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Research studies

Geopolitics of the Arab-Israeli Normalization of Relations

Prepared by the researcher –  Dr. Amira Elsayed Hassan Seddik – Doctor of Philosophy in Political Science – A Researcher of Political Science, Alexandria University, Egypt

Democratic Arab Center

Journal of Afro-Asian Studies : Eight issue – February 2021

A Periodical International Journal published by the “Democratic Arab Center” Germany – Berlin. The journal deals with the field of Afro-Asian strategic, political and economic studies

Nationales ISSN-Zentrum für Deutschland
ISSN 2628-6475
Journal of Afro-Asian Studies
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Abstract:

Egypt and Jordan, as core countries in the Arab-Israeli conflict, signed peace treaties with Israel in 1979 and 1994 and, respectively, established full diplomatic relations with it. However, in the last few months, the Middle East North Africa “MENA” region has witnessed the current fostering process of Arab-Israeli normalization of relations which involved Arab countries whose lands had never been threatened by the Arab-Israeli conflict. The process began when UAE and Israel signed the “Abraham Accords” in August 2020. Soon after, UAE was followed by Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. Other Arab countries are expected to follow the path. This research analyzes the phenomenon of Arab-Israeli normalization of relations. It focuses mainly on both the geopolitical driving forces behind normalization and the prospects of the similar future Qatari move. The research investigates the relation between the current process of normalization and the great game which involves a number of geostrategic players in the “MENA” region and which aims to recreate the Middle Eastern regional system as well.

Introduction:

In the last few months, the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region has witnessed the fostering process of Arab-Israeli normalization of relations. The process began when UAE and Israel signed the “Abraham Accords” in August 2020. Soon after, UAE was followed by Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said in November 2020, that other Arab countries are expected to normalize ties with Israel.([1])

This research paper sheds light on such a significant, recent and ever new phenomenon, it analyzes the geopolitical driving forces behind it. In this regard, the research paper raises the following questions: Why do Arab countries hurry towards normalizing relations with Israel? What are the geopolitical driving forces behind this phenomenon? Can gulf reconciliation encourage Qatar to follow the path?

The paper argues that the current normalization process is part of the ongoing geopolitical rivalries within the “MENA” region, for power, prestige and even hegemony, which aim to recreate the regional system.

The research adopted both the inductive method and the geopolitical approach. Geopolitics is not only the field which studies how foreign policy is affected by geographical variables, it is also the field that powers which seek either world or regional prestige and hegemony have, increasingly, been interested in.

The research is divided into three sections; the first one analyzes the current geopolitical landscape of the MENA region, the second one analyzes the geopolitical factors which encouraged UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to normalize their relations with Israel and the third one analyzes, in the light of gulf reconciliation which has been achieved in January 2021, the prospects of future Qatari normalization with Israel.

Section I: The Geopolitical Landscape of the MENA Region

This section analyzes the current geopolitical landscape of the MENA region. It first determines the main regional “geostrategic players”, then it analyzes their “geopolitical codes” and finally it determines the main regional rivalries and axes.

The Main Middle Eastern Geostrategic Players:

According to Brzezinski, the former American national security advisor, “geostrategic players” are “the states that have the capacity and the national will to exercise power or influence beyond their borders in order to alter …. the existing geopolitical state of affairs. They have the potential and/or the predisposition to be geopolitically volatile”.([2])

The current Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape began to crystalize at the beginning of the 21st century. Israel, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and eventually UAE are the most active geostrategic players in the MENA region. While non-Arab powers are first rank geostrategic players, Arab powers are second rank ones.

Israel is a first rank geostrategic player which seeks hegemony of the Middle East, its geopolitical aspirations are not new; they date back to the old dreams of establishing a nation-state for Jews on the Palestinian territories. After consolidating itself against the existential threats, Israel’s hegemonic aspirations in the Middle East has begun to emerge since 1990s.([3]) Moreover, when the neo-conservatives ascended to power in the United States in 2001, Israel had a historic opportunity to assert its influence in the region. The war against Iraq in 2003 was just the starting point in a longer process aimed to recreate the Middle East. In the context of “the Broader Middle East Project”, as named by the neo-conservatives, other regional powers were expected to be next on the agenda.([4])

Iran is another first rank geostrategic player which seeks hegemony of the Middle East. Its hegemonic aspirations are not new, they date back to the Shah era who dreamed of turning the country into a prominent regional power in the Persian Gulf.([5]) Leaders of the Iranian Islamic revolution have inherited those hegemonic aspirations and gave them an Islamic form. Like Israel, Iran had a great opportunity to extend its regional role after the war against Iraq. The war has not only helped Iran to get rid of Iraq, which effectively played the role of the balancer against its regional aspirations for years, it has also helped the latter to integrate the new Iraq in the its sphere of influence.([6])

Turkey is the third first rank geostrategic player which seeks hegemony of the Middle East. Unlike Israel and Iran whose geopolitical ambitions are old, Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions in the MENA region are relatively new; they crystalized under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) which has been ruling Turkey since 2002.([7]) Unlike the previous ruling elite whose orientations were western in the first place, AKP’s ruling elite showed greater interest in the Middle East. Davutoğlu’s famous book, “The Strategic Depth” is a clear manifestation of the changing orientations; Davutoğlu criticized the pervious Turkish elite for ignoring such a strategic region.([8]) After Arab revolutions, Turkey’s regional aspirations have dramatically risen.

Saudi Arabia is a second rank geostrategic player whose regional role dates back to cold war era when it played an active role in opposition to both the communist and the Islamic Iranian ambitions. After Arab revolutions, the kingdom’s regional role expanded to several arenas in opposition to the Iranian and Qatari ambitions. Qatar is another second rank geostrategic player whose regional role began to emerge when Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani ascended to power in 1995. Qatar’s role expanded during and after the Arab revolutions. UAE is the newest second rank geostrategic player whose regional role has begun to emerge since 2011 as a result of threats stemmed from the Arab revolutions.

Geopolitical Codes: Perception of Friends and Foes       

The manner in which a country orientates itself toward the world is called a “geopolitical code”. Setting the geopolitical code consists of five main calculations; who are the current and potential allies, who are the current and potential enemies, how to maintain allies and nurture potential allies, how to counter current enemies and emerging threats and finally how to justify the four calculations above to the public and to the global community.([9]) This part analyzes the “geopolitical codes” of the first rank geostrategic players, focusing mainly on their perception of friends and foes.

Israel’s Geopolitical Codes:

In the early stages of Israel establishment, Iran and Turkey didn’t pose any existential threat to it. On the contrary, both powers have provided Israel with a great opportunity to counterweight the Arab enmity which then has been constituted the main existential threat.([10]) However, as a result of a number of variables, Israel’s geopolitical perception of friends and foes witnessed a sea change. First, the Egyptian threat has been overcome thanks to the peace agreement signed in 1979. Second, the Iraqi threat has been eliminated after the war against it. Third, after Arab revolutions, Libya and Syria, which posed a threat to Israel, have become busy with their internal problems. Fourth, almost all current active Arab geostrategic players, like Saudi Arabia, UAE, and relatively Qatar, don’t pose a threat to Israel’s security.

While Arab existential threat to Israel was in decline, non-Arab powers, which sought to exploit the new variables to fill the power vacuum and play greater regional roles, posed greater threat to Israel interests.([11]) That changing Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape turned non-Arab powers, that were once the most favorable allies of Israel, into today’s adversaries.

Turkey which was one of Israel’s strategic partners is no longer the same. Turkey’s geopolitical regional aspirations have made the two powers more distant. They both diverge on some regional issues like; Turkey’s relations with the Palestinians, its support for the Islamic groups across the region and using anti-Israeli discourse in order to attract the Arab public.([12]) Turkey’s new foreign policy orientations have even damaged the Turkish-Israeli relations, eventually, both expelled each other’s ambassadors in 2018 after Israeli forces killed dozens of Palestinians in clashes on the Gaza border.([13])

Iran which was once one of Israel’s strategic partners is no longer the same. Such a change was not only a function of the Islamic revolution of 1979, as Israel was still interested in keeping the good relations with it after the revolution, Iran’s geopolitical aspirations again, which brought it closer to Israel’s regional foes, made the two powers more distant.([14])

In this regard, it’s clear that Israel has traded friends and foes; as its current regional alliances shifted away from the non-Arab powers to the Arab ones, especially, almost all Arab powers, which Israel seeks to ally with, consider Iran and Turkey as their main regional foes.

Iran’s Geopolitical Codes:

As mentioned above, Iran’s geopolitical ambitions have had an Islamic form since 1979. As a result, Shi’ism is being used as a tool to expand Iran’s influence across the MENA region and beyond. According to the revolutionary leaders, establishing an “Islamic political system” in Iran is an important prerequisite for its primacy in the Middle East.([15]) Moreover, Iran has adopted a strategy which is known as the “Shi’a Crescent”; as it is keen to ally with the Shiite faction across the region; that’s the case for Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Alawite ruling elite in Syria, the Shi’a factions in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. Iran even tried to exploit the Shiite groups in the other gulf countries, like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, to its advantage. The task became easier after 2003. Iran even tried to exploit the Arab revolutions which were described as part of an “Islamic awakening” in the Middle East.([16])

In fact, Shi’ism is only a representation for projecting the Iranian power, however, the game is political in the first place; the Middle Eastern conflicts have never been a sectarian issue and Iran doesn’t mind to ally with whatever faction than can secure its geopolitical interests in the region even if it is a Sunni one. That explains why Iran allied with the Palestinian Hamas movement and the Sudanese Bashir regime as well.

While the revolutionary leaders inherited the shah’s geopolitical aspirations, their perception of friends and foes has been completely different than that of the shah. Once allies, both the United States and Israel became “the great Satan” and “the lesser Satan”, Saudi Arabia felt threatened and considered Iran as its main foe. Moreover, as a result of Iran’s expanding regional role after war against Iraq, Iran-Israel rivalry for hegemony of the Middle East has intensified. As a result of its expanding regional role since 2011, UAE eventually has become another geopolitical foe of Iran. Turkey and Iran are not enemies, however, their interests sometimes converge and sometimes diverge.

Unlike the Shah era, the current Iranian geopolitical aspirations exceed the gulf region.([17]) Iran eventually showed greater interests in other regions like Central Asia, Horn of Africa, Maghreb and the African Sahel. Those interests can be explained in the light of the recent geopolitical regional developments which played a significant role in drawing Iran’s grand strategy; the more Iran feels contained and encircled in its “near abroad”, the more it seeks greater influence in other regions, so that it can compensate its deteriorating relations with its neighborhood and break the ring of encirclement around it.

Turkey’s Geopolitical Codes:

Since the emergence of its regional role, Turkey has adopted a doctrine called “Zero Problems”; it sought to put enmities with other countries aside and to use “soft power” to assert its influence in the region. However, since the “Arab revolutions”, turkey has been increasingly using its hard power in order to accomplish its geopolitical goals, a move that brought new enmities upon it. Turkey allied with Qatar and Sudan under Bashir, it also backed the Islamic factions in Palestine, Egypt, Libya and Syria. Eventually, its influence became more obvious in Lebanon, Yemen and other regions like the Horn of Africa, Maghreb and Sahel. Those new geopolitical orientations have put Turkey at odds with other regional powers, like Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt, which felt threatened by the Turkish policies.

Geopolitical Rivalries in the MENA Region:

The Middle East is a “multipolar regional system” where several active geostrategic players compete. Non-Arab first rank geostrategic players like Israel, Iran and Turkey are competing for hegemony of the Middle East; the regional great game is being played by them. However, Arab second rank geostrategic players like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and relatively UAE don’t seek hegemony. However, their policies can affect the regional balance of power, shape the future of the region and determine which power will dominate.

In addition to non-Arab rivalries for hegemony, there are other minor rivalries in the MENA region like; the Saudi-Emirati rivalry especially in Yemen, the Moroccan-Algerian, the Saudi-Qatari, the Saudi-Iranian, the Egyptian-Turkish, the Egyptian-Qatari and the last but not least the Emirati-Qatari one.

In sum, a new Middle Eastern regional system is being created.([18]) After both the Iraqi war and the Arab revolutions, the region became deeply divided between two major axes; the first one is called the “Moderate Axis”, it is anti-Iranian and includes Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and implicitly Israel before the current process of normalization. The second one is called the “Resistance Axis”, it is pro-Iranian and includes Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. Turkey is a relatively independent regional player; it has no fixed but relatively loose alliances across those two axes,([19]) and Qatar seeks not to align itself with any axis. At the end, MENA’s future will be determined by polarization between those two axes.

Section II: The Geopolitical Driving Forces behind Normalization with Israel

In the light of the regional geopolitical landscape which has been mentioned in the previous section, this section analyzes the geopolitical factors that encouraged UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and the kingdom of Morocco to normalize relations with Israel.

The Emirati-Israeli Normalization: Abraham Accords

UAE is the newest second rank geostrategic player in the Middle East whose role became apparent after the Arab revolutions as a result of shifts in the way it perceives itself and the region as well.([20])(*) In the light of the current regional geopolitical landscape, UAE faces three geopolitical rivals; Iran, Turkey and Qatar.

While UAE and Iran have very good economic relations, matters are not the same on the political level. First, UAE has a territorial dispute with Iran over the three Emirati islands the latter occupied in 1971. Second, UAE became more suspicious of Iran after 1979 Islamic revolution. Third, Iran’s threat to the Emirati interests increased after the war of Iraq which gave rise to the expanding Iranian regional role and as a result of the Iranian nuclear program. Fourth, Arab revolutions made both powers more distant; as Iran tried to exploit such a variable in order to expand its regional influence. The latter supported the Bahraini uprisings, backed both Al-Assad regime of Syria(·) and the Houthis in Yemen. Iran has even expanded its influence to other strategic regions, like the Horn of Africa, Sahel and Maghreb which are vital to UAE’s maritime interests. All those policies posed a threat to the Emirati interests.([21])

In addition to the Iranian threat, the Turkish threat to UAE’s interests began to emerge after Arab revolutions; as both diverge on several issues. First, Turkey’s support for Islamic factions across the MENA region, especially in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, is perceived by UAE as a threat to its regional interests. Second, while UAE is one of the “quartet” which boycotted Qatar in 2017, Turkey not only supported Qatar against the boycott calling it “un-Islamic”, it also sought to establish its second military base in Qatar, a move that constituted a direct threat to the gulf security. Third, Turkey began to play an active role in new strategic areas like the Horn of Africa, North Africa, Maghreb and Eastern Mediterranean, which posed a threat to UAE’s regional interests.

In addition to Iran and Turkey, Qatar’s regional geopolitical aspirations have put it at odds with UAE and other powers. First, Qatar’s support for the Islamist factions across the region and the Houthis in Yemen pose a threat to UAE interests. Second, Qatar strong relations with Iran and Turkey upset the regional balance of power in their favor. That explains why UAE joined the quartet on boycotting Qatar.

While Iran, Turkey and Qatar are the geopolitical foes, Israel had never posed an existential threat to UAE. On the contrary, UAE-Israel interests intersect; both are regional geostrategic players and need one another to curb the Iranian, Turkish and Qatari aspirations which threaten their regional interests. It is obvious that UAE eventually considers Israel as a potential ally and the ablest to help curbing those threats.([22]) In the light of that convergence of interests, normalization of Emirati-Israeli relations, which has been announced in August 2020 by signing the “Abraham Accords”, can be understood. That explains why Iran, Turkey and Al-Jazeera, the pioneering Qatari media outlet, have condemned the Emirati move.([23])

Before normalizing relations, Israel and UAE had covert diplomatic and commercial activities that lasted for years. First, during 2018 and 2019, three Israeli officials have visited UAE. Second, the latter has also financed the gas pipeline that links Israel to Europe. Third, both cooperate on the military and security levels, as UAE depends on Israel in acquiring weaponry systems. Fourth, both have previously normalized relations in the fields of tourism and sports.([24])

The Bahraini-Israeli Normalization:

Bahrain is not an active geostrategic player, rather, it is a “Geopolitical Pivot”. According to Brzezinski, “geopolitical pivots are the states whose importance is derived not from their power and motivation but rather from their sensitive location and from the consequence of their potentially vulnerable condition for the behavior of geostrategic players.”([25])

With a Shia population which approximately constitutes 70.3% of its total population according to 2010 estimates([26]), but ruled by the minority Sunnis, Bahrain perceives Iran as an existential threat. First, Iran’s policy of exporting revolution as well as playing the Shi’a card against it, among other countries, undermines Bahrain’s security. Second, Iran considers Bahrain as its 14th province(*) which threatens the very existence of the Bahraini state.([27]) Third, Iran’s threat has increased amidst Arab revolutions, when the former explicitly supported the Bahraini uprisings against the Sunni ruling elite.

Bahrain had never stood idly by in the face of the Iranian threats. First, it was one of the founding members of the GCC. Second, it supported Iraq in its war against Iran during the 1980s. Third, with the help of “Peninsula Shield Force”, Bahrain could preserve its stability amidst 2011 uprisings. Finally, it severed diplomatic relations with Iran in January 2016.(·)

In addition to the Iranian threat, both Qatari and Turkish threats have begun to emerge in the face of Bahrain. First, Qatar has better relations with Iran, so the friend of Bahrain’s enemy is an enemy too. As a result, Bahrain joined the quartet and boycotted Qatar in 2017. Moreover, the Turkish support for Qatar which hosts the former’s military bases on its territories turned Turkey into a foe.

As a result of Bahrain’s security environment, In September 2020 Bahrain became the second nation to sign a peace deal with Israel after UAE. According to Bahraini officials, normalization shall “strengthen Bahrainis’ security and their economic stability.”([28]) It is clear that Bahrain is exploiting the changing Arab geopolitical perception of Israel in its favor; Bahrain perceives Israel as a regional power and the ablest to counter all regional foes. Bahrain gained that perception as a result of the increasing dependence on the United States in security issues. However, since the United States is reducing its commitment to the Middle East and increasing its dependence on regional allies, the gulf monarchies and Israel have become the ablest to curb Bahrain’s regional threats.([29])

The Sudanese-Israeli Normalization:

Sudan was the third nation to normalize relations with Israel after UAE and Bahrain, a move which reflects both the sea change the Sudanese strategic thinking witnessed after the revolution of December 2018 and the way the new ruling elite perceives friends and foes.

Under Bashir’s Islamic oriented regime, Sudan had very close relations with Turkey, Iran and Qatar. Relations with Turkey improved after 2002, moreover, Turkey’s involvement with Sudan in particular, and the Horn of Africa in general, has deepened since 2013 as a result of the former’s geopolitical losses in the Egypt and Syria. Bashir’s regime sought to exploit the geopolitical variables; it aligned Sudan with Turkey in an attempt to receive the economic support needed to counterweight sanctions which have been imposed on Sudan since 1993.([30]) That is why Sudan has granted Turkey rights of developing “Suakin Island”, a move that directly brought Turkey into the Red Sea region. Likewise, Sudan improved its political and economic relations with Qatar in order to get economic support. Qatari investments expanded to develop Port Sudan, which brought Qatar too into the Red Sea region.([31]) According to other Red Sea nations, Saudi Arabia and Egypt in particular, both the Turkish and the Qatari presence undermines Red Sea security.

Sudan relations with Iran improved after Bashir’s ascendance to power in 1989; both regimes have alike Islamist orientations.([32]) Despite their Sunni-Shiite divide, both had the same geopolitical perception of friends and foes; both supported Islamist factions across the Middle East and both considered the United States and Israel as their foes. Since the Sudanese economic situation has deteriorated as a result of the sanctions imposed on it, Sudan found in Iran a reliable ally. Likewise, since Iran considered Sudan as both strategic asset and foothold thanks to its strategic location in the African continent, Iran exploited Sudan’s economic needs in order to strengthen its influence. As a result, Sudan allowed Iran’s dock warships in its ports in 2012.([33])

Good Sudanese-Iranian relations didn’t last for long. As a result of the regional political and the domestic economic pressures, Bashir decided to switch alliances. First, in 2015 Sudan joined the Saudi-Emirati war on Yemen against the Houthis, hoping both to receive economic support in return and to encourage the United States to lift sanctions imposed on it. ([34]) Second, Sudan joined Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and severed diplomatic relations with Iran in 2016. However, according to reports, Sudan was still using Iran as a secure route to smuggle weapons to Hamas.([35])

While having good relations with Turkey and with Iran, Sudan under Bashir had no diplomatic relations with Israel,([36]) they both considered each other as enemies and both backed rival factions in the region. Under Bashir, Sudan played a crucial role in arming Hamas movement as well securing weapons smuggling routes to it. As a result, first Israel sometimes used its military force in Sudan to abort any smuggling of weapons to Hamas,([37]) second, Sudan has been put on the list of state sponsors of terrorism for approximately 27 years, third, Israel helped arming and training South-Sudanese rebels who had split Sudan in two in 2011.([38])

After the revolution which toppled Bashir’s regime, Sudan’s political orientations during the transitional period witnessed a sea change. First, Sudan now does perceive neither the United States nor Israel as enemies, rather, it became the third nation, after UAE and Bahrain, to normalized relations with Israel after signing a peace deal in October 2020. Moreover, Sudan is working now to establish good relations with the United States, a move which encouraged the latter to remove the former from state sponsors of terrorism list in December 2020.([39]) Second, in the light of the strong relations which the Sudanese transitional government have with Saudi Arabia and UAE, any Sudanese rapprochement with Iran (and Qatar before reconciliation) is not expected at the moment. Third, until now, Sudan has good relations with Turkey and the deal of developing the Sudanese “Suakin” is still running. However, it is reported that Sudan is under pressure to suspend such a deal.([40])

It’s quite clear now that unlike other Arab powers which normalized relations with Israel as a means for countering the Iranian, Turkish and Qatari threats, Sudan’s motive behind normalization is economic in the first place. Sudan has been suffering from economic sanctions since the 1990s, it even lost more than 70% of its energy reserves after the secession of South Sudan in 2011. ([41])All that put pressure on the Sudanese economy, that is why the transitional government, following late Bashir’s steps, sought to exploit the changing Arab perception of Israel in its favor and shifted political alignments towards the moderate axis in order to fulfill its economic needs. Furthermore, since Sudan is a “geopolitical pivot”, Saudi Arabia and UAE have sought to keep it away from their geopolitical foes; Iran, Turkey and Qatar.([42])

The Moroccan-Israeli Normalization:

The Kingdom of Morocco faces three geopolitical foes; Iran, Algeria and Turkey to some extent. The Iranian Moroccan relations fluctuated across history between friendship and enmity. Despite the fact that it is geographically located miles away from Iran, Morocco was not far away from Iran’s geopolitical aspirations. Iran’s interests in the Maghreb, and the Horn of Africa too, increased as a result of the changing Middle Eastern geopolitical environment mentioned in the first section. In an attempt to increase its influence in the kingdom, Iran first played the Shiite card, it second supported the Polisario liberation front in “Western Sahara”. As a result of the Iranian threat, the Iranian Moroccan relations deteriorated; the kingdom joined the Saudi-led military operation in Yemen against the Houthis in 2015 until 2019 and severed diplomatic relations with Iran in May 2018.

Unlike Iran, Turkey is not considered as a direct threat to Morocco, despite the fact the both diverge on the Libyan issue. Since it considers Libya as a strategic asset, Turkey has been using all tools, including the military one, to maintain its influence in Libya. However, Morocco supports the political solution to the Libyan crisis, it opposes any external intervention in it([43]) and has also sponsored “Skhirat agreement” of 2015 and “Bouznika dialogue meeting” held in October 2020 between different Libyan factions. That divergence put Morocco and Turkey at odds, their bilateral relations have eventually deteriorated on the economic level.([44])

Besides Iran and Turkey, divergence of interests has put Morocco and Algeria at odds. First, both compete for power and leadership in the Maghreb. Second, Algeria supports the Polisario liberation front in the “Western Sahara”.

Unlike Iran, Turkey and Algeria, Israel doesn’t pose a threat to Morocco, on the contrary, Israeli-Moroccan relations are not new. Despite the lack of formal political relations, both have covertly cooperated in the past on security issues, Israel has even helped the Moroccan regime to obtain intelligence and weapons([45]) and its aid for the building of the Moroccan Western Sahara Wall was reported in the press.([46]) It is even reported that the piece of information regarding the Iranian support for the Polisario front was provided to the kingdom by Israel itself.([47])

In the light of the Moroccan security environment, it obvious that Morocco found in Israel a reliable ally and the ablest to help countering threats. Morocco is even using relations with Israel in order to improve relations with UAE, Saudi Arabia and the United States. As a result, Morocco became the fourth nation to normalize relation with Israel, after UAE, Bahrain and Sudan, after signing the peace deal in December 2020. That explains why both Iran and Algeria condemned such a move, Iran even called it a betrayal and a stab in the back of Palestinians.([48])

Normalization with Israel was in Morocco’s geopolitical advantage. First, in return for normalization, Morocco won US recognition of its sovereignty over “Western Sahara” territory.([49]) Indeed, the United States is seeking now to open a consulate in Dakhla, one of Western Sahara’s cities,([50]) a step which was unlikely to be taken without normalizing relations. Second, thanks to the American recognition, Morocco scored a geopolitical point against Algeria and Iran which back the Polisario front. Third, normalization opens the way for Israeli aid to support the Moroccan army.([51]) Fourth, Morocco’s relations with UAE and Bahrain, which deteriorated because of the Yemeni and Qatari issues, is expected to improve.([52])(*) Indeed, they decided to open consulates in Laayoune, the largest city in the Western Sahara.([53]) Moreover, the deal will even secure the flow of political and economic support of the Arabian gulf nations which Morocco needs and which will help the Morocco to diminish its economic reliance on Turkey and Qatar.

According to Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel, Morocco is a geopolitical prize. Getting the latter into the anti-Iranian axis is an old dream came true,(·) such a move will certainly help to contain the expanding Iranian and Turkish influence in the Maghreb.

Section III:  Prospects of Future Qatari Normalization with Israel

Two days after Israel and Morocco signed their first deals in the process of establishing full diplomatic relations, Israel’s prime minister said that “many, many more countries” would be signing normalization agreements with the Jewish state “a lot sooner than people expect.”([54]) In the light of the recent gulf reconciliation and signing “Al-Ula agreement” in January 2021, this section analyzes the prospects of future Qatari-Israeli normalization.

Qatar as a Geostrategic Player:

Qatar is a second rank Middle Eastern geostrategic player. Since 1995, it has sought a foreign policy which is independent from, but not necessarily against, that of Saudi Arabia; Qatar is quiet aware of its power limits.([55]) Qatar’s regional role is based on the economic tool and of being a mediator in regional conflicts. After Arab revolutions, Qatar became a major sponsor of Islamic factions across the region.([56])

Qatar faces no geopolitical threat from the three non-Arab regional geostrategic players, on the contrary, it even seeks to keep good relations with all parties without aligning itself with any axis.([57]) However, Qatar’s foreign policy orientations, especially after the Arab revolutions, brought it closer to both Turkey and Iran, while put it at odds with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain. So, the four of them boycotted Qatar in 2017 in an attempt to counter its regional role. However, Qatar dependence on Turkey and Iran has increased amidst the Arab boycott.

Pros and Cons of Normalization:

Despite the fact that Iran and Turkey pose no threat to Qatar, the prospects of future Qatari normalization with Israel is questioned, especially after the Qatari reconciliation with the quartet.

Indeed, Israel and Qatar lack any formal political relations, but the latter was the only gulf country which had economic and commercial relations with Israel since 1995. However, Qatar sought to keep those relations covert in order not to cross the Arabian lines, it even cut ties with Israel in 2009 in solidarity with Gaza.([58]) Qatar and Israel are not natural geopolitical foes, however, the former’s convergence with Iran and Turkey, especially on backing the Islamist groups across the region including Hamas, put Israel and Qatar at odds.

After the Quartet’s boycott, Israel’s strategic importance to Qatar increased; the latter assumed that the Jewish lobby in the US could provide a counterweight to the gulf boycott and highlight Qatar’s importance to American interests in the region.([59]) In addition, after the Emirati and Bahraini normalization with Israel, Qatar viewed Israel as potential ally in mending relations with fellow gulf nations.([60])

On the one hand, Israel may aspire to polarize Qatar away from Iran, Turkey and Hamas, that will help Israel to score a point against its geopolitical foes, alter the regional balance of power in its favor and gain legitimacy in the Arab world. On the other hand, Qatar has something to win in return for normalization. First, relations with the United States, the main sponsor of reconciliation and normalization, will improve. Second, like UAE, Qatar may acquire more developed weaponry systems.([61]) Third, normalization may not affect Qatar’s relations with other regional powers; Iran is not an ally and even Turkey currently seeks closer ties with Israel.

Despite the pros, any Qatari foreign policy reorientation away from Iran, Turkey and Hamas is doubted, there are good reasons for that. First, while Qatar’s regional role is highly dependent on being a friend of all and being a mediator in regional conflicts, normalization will bring Qatar closer to the “moderate axis” and undermines it role as neutral mediator. Second, while Qatar’s involvement in the Palestinian arena is an important item in the Qatari toolbox to establish its status as an influential and essential regional player,([62]reviewing alliance with Hamas will undermine Qatar’s regional role. Third, it is obvious that the Qatari leadership is unwilling to take such a step; as the Qatari foreign minister said that reconciliation will not affect relations with any other country.([63])

In sum, it is early to judge whether reconciliation will lead to a future Qatari normalization with Israel, the task is not easy. US state department officials expect Qatar to eventually normalize relations with Israel,([64]) however, the Qatari ambassador to the US clearly said that “Qatar has no problem with normalizing relations with Israel but will not do so before a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reached”.([65]) The step may take some time, the current process of normalization is sponsored by trump administration, however, the new American president is more committed to the two-state solution in which Qatar’s role may be needed.

Conclusion:

A new Middle East is being created where different regional geostrategic players are competing for power and prestige. The recent process of Arab-Israeli normalization shouldn’t be separated from those ongoing regional geopolitical rivalries. UAE was the first to normalize relations with Israel, which was a result of the Iranian, Turkish and Qatari threats. Bahrain was the second to normalize as a result of the Iranian threat. Sudan was the third to normalize; the main driving force behind its behavior is economic, as it aspires to align itself with the “moderate axis” in order to fulfill its economic needs, however, Iran and Turkey don’t pose an existential threat to it. Morocco was the fourth to normalize and the latest until now, its behavior was a result of the Iranian threat and its rivalry with Algeria. Qatari-Israeli normalization is not impossible and could be a long run goal, however, reconciliation could be a short run alternative to normalization which faces challenges. Israel was exploiting Trump’s last days in the White House in order to score geopolitical points against its regional geopolitical foes. We will wait and see whether the new administration will follow the steps.

References:

Dissertations:

  • Seddik, Amira Elsayed Hassan, The Iranian-Israeli-Turkish Competition in the Middle East: A Geopolitical Study (2001- 2014), D. Dissertation, Alexandria University, Egypt, 2017. (In Arabic)

Books:

  • Brzezinski, Zbigniew, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Implications, New York, USA, Basic Books, 1997.
  • Davutoğlu, Ahmet, Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position, Beirut- Lebanon (Arab Scientific Publishers) and Doha-Qatar (Aljazeera Center for Studies), Second Arabic Edition, 2011. (In Arabic)
  • Flint, Colin, Introduction to Geopolitics, London and New York, Routledge, 2006.
  • Fuller, Graham, Center of the Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran, Boulder, USA, Westview Press, 1991.
  • Yaari, Michal, Israel and Qatar: Relations Nurtured by the Palestinian Issue, Israel, The Israel Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, March 2020.

Periodicals:

  • Beleisha, Mohamed and Alobeidi, Mohamed, The Geostrategic Implications of the Emirati Normalization with Israel: Israeli Perspective, Journal of Asian Issues, Democratic Arab Center, Germany, Issue 5, July 2020. (in Arabic)
  • Khatib, Lina, Qatar’s foreign policy: The limits of pragmatism, International Affairs, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Oxford, UK, Issue 89, 2013.
  • Khatib, Lina, Qatar’s foreign policy: The limits of pragmatism, International Affairs, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Oxford, UK, Issue 89, 2013.
  • Michael, Kobi and Guzansky Yoel, Might Qatar Join the Abraham Accords?, INSS Insight, The Institute for National Security Studies, Israel, 1391, October 12, 2020.
  • Shanahan, Rodger, The Gulf States and Iran: Robust Competitors or Interested Bystanders?, Lowy Institute Perspectives, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia, November 2009.

Website Articles:

([1]) Pompeo: Other Arab Countries Will Normalize Relations with Israel, Arab News, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1766591/middle-east, November 22, 2020.

([2]) Brzezinski, Zbigniew, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Implications, New York, USA, Basic Books, 1997, p.40.              

([3]) Seddik, Amira Elsayed Hassan, The Iranian-Israeli-Turkish Competition in the Middle East: A Geopolitical Study (2001- 2014), Ph. D. Dissertation, Alexandria University, Egypt, 2017, p.135-136. (in Arabic)

([4]) Ibid, p.206.

([5]) Fuller, Graham, Center of the Universe: The Geopolitics of Iran, Boulder, USA, Westview Press, 1991, p. 242, 245.

([6]) Seddik, Amira, Op. Cit., p.215.

([7]) Ibid, p.177.

([8]) Davutoğlu, Ahmet, Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position, Beirut- Lebanon (Arab Scientific Publishers) and Doha-Qatar (Aljazeera Center for Studies), Second Arabic Edition, 2011, p. 168-169.

([9]) Flint, Colin, Introduction to Geopolitics, London and New York, Routledge, 2006, p.55-56.

([10]) Seddik, Amira, Op. Cit., p.139.

([11]) Ibid, p.139.

([12]) Ibid, p.256.

([13]) Turkey Seeks Closer Ties with Israel, Says Erdogan, but Palestinian Policy a ‘red line’, France 24, https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20201225-turkey-seeks-closer-ties-with-israel-says-erdogan-but-palestinian-policy-a-red-line, December 25, 2020.

([14]) Seddik, Amira, Op. Cit., p.198-199.

([15]) Ibid, p. 156, 160, 170.

([16]) Lutz, Meris, Iran’s supreme leader calls uprisings an ‘Islamic awakening”, Los Angeles Times, https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2011-feb-04-la-fg-khamenei-iran-egypt-20110205-story.html, February 4, 2011, accessed January 12, 2021.

([17]) Seddik, Amira, Op. Cit., p. 156, 160, 170.

([18]) Ibid, p. 104.

([19]) Ibid, p. 257.

([20])Al Ketbi, Ebtesam, Contemporary Shifts in UAE Foreign Policy: From the Liberation of Kuwait to the Abraham Accords, Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23739770.2020.1845067, November 19, 2020, p.5.

(*) UAE’s regional role is rapidly expanding; it recently played greater roles in the Gulf, Horn of Africa, the Maghreb, Sahel and the Eastern Mediterranean regions. UAE not only plays a role in the regional balance of power, its hegemonic aspirations in those regions began to emerge, which makes UAE a candidate to be a first rank geostrategic player in the future.

(·) At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, both Iran and UAE diverged on the issue. While Iran backed Al-Assad regime, UAE backed the opposition. However, the Emirati policy changed later on; as it softened its tone on Al-Assad regime as a result of the ascendance of the “Islamic State” (ISIS) threat in 2014.

([21]) Al Ketbi, Ebtesam, Op. Cit, p.2,5.

([22]) Ibid, p.7.

([23]) Iran, Turkey slam UAE over agreement with Israel, DW, https://www.dw.com/en/israel-uae-relations/a-54564050, August 14, 2020. See also: Naar, Ismaeel, Massive Qatari Media Campaign Targets Arab Opinion Following UAE-Israel Peace Deal, Al Arabiya, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2020/08/14/Massive-Qatari-media-campaign-targets-Arab-opinion-following-UAE-Israel-peace-deal, August 14, 2020.

([24]) Beleisha, Mohamed and Alobeidi, Mohamed, The Geostrategic Implications of the Emirati Normalization with Israel: Israeli Perspective, Journal of Asian Issues, Democratic Arab Center, Issue 5, July 2020, p.103. (in Arabic)

([25]) Brzezinski, Zbigniew, Op. Cit. p.41.

([26]) Population of Bahrain, https://fanack.com/bahrain/population/

(*) In 2009, the speaker of Iran’s parliament was quoted complaining that under the Shah “Bahrain was our 14th province and had a representative at the parliament.” Lynch, Marc, What’s happening in Bahrain (I mean, the 14th province of Iran)?, Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/02/19/whats-happening-in-bahrain-i-mean-the-14th-province-of-iran/, February 19, 2009, accessed January 4, 2021.

([27]) Shanahan, Rodger, The Gulf States and Iran: Robust Competitors or Interested Bystanders?, Lowy Institute Perspectives, Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia, November 2009, p.3.

(·) Bahrain and Sudan have joined Saudi Arabia and severed diplomatic relations with Iran after attacks on the embassy of the Kingdom in Tehran. The attacks were reaction to the Saudi execution of the Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was a critic of the Saudi monarchy and had led protests, amidst Arab revolutions, in the eastern part of the country, where many Saudi Shiites live.

Calmur, Krishnadev, the Diplomatic Fallout of Saudi Arabia’s Execution of a Shiite Cleric, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/01/saudi-iran-relations/422454/, January 4, 2016, accessed January 4, 2021.

([28]) Koduvayur, Varsha and Daoud, David, Welcome to a Brand-New Middle East,  Foreign Policy, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/30/israel-uae-bahrain-palestinians-peace/, September 30, 2020.

([29]) Inbar, Efraim, Gulf states seek warm peace with Israel, Policy Papers, The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, https://jiss.org.il/en/inbar-gulf-states-seek-warm-peace-with-israel/, September 14, 2020.

([30]) Shay, Shaul, Turkey-Sudan strategic relations and the implications for the region, Institute for Policy and Strategy, https://www.idc.ac.il/he/research/ips/documents/publication/5/shaul_shay_turkeysudan11_01_18a.pdf, January 2018, accessed December 31, 2020.

([31]) Shaul Shay, Op. Cit.

([32]) Cafiero, Giorgio, Is a Sudanese-Iranian rapprochement possible?, Middle East Institute, https://www.mei.edu/publications/sudanese-iranian-rapprochement-possible, May 9, 2019, accessed December 21, 2020.

([33]) Cafiero, Giorgio, Op. Cit.

([34]) Shehada, Muhammad, Why Hamas Is Mourning the Downfall of Sudan’s Dictator, Haaretz, https://www.haaretz.com/, April 15, 2019, accessed December 21, 2020.

([35]) Ibid.

([36]) Kavaler, Tara, Fall of Al-Bashir Leads to No Change for Israel’s Sudanese Refugees, The Media Line, https://themedialine.org/people/fall-of-al-bashir-leads-to-no-change-for-israels-sudanese-refugees/, April 17, 2017, accessed December 21, 2020.

([37]) Shehada, Muhammad, Op. Cit.

([38]) Ibid.

([39]) US removes Sudan from ‘state sponsors of terrorism’ list amid warming Israeli-Arab ties, Russia Today, https://www.rt.com/news/509617-us-sudan-terrorism-israel/, December 14, 2020.

([40]) Sudan: Is it being exploited by foreign powers?, BBC News, https://www.bbc.com, July 9, 2019, accessed December 21, 2020.

([41]) Giorgio Cafiero, Op. Cit.

([42]) Ibid.

([43]) Hatim, Yahia, Morocco Condemns Foreign Intervention in Libya, Morocco World News, https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2019/12/288533/morocco-condemns-foreign-intervention-in-libya/, December 8, 2019, accessed January 14, 2021.

([44]) Hanna, Andrew, Saudi-Turkish Clash Reinforces Tensions in the Maghreb, United States Institute of Peace, https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/11/saudi-turkish-clash-reinforces-tensions-maghreb, November 4, 2020.

([45])Abouzzohour, Yasmina , Order from Chaos: Morocco’s partial normalization with Israel comes with risks and gains, Brookings Doha Center, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/12/14/moroccos-partial-normalization-with-israel-comes-with-risks-and-gains/, December 14, 2020.

([46]) Inbar, Efraim and Lerman, Eran, from the Ocean to the Gulf: Normalization takes hold amidst realignment of regional forces, Policy Papers, The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, https://jiss.org.il/en/inbar-lerman-from-the-ocean-to-the-gulf-normalization/, December 14, 2020.

([47]) Ibid.

([48]) Oman Welcomes Morocco Israel normalization of as a step towards regional peace, The Jerusalem Post, https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/morocco-israel-normalization-is-betrayal-of-palestine-iranian-official-651830, December 11, 2020.

([49]) Mezran, Karim, Experts react: What the Morocco-Israel Deal Means for the Middle East, the Atlantic Council, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/experts-react-what-the-morocco-israel-deal-means-for-the-middle-east/, no date, accessed December 21, 2020.

([50]) US unveils plan to open consulate in Dakhla, Middle East Online, https://middle-east-online.com/en/us-unveils-plan-open-consulate-dakhla, January 10, 2021.

([51])Algeria PM on Israel-Morocco deal: ‘Zionist entity’ wants to be near our borders, Times of Israel, https://www.timesofisrael.com/algeria-pm-on-israel-morocco-deal-zionist-entity-wants-to-be-near-our-borders/, December 12,  2020.

([52]) Abouzzohour, Yasmina, Op. Cit.

(*) Morocco first stopped taking part in military action with the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s war in February 2019, it second refused to join the Quartet on boycotting Qatar in 2017 for economic reasons.

([53]) UAE Officially Opens Consulate General in Morocco’s Laayoune, Morocco World News, https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2020/11/324713/uae-officially-opens-consulate-general-in-moroccos-laayoune/, November 4, 2020. See also, Bahrain will open consulate in Western Sahara, Alarabiya News, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/north-africa/2020/11/27/Bahrain-will-open-consulate-in-Western-Sahara, November 27, 2020.

(·) Morocco was invited in May 2011 to join the GCC.

([54]) Netanyahu says ‘many, many more’ Arab states to normalize ties with Israel soon, Times of Israel, https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-says-many-many-more-arab-states-to-normalize-ties-with-israel-soon/ 24 December 2020.

([55]) Khatib, Lina, Qatar’s foreign policy: The limits of pragmatism, International Affairs, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Oxford, UK, Issue 89, 2013, p. 419.

([56]) Ibid, p. 422-423.

([57]) Yaari, Michal, Israel and Qatar: Relations Nurtured by the Palestinian Issue, Israel, The Israel Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, March 2020, p.3

([58]) Ibid, p.4, 6.

([59]) Ibid, p.4.

([60]) Israel-Qatar ties warming amid joint efforts to ensure Gaza calm – Israeli TV, Times of Israel, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-qatar-ties-warming-amid-joint-efforts-to-ensure-gaza-calm-israeli-tv/, 21 October 2020.

([61]) Michael, Kobi and Guzansky Yoel, Might Qatar Join the Abraham Accords?, INSS Insight, The Institute for National Security Studies, Israel, No. 1391, October 12, 2020.

([62]) Ibid.

([63]) England, Andrew , Qatar says deal to end Gulf crisis will not change its ties with Iran, Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/ea1e7058-960d-416c-93dc-f4f8c7945c12, January 7, 2021.

([64]) Hanania, Ray, US official predicts Qatar will eventually normalize ties with Israel, Arab News, https://www.arabnews.com/node/1790746/middle-east, September 18, 2020, accessed January 11, 2021.

([65]) Qatar won’t normalize with Israel before 2-state solution reached, envoy says, Times of Israel, https://www.timesofisrael.com/qatar-wont-normalize-with-israel-before-2-state-solution-reached-envoy-says, September 18, 2020.

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