All eyes on Saudi Arabia as US pushes to expand Abraham Accords

Biden administration eager to build off major agreement by establishing relations between Israel and Riyadh

From right, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani, US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after the signing of the Abraham Accords on September 13, 2020. AFP
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Three years ago, hundreds of people gathered on the South Lawn of the White House to watch as then-president Donald Trump, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a historic agreement that established formal relations between Israel and the two Arab countries.

Much has changed since the signing of the Abraham Accords. On that warm, sun-filled afternoon, nearly everyone in attendance was wearing a mask to protect against the spread of Covid-19.

While face coverings have faded from daily use and a new US administration has taken over, the accords have expanded, with Morocco and Sudan also normalising relations with Israel.

“I think their resilience would probably be the most striking aspect of the accords,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, whose research focuses on Arab-Israeli relations.

The administration of President Joe Biden, which inherited the accords, has worked to nurture and expand them – with limited success.

Last year, Washington helped to establish the Negev Forum, a framework of regional co-operation between the UAE, Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt and the US.

But Morocco, which was supposed to host a ministerial-level meeting of the forum, has postponed the event indefinitely following a string of Israeli announcements regarding West Bank settlements, presenting one of the first significant bumps in the road.

Israel’s far-right government includes ministers who have openly called for the annexation of the West Bank, a move that would end any hopes of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. Such politics have strained, but not broken, the accords.

Economically, relationships have continued to grow. For instance, more than 150 flights travel between Israel and the UAE each week – something that was once unthinkable.

In Washington, the accords have broad support among both Democrats and Republicans, a rarity in the polarised halls of the US Capitol.

In June, the Biden administration appointed Daniel Shapiro as senior adviser for regional integration, with the task of helping to nurture and expand the accords.

A long-time diplomat who served as US ambassador to Israel under Barack Obama from 2011 to 2017, Mr Shapiro most recently served as the head of the N7 Initiative at the Atlantic Council, which seeks to bring government officials from across the Middle East together.

The Biden administration has called establishing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia a priority.

High-level officials including Brett McGurk, White House co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, have made several trips to the region in recent months, meeting Israelis, Saudis and Palestinians in an effort to find a path towards normalisation.

“It's a real opportunity regarding the potential for normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Mr Shapiro said at an event celebrating the three-year anniversary of the accords.

But analysts believe a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel remains a tall order.

“Regardless of the flurry of activity, it still seems that all of the issues involved in actually getting to a deal have not been resolved. Whether they're even resolvable or not, it remains an open question,” Gerald Feierstein, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a former US ambassador to Yemen, told The National.

Mr al-Omari shared a similar viewpoint.

“I'm sceptical that a quick breakthrough could happen,” he said.

Whether or not Washington can achieve what would be a landmark deal, one thing is certain: even envisioning it would have been almost impossible without the Abraham Accords.

“We could not be talking about the Saudi-Israeli opening without the Abraham Accords laying the ground for that,” Mr al-Omari added.

Updated: September 14, 2023, 5:15 PM