In many ways, flying from Tel Aviv to Dubai is like any other international flight. However, it’s easy to forget that just over two years ago a flight on an Israeli airline through Saudi Arabian airspace to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) would have seemed far-fetched. We recently took that flight between two of the Abraham Accords’ original partners and found Arabs and Israelis openly discussing their shared future while acknowledging the challenges that remain. At the same time, a consistent theme of our conversations was the importance of continued U.S. engagement there. The United States still has a critical leadership role to play in the Middle East—the Abraham Accords were only a starting point.
The last two years have fostered major changes in the region—with help from the United States, Israel normalized relations with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, and the UAE under the auspices of the Abraham Accords. And while other countries such as Oman and Saudi Arabia have yet to follow suit, they too have increased their private ties with Israel. But what is really notable is that these agreements, whether formal or informal, go past handshakes and are actually changing the facts on the ground. Arab states are not just giving Israel diplomatic recognition—they are forming real partnerships that lay the groundwork for enduring relationships and potential solutions to regional problems, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Our late October trip, which was sponsored by The Philos Project, came amid several notable developments that underscore the continued strategic shifts happening in the Middle East.
Only a month before we landed in Tel Aviv, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan made his own trip to Jerusalem as the Abraham Accords celebrated its second anniversary. During his trip to Israel, ABZ visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, attended a luncheon held by President Isaac Herzog, and met with Prime Minister Yair Lapid at his office in Jerusalem. ABZ’s visit to Yad Vashem made him the highest ranking Emirati official to visit the site and showed that the trip was more than just a diplomatic overture—it was an actual effort to show that the Emiratis are truly supportive of their new Israeli allies.
Just days after our trip began, reports started circulating of an Israeli Barak air defense system deployed in the UAE. The satellite images confirming the Barak’s deployment outside the Al-Dhafra air base, where American and French troops operate, showed that we have entered a new stage of military cooperation between Israel and its Arab allies, which could be headed toward the establishment of a joint air defense system. The deployment, and its location at a base targeted by Iran-backed Houthi attacks earlier this year, shows that Israel is willing to step up and support the UAE at a time when the Biden Administration continues to resist calls to redesignate the Houthis as a terrorist organization and regional partners express concerns about the delayed U.S. response to recent Houthi attacks.
None of these changes happened in a vacuum—they’re part of a larger paradigm shift in the region, says UAE Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman H.E. Dr. Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi during a meeting at his private residence. The Accords have gone beyond fostering closer relations between the governments and trickled down into society, as reflected by the more than 500,000 Israeli tourists and businesspeople who have visited the UAE and Bahrain since November 2020—many of them proudly wearing their kippahs. Dr. Ali emphasized that people-to-people connections are essential to the long-term viability of the Accords. Government declarations and signing ceremonies alone do not make peace sustainable and prosperous.
One interesting area of discussion during the trip was how the Abraham Accords could aid in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the long term. To start, these agreements deepened ties between Israel and countries that, historically, have provided significant humanitarian aid to Palestinians, opening a new vector for dialogue that benefits both sides. And while the Palestinian Authority (PA) has condemned the Abraham Accords, there is another path forward for Palestinian leaders. In a private meeting in Abu Dhabi, Mohammad Dahlan—an influential Fatah leader seen as a possible successor to Mahmoud Abbas—told us that it is impractical to insist on Israeli-Palestinian peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state as a pre-condition for Arab normalization with Israel. Instead, Dahlan believes that the PA should use the Abraham Accords as an opportunity to re-engage Arab states and leverage their growing relationships with Israel to advance the peace process.
Significant obstacles remain to peace, but the Abraham Accords showed that peace can come unexpectedly. Continued investment by the United States and its allies in mechanisms like the Abraham Accords that foster Arab-Israeli cooperation are necessary for progress, no matter how painstaking.
Hovering above all these conversations was the future role of the United States in the region. America’s credibility in the Middle East is damaged—not only by the disastrous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan but also our other past missteps in the region. While Washington needs to do more to rebuild trust, there was still relative agreement among our interlocutors that a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, deeper ties between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and multilateral efforts to address regional security challenges were only possible with U.S. involvement. Making progress on these fronts will require the Biden Administration and Congress to better understand the changes we saw on the ground in two of the region’s most dynamic countries. In an era where U.S. focus is increasingly centered on the Indo-Pacific and Europe, the Abraham Accords and the new Negev Forum provide a roadmap for what U.S. engagement in the region should look like going forward.