Decoding India’s Utility to the Abraham Accords

Published originally by Inside Arabia on 27 April 2022.

While the 2020 Abraham Accords’ official signatories were Israel, the US, and the UAE, followed by Bahrain soon thereafter, India has arguably been an unofficial party to the Abraham Accords. In fact, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi’s efforts to prove the Abraham Accords’ viability and mold them so as to encourage Israeli-Arab regional engagement appear to increasingly overlap with Indian interests, with New Delhi offering new diplomatic, geo-economic, and strategic solutions.

Diplomatic Glue for the Abraham Accords

Historically, India’s respective relations with Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have had different foundations. Israel was a go-to military-strategic ally in wars with Pakistan, while the GCC states proved to be key sources of oil and gas to fuel India’s rapid economic growth from the 1990s onward.

However, the trajectories of Indo-Israeli and Indo-GCC ties have interlocked in recent years due to increasing Israeli-GCC engagement. In this vein, India has participated in multilateral meetings of Israeli-Emirati-US of foreign ministers.

To Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi, including New Delhi in the Abraham Accords’ meetings serves to ensure that the accords operate on a multilateral basis, focused on formal agenda items rather than having the backchannel, unofficial dealings that had previously dominated Israeli-GCC ties. After all, India has stable, formal diplomatic relations with both Israel and the entire GCC.

By relying on the Abraham Accords as their principal mode of joint engagement with India and synergizing Indo-Israeli and Indo-Emirati ties, Israel and the UAE raise the importance of the Accords themselves.

Geo-economic Foundations

The Abraham Accords’ signatories recognize geo-economics as a prominent driving force for regional transitions in the Middle East. Israel and the UAE unveiled their plans to build new, long-lasting Israeli-GCC economic ties soon after the accords were signed. However, these plans soon floundered, as Dubai’s DP World, a major Emirati multinational logistics company, canceled its joint bid with an Israeli company for the privatization of Haifa Port on Israel’s Mediterranean Sea coast. A similar Israeli-Emirati project, the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline, was halted by Israel’s supreme court, citing environmental concerns.

Nevertheless, another proposed Israeli-GCC connectivity project has generated considerable discussion in tandem with India’s growing diplomatic proximity to the Abraham Accords: the Gulf-Mediterranean land corridor connecting the GCC to Israel, through Jordan.

Israel pitched the corridor to India in 2018 as a new trade route from the Gulf and India to the Mediterranean. Late last year, the US, Israel, and the UAE joined with India to form a “Quad,” to focus on transport connectivity and trade.

In an August 2021 report on the Gulf-Mediterranean corridor, Professor Michaël Tanchum, a connectivity expert at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, documented and analyzed trends favoring the corridor’s prospects. These developments include big investments by the UAE in India’s Arabian Sea ports and adjacent economic zones and increased trans-GCC railway connectivity led by the UAE-to-Israel railway network via Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

The UAE’s investments in Indian manufacturing are boosting India’s exports, while its Indian port and logistics investments ensure that Emirati giants, such as DP World, have a major stake in shipping the exports. Meanwhile, the Emirati-Saudi rail linkage means that all that is required for a full Gulf-Mediterranean railway network is a rail link from the Saudi-Jordanian border to Israel’s Haifa Port.

An October 2021 report by the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation (ORF) described the corridor as geopolitically viable and cited the Quad’s formation as a source of momentum for it.

The ORF report also highlighted Israel’s growing participation in the Indo-Emirati supply chains as a strong driving force behind the emergent Gulf-Mediterranean connectivity idea. Indeed, the International Federation of Indo-Israeli Chambers of Commerce (IFIICC) launched in Dubai three months after the Abraham Accords’ signing. The IFIICC then  brokered a trilateral Indo-Israeli-Emirati pact for supply chain collaboration in May 2021.

Subsequently, India signed a free trade agreement with the UAE in February 2022, while the UAE signed one with Israel in early April. Indo-Israeli free trade negotiations are currently being fast-tracked. India has also relaunched free trade negotiations with the European Union.

Therefore, the Abraham Accords signatories and India have reason to take the Gulf-Mediterranean corridor very seriously.

Navigating the Sino-US Rivalry

China’s efforts to develop the Middle East as a transit and transshipment hub to Europe, under the ambit of its global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), long predate the emergence of the Indo-Israeli-Emirati trilateral trade partnership.

The US considers China a top global rival and sees the BRI as fuel for Beijing’s capacity to act as a great world power. The overlap of this US position with that of India, which opposes the BRI and leads connectivity schemes across Eurasia as a counter to it, is part of the reason behind Washington’s official partnership with New Delhi to contain Chinese influence across Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Consequently, Israel and the UAE’s embrace of India enables them to play the Sino-US rivalry to the Abraham Accords’ advantage. Namely, Israel and the UAE can present the “Abraham Accords plus India” diplomatic equation and its corresponding Gulf-Mediterranean connectivity to Washington as a hedge against China’s growing influence in the Middle East, whether in the form of the BRI or China’s greater multilateral role in the region.

This strategy would help ensure systemic, long-term support from Washington, an improvement upon the transactional, top-heavy, and interpersonal diplomacy that the previous Trump administration used to get the Abraham Accords up and running to begin with.

The Abraham Accords may have already made inroads. After all, the US naming the Indo-US-Israeli-Emirati quartet the “Quad” followed the example of the “first Quad” Washington formed back in 2017: a naval grouping with India, Japan, and Australia to match Chinese posturing in the Indo-Pacific.

Indeed, as explained by South China Morning Post correspondent Tom Hussain in February, the two Quads “comprise a new US-backed security and economic architecture stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific via the Gulf and Indian Ocean.”

Moreover, without India, Israel and the UAE could find it difficult to present the Abraham Accords as favorable to US great-power interests.

By themselves, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi appear as strong facilitators of China’s expanded Middle East presence via the BRI, not as potential counters against it. Shanghai International Ports Group’s (SIPG) development and operation of Haifa’s new Bay Port make Israel a key logistics hub on the BRI’s maritime leg, while Dubai’s Free Zones process and re-export 60 percent of China’s total exports to the BRI’s end-markets in Europe and Africa.

Additionally, China is Israel and the UAE’s best bet for garnering investments in the development of the Gulf-Mediterranean corridor. While India shares China’s interest in the corridor connecting with Europe via the Middle East, Beijing is far more likely to put up the huge sums needed for it to become a reality.

China has a larger incentive to invest due to the windfall that leading Chinese companies will reap from Europe-bound Chinese trade across a completed, expanded Gulf-Mediterranean railway network. Such trade means more cargo business for the SIPG-controlled Haifa Bay Port, from where it will be shipped to Greece’s Piraeus Port and then throughout Europe by the Piraeus Europe Asia Railway Logistics (PEARL) company –– both of which are majority-owned by China Oceans Shipping Company (COSCO).

Therefore, to dissuade the US from considering the Gulf-Mediterranean corridor as a force-multiplier for China, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi can leverage their trilateral value and supply chain partnership with New Delhi to ensure that the corridor hosts large sums of Indian trade as well.

Notably, this would also boost the Abraham Accords partners’ chances of getting Western funding for the corridor. With India on board, they can promote the viability of Western investment in the Gulf-Mediterranean railway as a counter-strategy against China dominating its funding, and thus commanding outsized stakes in it.

An “Anti-Islamist” Security Consensus

Another area of trilateral Indo-Israeli-Emirati convergence is the concept of the “Islamist threat” that they espouse. This paves the way for India to contribute to the security dimension of the Accords.

Israel and the UAE portray their regional enemies as parts of larger Islamist collectives bent on destabilizing the Middle East, thus warranting an international response to disarm or subdue them. India replicates this with its own “Islamist threat”, a tag given to any form of dissent against the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP’s communal anti-Muslim policies. Accordingly, New Delhi deals with domestic agitation against new laws discriminating against Muslims with the same iron-fisted approach that it employs in Jammu and Kashmir, the restive Muslim-majority territory long disputed with Pakistan.

For India, the broad strokes with which Israel and the UAE paint the “Islamist threat” make the Accords a useful platform to garner international sympathy for its conduct toward South Asia’s Muslims. From the Israeli-Emirati perspective, this makes India stand out as a wellspring of support as they work to give the Abraham Accords a pronounced, anti-Islamist orientation.

Three-Prong Way Forward

India, Israel, and the UAE’s trilateral partnership is defining the evolution of the Abraham Accords, from a starting point of merely formalizing Israeli-GCC ties to having a more regional impact.

India has close ties with both the Israeli and GCC pillars of the regional architecture that the Abraham Accords architects wish to build. Going forward, it is likely that Israeli, UAE, and perhaps overall GCC policies related to the Accords, will continue to involve consultations with New Delhi.

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