US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken attends a Quad meeting with Emirates Secretary of State Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Indian Foreign Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar, and Israeli Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Yair Lapid at the United States Department of State in Washington, DC, on October 18, 2021.
Credit: US State Department photo by Freddie Everett
Over the past week there has been a wave of media attention for a new so-called “Middle East Quad” between India, Israel, the UAE and the US, including on these pages. Some, especially more enthusiastic elements in India and Washington believe the group will provide a useful counterbalance to China’s influence in the region.
However, such ambitions are exaggerated for what seems likely to be more of an economically oriented forum than a new political and military partnership. Despite claims that it is not directed against China, it seems clear how the United States and India could benefit from such an arrangement; it’s less clear what Israel or the UAE would get from it.
For the US and India, a Middle East Quad would complement the emerging Quad in the Indo-Pacific region, bringing both countries together, along with Japan and Australia. The partnership between the four has gained weight as US President Joe Biden seeks to realize the ambitions of his predecessors by “turning” US assets from the theater in the Middle East to East Asia. The Indo-Pacific Quad has also been helped by deteriorating relations between China and its neighbors in the region.
For India, that included ongoing and sometimes violent border clashes, as well as the challenges of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. This massive effort in building infrastructure and connectivity across the Eurasian landmass has been interpreted by some as a geopolitical project that will increase China’s influence in India’s Central and South Asian neighborhood leading to its imprisonment.
If India’s concerns are mostly regional, America’s stretches across the globe. It has presided over the current international system for decades, cultivated close ties and allies, and made significant contributions to regional order and stability in East Asia and the Middle East. To the Washington-based hawks, all of this appears to be threatened by China’s current rising economic power, especially if this is later translated into greater political clout and military capacity.
By contrast, neither Israel nor the UAE have a similar interest in containing China. Unlike the US and India, neither country is directly threatened by the rise of China. Rather, both have tried to maximize the opportunities it presents. Trade and investment have blossomed between Israel, the UAE and China. The two countries have also expressed an interest in participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.
The increasing intensity between China, Israel and the UAE has received official approval. In 2017, China established an innovative comprehensive partnership with Israel. The following year, Beijing elevated its ties with the UAE to a comprehensive strategic partnership, the highest level of diplomatic relations it can offer.
China’s partnerships with Israel and the UAE have stirred up Washington’s hardliners. In recent years, Israel has come under pressure to cut ties with Chinese companies, especially in areas considered sensitive, such as the management of Israel’s ports (particularly in Haifa, where the US Sixth/Seventh Fleet sometimes has ports) and telecommunications. industry. The United States has also expressed concerns about the UAE’s security arrangements with China.
However, the reactions of Israel and the UAE to US prompts have not been the same. In Israel, the government under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has established an advisory committee to assess foreign property for future investment. In contrast, the United States has not made its demands on the UAE as strongly as it has with regard to Israel.
Part of the reason for this may be the qualitative difference in the character of the American relationship with the two. The US alliance with Israel is very close and includes important interfaces, including strong domestic grassroots support and lobbying in favor of each other in both countries. Despite this, it appears that Israeli leadership’s actions toward China are less the result of internal preferences and more the result of American pressure.
If Israel has reluctantly concluded that it must accommodate US concerns, US coercion was less evident in the case of the UAE. First, the overlap between the two countries at the domestic level is less noticeable. On the other hand, the Emiratis are more wary of the US commitment to the region. Former President Barack Obama’s decision to sign a nuclear deal with Iran over Gulf leaders’ objections and Donald Trump’s bias over the Saudi-Emirati boycott of Qatar are strongly and negatively recalled. Perhaps for that reason, the UAE was less willing to follow Israel’s decision to “skip” with the United States and “cover” instead.
Missing out on Israel-UAE’s ambivalence toward US demands, some Washington hardliners have misjudged the impact of the so-called Abraham Accords, which normalized Israel-UAE relations last year. Their hope is that bringing these two regional powers together with the support of the US would not only provide greater coherence in the management of regional security, especially against Iran, but also reduce China’s space in the Middle East.
However, such ambitions were exaggerated – as were those for today’s Quad in the Middle East. Rather than viewing the Abraham Accords as restrictive, Beijing welcomed them. It saw normalization as a complement to relations with both sides. Moreover, given the relative domestic stability of the two countries, the prospect of increased economic cooperation and investment beckoned, especially in high-level sectors where the two have mutual interest and comparable benefit.
Given the current landscape, it seems highly unlikely that the new Middle East Quad will become the containment tool some US and Indian policymakers hope for. Instead, like the Abraham Accords before it, the new Quad appears to be primarily intended to encourage more commercial cooperation rather than transform geopolitics.
If the Quad proves to be successful in that regard, it could mean that it is dominated by private corporate interests rather than governments. As a result, business leaders demand more stable environments from leaders to minimize risk in order to generate profit. In the Middle East, that could run counter to US and Indian goals, prompting them to appeal to Israeli and Emirati leaders to avoid taking a hard line on China.