies.
This impetus, coupled with external encouragement from all newly aligned actors, presents us with a cornucopia of opportunities for long-lasting change. This includes an opening for rapprochement among inimical countries such as Tunisia and Algeria, alongside addressing country specific issues, such as the freshwater shortage in Libya due to overuse for agricultural purposes. A Marshall Plan for the Middle East within the context of the Abraham Accords brings with it the intersection of Gulf support alongside Israeli ingenuity. The paper is not unrealistic regarding the limitations of regional roles which Israel can currently play given existing geopolitical constraints. In this light however, cooperation further provides the region with an opportunity to benefit from previously untapped Israeli innovation which when spearheaded by Arab allies, would necessarily be better received in countries with which Israel has yet to establish relations.
Such joint regional cooperation initiatives are a significantly stronger cornerstone with which to anchor the accords and with which to ensure their long term viability. All parties involved share the common interest of bringing stability to some of the region’s most unstable environs, at the expense of international actors whose pernicious actions are detrimental to western interests. The involvement of UK, US and European allies from both the private and public sectors, will both promote a vision for the region in line with Western interests as well as values and which afford these still fragile normalisation agreements an additional context through which to blossom.