(February 19, 2023 / JNS) Ties among Abraham Accords nations are growing stronger despite the normalization agreements’ lack of popularity in the Arab partner countries.
This is according to the Abraham Accords Peace Institute (AAPI)’s recently released 2022 Annual Report, which examines avenues to improve and expand the agreements initiated by President Donald Trump in 2020. Normalization deals have been signed by Israel, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and Kosovo.
Total trade between Israel and the Abraham Accords countries increased from $593 million in 2019 to $3.47 billion in 2022. Israel imported $2.57 billion worth of goods and services from these countries last year, up from $378.3 three years earlier, and exported $903.9 million in goods and services, up from $224.8. million.
Some 5,200 tourists entered Israel from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Kosovo and Sudan in 2022 (up from 3,500 in 2019), as compared with 470,700 Israeli tourists visiting those same countries in 2022 (up from 39,900 in the earlier period).
Asher Fredman, the director for Israel at AAPI, said that this disparity in numbers comes for several reasons.
“Given the seven-plus decades of anti-Israel demonization and misinformation that was prevalent in these countries, it will naturally take time until large numbers of citizens from these countries feel comfortable visiting Israel,” said Fredman. “Additional reasons for low tourism from the Accords countries to Israel are challenges related to obtaining visas and transiting through Ben-Gurion Airport, and concerns by some citizens of Accords countries that they may face threats or harassment from Palestinians. We are working with all stakeholders to overcome these challenges.”
According to Brig. Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, director of the Project on Regional Middle East Developments at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, “Israelis are much more inclined to travel than others, and the UAE is a big attraction for them, especially as a welcoming Arab state. But I also think that bringing Arab tourists to Israel is very important in the effort to socialize the Accords.”
Popularity of the Abraham Accords
Another key finding of the 2022 report regards the support for the Abraham Accords in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, with at most 25% of the public (among Emiratis) holding a very positive or somewhat positive view of the Accords.
While acknowledging that AAPI is still collecting and analyzing data, Fredman said “it appears that there is a sense among parts of the population that the Accords have not directly benefited them, while the decision to normalize relations with Israel has brought harsh criticism from those which continue to reject peace.
“To change this,” he added, “Israel and its allies in the United States must advance projects that mutually benefit Israelis and the people in the Accords countries, and we must communicate the impact of those benefits. Israel must overcome obstacles to increased tourism to Israel through marketing campaigns, improved security processes and infrastructure, and increasing the number of incoming delegations and exchange programs.”
Robert Greenway, president and executive director of AAPI, suggested that Israel create a subdivision in its Ministry of Tourism to “specifically deal with Accords countries, incentivize hospitality investment, and create reciprocal e-visa schemes with those countries.”
The report assessed the Israel-UAE relationship as “strong.”
In 2022, 268,000 Israelis visited the Gulf nation, compared to 1,600 Emiratis visiting Israel. Total bilateral trade increased from $11.2 million in 2019 to $2.59 billion in 2022. Israel’s imports from the UAE totaled $1.89 billion last year, up from zero in 2019. Israel’s exports to the UAE totaled $699.9 million export in 2022, up from $11.2 million.
Greenway said the UAE “boasts one of the most favorable business environments in the region and a plethora of potential investors for startups. Israel, meanwhile, has been consistently lauded for its number of startups and unicorns, creating a clear point of connection between Israel and the UAE.”
According to Fredman, “Israel’s trade with the UAE has been far higher than with any other Accords member country due to the UAE’s status as one of the world’s leading trade and transport hubs, the ease of travel between the two countries, and the UAE’s relatively larger tech and innovation ecosystem.”
Kuperwasser said, “The UAE came to the Abraham Accords more prepared than other partners. For the UAE (and to a lesser extent for Bahrain and Morocco) it was a part of a wider deeply embedded worldview of tolerance and promotion of interfaith policy. It was also better prepared practically as Israelis were having relations with the UAE for a long time.”
The report assessed the Israel-Bahrain relationship as “adequate.”
In 2022, 2,700 Israelis visited Bahrain versus 400 Bahrainis visiting Israel. Bilateral trade rose from $0 in 2019 to $12.7 million in 2022, with Israel importing $2.2 million and exporting $10.5 million in goods and services last year.
Greenway said that “with Bahrain, Israel has shared security interests which the two countries have used as a point of cohesion, even conducting a joint paratrooper jump over Bahrain last year. Government relations have also continued to warm, with the Israeli prime minister and president both visiting Bahrain in 2022.”
According to Fredman, the slower progress of Israel-Bahrain relations compared to Israel-UAE relations was to be expected “given the size of the two nations’ economies, the years of disconnect between Bahrain and Israel, and differences in the two countries’ legal, political and economic systems. But as Bahrainis and Israelis become more familiar with each other and with the differences between their markets and business cultures, the pace of trade will pick up.”
Key steps to improve the relationship would include upgrading the Israel-U.S.-Bahrain strategic partnership in the defense sector, creating the conditions necessary for expanded overland trade, and increasing people-to-people connections, particularly in the fields of innovation, entrepreneurship and finance, he said.
Greenway and Fredman both noted that the ratification of the Israel-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement would enhance ties between the countries.
The report ranked the Israel-Morocco relationship as “adequate.”
In 2022, 200,000 Israelis visited Morocco versus 2,900 Moroccans visiting Israel that same year. Total trade between Israel and Morocco increased from $13.7 million in 2019 to $55.7 million in 2022, with Israel importing $17.8 million and exporting $37.9 million in goods and services last year.
“Morocco and Israel share a vast cultural history, and a significant portion of modern Israelis are of Moroccan descent,” said Greenway. “Trade and cooperation grew significantly in 2022 and there are some clear areas of shared economic and security interest between the two countries.”
Fredman believes there is “tremendous potential” for the Israel-Morocco relationship and three-way Israel-Morocco-U.S. ventures in the fields of agriculture, renewable energy, water, health, innovation and people-to-people ties. Greenway and Fredman both said that Israel’s recognition of Morocco’s sovereignty in Western Sahara (the Southern Provinces) would greatly enhance the Israel-Morocco relationship.
The future of the Abraham Accords
Kuperwasser is hopeful that Israel and the U.S. can expand the Abraham Accords to both Saudi Arabia and Oman.
“We can rely on Iran to help convince them but we have to prove that the four Arab partners in the Accords have benefited from them,” he said.
Both Greenway and Fredman hope that the Abraham Accords will broaden to places in Africa, South Asia and the broader Middle East.
“With over $3.4 billion in trade among Accords countries in 2022 alone, the economic benefits of normalization are becoming clearer,” said Greenway. “Continued growth in tourism and the development of multilateral Accords member cooperation and free trade agreements will only accelerate the benefits of the Accords, creating broader appeal to normalization for other countries.”
Fredman said that “an active U.S. role will likely be a critical factor as well in encouraging other countries to join the Accords.”
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