The Security Dimension of the Abraham Accords
A year and a half later, a look at what’s changed, what hasn’t, and what still might.
In September 2021, a year after the Abraham Accords were signed by Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (Morocco and Sudan joined a few weeks later), U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke enthusiastically of Arab-Israeli collaborations already under way in various domains including energy, health care, technology, medicine, and tourism.
On the potential security benefits of these historic normalization deals, however, he was almost mum. Arab and Israeli leaders who participated in the call with Blinken were tight-lipped, too. They were eager to emphasize the political and economic opportunities of the accords but careful to limit any talk of military cooperation to vague notions of peace and stability.
No one should be surprised that the Americans, and particularly the Arabs and the Israelis, wish to highlight the economic promise of the accords more than anything else. Unlocking the economic potential of bilateral ties was and still is the chief motivation and focus of the Bahrainis, the Emiratis, and the Israelis. Security was not the driver of normalizing ties with Israel.
Outside official Arab and Israeli circles, commentary on the security aspects of the accords has swung from one extreme to another. The strongest believers hailed the accords as a monumental breakthrough that will usher a new era of peaceful relations in the Middle East. The staunchest critics argued that by banding together against Iran—their mutual adversary—the Gulf Arabs and the Israelis might instigate a regional war or at least cause further tensions in the region.
Neither forecast is compelling. Yet given the strategic significance of the accords, it’s important to have a better understanding of their security implications, not only for the signatories but also for the whole region.
Let’s start with what has happened already in the area of security cooperation, at least publicly. In November 2021, Bahraini and Emirati navies held their first-ever joint military exercise in the Red Sea with Israeli warships, coordinated by the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which is based in Manama. More collective policing activity at sea is expected to follow in the coming months to counter weapons smuggling and other threats posed by terrorists, pirates and the Iranian navy.
Also expected in the not-too-distant future is air and missile defense cooperation between the Gulf Arabs and the Israelis. Both sides fear Iran’s increasingly precise missiles and armed drones; together, they are likely to explore avenues to create a more effective shield against those deadly weapons. Israel’s recent tests of what it called “the world’s first energy-based” defense against drones and other short-range weapons are no doubt of interest to the Gulf Arabs, especially the Saudis and the Emiratis, who have struggled to ward off Houthi and Iranian attacks.
But aside from maritime security and air and missile defense and possibly cyber security, it’s hard to see how the Gulf Arabs and the Israelis will pursue other forms of security cooperation. That’s largely because the Gulf Arabs and the Israelis have dissimilar strategic priorities and approaches in terms of how to deal with the Iranian challenge.
Israel prioritizes Iran’s nuclear program, which Tel Aviv views as an existential threat. It certainly worries about Iran’s proxies and missiles, too, but an atomic weapon in the hands of a radical regime that doesn’t even recognize the Jewish state is the absolute nightmare scenario the Israelis are doing everything they can to prevent.
The Gulf Arabs, meanwhile, prioritize Iran’s political violence across the region more than anything else. While they have concerns about Tehran acquiring nukes, they understand there’s nothing they can do to stop Iran from getting them. And they believe it’s a problem for the United States and the rest of the world to solve.
To address Iran’s expanding influence and military infrastructure in places like Iraq and Syria, Israel often resorts to kinetic operations. Over the past six years or so, the Israeli military has conducted more than 400 airstrikes against Iranian targets in the region, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. This use of force, the Israelis believe, is not only effective but necessary in the fight against the regional Iranian threat.
The Gulf Arabs are keen to deal with Iran’s aggressive foreign policy exclusively through defense and diplomacy. They fear the repercussions of escalation with Iran should they respond militarily to attacks against them, especially at a time when their faith in U.S. protection is lower than ever. Israel, however, has fewer qualms about escalation with Iran because it believes that its considerable military edge (and its willingness to use it in combat, which it has demonstrated repeatedly) serves as a deterrent against things spiraling out of control.
It is this Israeli ability and willingness to hurt the Iranians whenever they cause mischief that interests but also alarms the Gulf Arabs. If they get too close to Israel and start to establish more expansive and meaningful forms of security cooperation—for example, providing it with more sensitive intelligence and military access—the Iranians might lash out at them.
Abu Dhabi and Manama would be guilty by association, which is precisely what happened to Riyadh in September 2019 when Tehran launched strikes against it with drones and cruise missiles not because of anything the Saudis did but because of their support of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Iranian regime.
The Gulf Arabs are the more vulnerable party in this newfound friendship with Israel and they know they risk getting attacked by Iran, perhaps more viciously this time, if they decide to upgrade their security cooperation with the Israelis.
But they also can’t completely ignore the practical benefits of stronger defense ties with Israel given the shared interests and threat perceptions and importantly, the reduced security commitment of Washington to the region, hence the dilemma they have on their hands.
The security relationship with Israel can be a burden for the Gulf Arabs if the former, rightly or wrongly, ratchets up the pressure militarily against Iran (which is a distinct possibility if the United States reaches a new nuclear deal with Iran that provides it with billions of dollars in frozen funds and thus to capacity to sow greater mayhem in the region).
Yet it can also serve as insurance against more reckless behavior by the Iranians. So, Tehran gets a vote. The more threatening, coercive, and intimidating its posture toward its Gulf Arab neighbors, the more eager they will be to form a closer military bond with Israel.
Bilal Y. Saab is the director of the defense and security program at the Middle East Institute. He’s also the author of the forthcoming book Rebuilding Arab Defense: U.S. Security Cooperation in the Middle East.