In October 2021, Foreign Ministers from the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and India joined United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken to discuss opportunities for enhancing their economic and political ties. This was the first gathering of the “West Asia Quad” or “I2U2,” a new grouping between the four countries to promote closer coordination and integration. The second meeting of the West Asia Quad, scheduled for mid-July 2022, is set to take place between the leaders of the four countries, highlighting their intent to enhance coordination at the highest levels.
As President Joe Biden prepares to embark on his visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia, he will participate in the second virtual meeting of the West Asia Quad. Biden’s counterparts from the three countries will also attend the forum. A statement released by the White House confirmed that their discussions would encompass their development of closer economic ties and other areas of shared concern like the global food crisis. The second forum will build on the existing areas of cooperation highlighted during the first session, including climate change, energy cooperation, and the adoption of additional measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.
The development of the West Asia Quad represents a series of multilateral benefits of the Abraham Accords, signed between the UAE and Israel in September 2020. The new peace agreement has opened the door to an array of bilateral economic and cultural ties and nearly US$ 1 billion in trade during 2021 alone. The Abraham Accords also opened the door to new, multilateral opportunities by enabling the two states to join allies and partners in forming new groupings across regional boundaries. The West Asia Quad is one of several examples of the new kinds of multilateral partnerships made possible by the Abraham Accords.
The West Asia Quad has already drawn comparisons with another regional grouping: the Indo-Pacific Quad, a grouping between India, Australia, Japan, and the United States. However, there are core differences between the two groups. The Indo-Pacific Quad developed out of a 15-year dialogue and coordination process between mid-tier officials from the participating states. The forum eventually worked its way up to draw in ministers from the four states. Its purpose is also clearly strategic: oriented toward managing and balancing China’s growing power, a common concern for all four states.
The West Asia Quad, by comparison, immediately began at the ministerial level, moving upward quickly to draw in state leaders from the four sides. This reflects the importance attached to the forum by the four leaders and the eagerness of the four sides to move ahead in building closer ties. The West Asia Quad is also distinct from the Indo-Pacific Quad because it has not yet adopted any security framework. Nor is it focused on the challenge from a single power, its Indo-Pacific counterpart.
Instead of acting as a buffer against an external power, the forum aims to promote cooperation between the four states by looking at the economic and strategic benefits to the parties involved. At the inception of the West Asia Quad, foreign ministers from all four participating states emphasized these intentions. At the forum, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan highlighted the purpose of the gathering in stimulating economic growth, achieving sustainable development, and developing the “distinguished ties” that bind the four states together.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the message and referenced the four countries’ “complementary capabilities” in the Middle East. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid described the “synergy” between the two sides across digital technology and maritime security. Although taking the form of a multilateral grouping, the West Asia Quad also marks a culmination of growing bilateral ties between the four states over the last decade.
Israel and India are the first cases in point. Diplomatic relations between the two states date back to 1992, and the two sides have formed a robust trade and military relationship since then. Israel is currently one of India’s top three providers of military equipment, marking a staggering 43 percent of Israel’s total arms exports. During a 2017 visit to Israel, Modi procured a range of weaponry, including a missile system and intelligence equipment. India’s bilateral trade with Israel is also valued at US$ 4.14 billion, with Israel’s main exports to India including agricultural technology, cyber technology, healthcare products, and military equipment.
Bilateral engagement between India and the UAE has also grown recently. The UAE is India’s third-largest trading partner, with bilateral trade expected to exceed US$ 60 billion annually. In February 2022, the two sides signed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation and Partnership Agreement (CEPA). The new trade agreement provides both sides with reduced tariffs, enhanced market access, and simplified customs procedures. The new agreement is expected to grow bilateral trade in goods to over US$ 100 billion and trade in services to over US$ 15 billion in five years. UAE exporters will also benefit from greater market access through preferential tariff rates, with some being slashed to zero. The agreement also aims to promote trade from – and between – small and medium enterprises.
The Links Surge
In the nearly two years since their enactment, the Abraham Accords have also forged a surge of links between Israel and the UAE across trade, culture, and economic cooperation. A new free trade agreement between the two sides, signed in May 2022, has cut tariffs on 96 percent of traded goods across technology, agri-tech, healthcare products, and services. The new agreement is expected to bring trade between the two states up to US$ 10 billion within five years, representing a 10-fold increase from the first full year of trade ties in 2021, where trade reached US$ 1 billion.
The Abraham Accords have also fueled a tourism surge between the two sides, with a record 40,000 Israel tourists visiting Dubai in a single month, December 2020, alone. Bilateral cooperation agreements have also been signed across the education, healthcare, and technology sectors. The UAE also hosts an Israeli embassy in Abu Dhabi and a consulate in Dubai, reflecting the strength of their diplomatic relations.
Against the backdrop of growing bilateral ties, the UAE, Israel, and India continue to grow their ties with the United States. A case in point is the UAE, the US’ single largest export market in the Middle East, with more than US$ 7 billion in exports in 2021. UAE investments also contribute to the American economy, reaching nearly US$ 28 billion and supporting over 12,000 American jobs. The airline industry is an example of the robust and diversified trade ties between the two states.
In 2019, Emirates Airlines and Boeing finalized an agreement to purchase thirty 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft, valued at US$ 8.8 billion. The US also remains the UAE’s most important military partner in the region. The two sides continue to regularly conduct joint military dialogues and reaffirm the importance of their bilateral relations, especially as the US continues to maintain its Al Dhafra airbase in Abu Dhabi. The UAE also engages in multilateral coordination with the US. In December 2021, the armed forces of the UAE, Israel, and the United States Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) began multilateral maritime security exercises in the Red Sea for the first time, further signaling the role of the Accords in driving multilateral cooperation.
With its focus on economics, the West Asia Quad is not the only forum bringing the parties closer together. It is best understood as part of a network of groupings and gatherings that seek to achieve this aim. Another example of the growing multilateralism between three states party to the West Asia Quad took place in March 2022, when foreign ministers from Israel, the UAE, and the US joined their Moroccan and Egyptian counterparts at the Negev Summit. Here the parties discussed their efforts to achieve regional security and stability.
At the summit, the UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan stressed the significance of joint action and a multilateral approach to building a prosperous future for the next generations and promoting coexistence. Multiple and overlapping forums highlight the growing synergy and connection between the four states and their role in bringing together other partners and allies across the region.
Regarding security architecture, the West Asian region lacks any primary security framework or architecture that brings the different parties together. Still in its infancy, the West Asia Quad has not yet evolved to fulfill this purpose and remains focused on mainly bolstering economic and strategic ties between the four sides. However, it is conceivable that this forum can provide the groundwork for deeper security coordination across areas, including maritime security coordination, the threat of maritime piracy, and drug smuggling.
The meeting of leaders from the four sides at the Quad’s second gathering highlights the priority afforded to cooperation and coordination by all parties involved. It demonstrates their intent to continue building a robust multilateral arrangement that will likely expand to contribute to regional peace and security in the future.