Abraham Accords

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:54 pm on 25 October 2021.

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Photo of Robert Jenrick Robert Jenrick Conservative, Newark 8:54, 25 October 2021

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is absolutely right. One of the purposes of this evening’s debate is to pause for a moment and celebrate the state of Israel and those other countries of the Gulf and north Africa, many of which are great and long-standing allies of this country and friends with deep associations, which we should be supporting. The events of just over a year ago, when some of those countries were able to come together and sign the accords, were very significant, and I do not think we should underestimate the profound change in the relationships that underpins those accords.

There have always been relations between those nations in one form or another—often discreet and sometimes covert. Some of the individuals who have helped to broker agreements, or tried to do so, have built relationships themselves, person to person. My uncle, Eli Rubinstein, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Israel, was the chief negotiator at the Camp David accords. He told me that he would meet privately and holiday with his former interlocutors from Jordan, Egypt and other states who had been involved in those negotiations, in order to continue the friendships that they had built up. However, that is nothing compared with what we are now seeing as a result of these transformational changes. In the past year alone, 200,000 Israelis have gone to the United Arab Emirates, mostly to Dubai, for holidays and weddings. Synagogues have been set up in hotels for Rosh Hashanah. There were synagogues in ballrooms in the four-star and five-star hotels that many are familiar with in the United Arab Emirates. That is something that could not have been imagined just a year or so ago.

Economically, the ties are already increasing at a rapid pace. At Dubai Expo, Israel became one of the 191 countries to have its own stand. That was the first time that Israel had been welcomed to a trade exhibition in an Arab nation. Already, almost $700 million of bilateral trade has occurred between Israel and the UAE alone. Latterly, that has been surpassed by one single transaction between the sovereign wealth fund of the UAE and Israel.

We have seen other things that were almost inconceivable just a few months or years ago. There have been joint efforts by Israeli and UAE organisations and businesses to take forward the port of Haifa. It has not come to pass but, none the less, there has been a proposal by UAE interests to purchase a football club in Israel. We have seen collaboration on covid vaccines and research, and we have even seen a kidney transplant facilitated jointly by the UAE and an Israeli donor programme. The list goes on.

Beyond those two nations, others have joined in different ways. Some prominently, such as Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, and others in simpler ways that we should not underestimate, such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enabling flights over the kingdom for the first time, thereby enabling the thousands of tourists and businesspeople—the human interactions that could not have happened otherwise. There is increased sharing of intelligence and security, and greater religious tolerance has been encouraged.

On Saudi media, for example, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca urged Muslims to avoid passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm towards Jews, which will make a difference over time. Of course, it is not just the citizens of these countries who see it. People growing up in all parts of the middle east share the same media and look at the same websites, and they will see those images of Israelis, Muslims and Arabs from the Gulf nations meeting, sharing bread, doing business and sharing innovation, technology and security.

The benefits to the UK are also clear. Of course we, other than perhaps the United States, are the deepest ally and friend of many of these nations. We have huge trade in innovation, technology and security interests, all of which becomes simpler and easier for us to do knowing that relations are gradually normalising between these nations to which we already have strong ties.

The accords will also benefit interfaith relations here in the UK, as our Jewish and Muslim communities are able to see the normalisation of relations, with more tolerant and sensible language being used in the middle east, and peaceful co-existence beginning to happen, if only in a small way.

In May 2021, during the Gaza conflict, we saw a serious diminution in relations between the Jewish and Muslim communities in this country—perhaps the worst seen for several years. There was an increase in hate crime, as recorded by the Community Security Trust with respect to antisemitic abuse and by Tell MAMA with respect to Islamophobic and anti-Muslim hate crime. We saw terrible incidents, such as the convoy of vehicles through Golders Green in north London. The relations that are now building between Israel and Arab and Muslim countries in the Gulf can only be positive in helping to build ties and break down barriers.

It is easy to be cynical about what happened a year ago, but the Abraham accords have proved to be remarkably resilient. They have survived the change in US Administration. Although, of course, it would be natural for an incoming Administration to be reluctant to take up with the same zeal something that was such a signature of the previous Administration, we have now seen positive and encouraging signs from Secretary Blinken, who has said that he, too, wants to take forward the Abraham accords and widen the circle of nations that are part of them. He has had positive conversations, of which he has spoken recently, with other countries in the Gulf and the broader middle east. He said the accords were

“an important achievement, one that not only we support, but one we’d like to build on… we’re looking at countries that may want to join in and…begin…their own relations with Israel.”

Most recently, I was heartened to see Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Adviser, raise normalisation with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. That would, of course, be a major step as Saudi Arabia is the most significant regional player but, short of normalisation, there could be smaller steps that Saudi Arabia might consider. I have already mentioned that it gave support in one form or another to Bahrain to participate and that it has enabled flights over its airspace, so it may be willing to take steps short of outright acceptance and normalisation. Of course, progress might be possible with other nations such as Oman.

The accords managed to survive the 11-day Gazan conflict, which tested relationships both here and in the middle east. All of that points to the accords being substantial and lasting. However, we should not be naive. Such developments may look like the dawn of a new era in the middle east, but they could easily unravel. That might happen were there an escalation in the conflict between Israel and Gaza or Palestine, or between Israel and Iran, or on many other issues that might galvanise sentiment in the Gulf and help to see that progress set aside.

The draws me to the thrust of the debate: what is the role of the United Kingdom and our Government? As I have suggested, we have an important role to play. Short of the United States, we have the deepest and longest-standing relationships in the region in diplomacy and security, as well as the relations between our royal family and those of Gulf nations. We also have huge numbers of citizens who know and have relatives in those respective countries. There must be an important role for us and our other allies—in Europe, for example—to help to stiffen the sinews and give the Abraham accords lasting impact.

In many respects, it is disappointing that the UK was not closely associated with the work done last year. In 2019, I was privileged to represent the UK at the Peace to Prosperity conference in Bahrain organised by Jared Kushner, the then special adviser to President Trump. It was easy to be cynical of that initiative—it was very unlikely that the Israel-Palestine conflict would have been materially advanced by that conference or by Jared Kushner’s proposals—but, from spending time there, it was clear that deep relationships were being built between nations in the Gulf and the United States and, above all, with Israel, and that they might just bear fruit. On one day—it was not widely publicised at the time—a number of delegates from a range of countries, including Arab nations, visited a synagogue in Bahrain. We could see at the conference that things were changing. Perhaps it is a pity that the UK was not at the forefront of what came next, but it is easy for us to take it forward now.

What would I like us to do? I see my right hon. Friend the Minister in his place, and he has already spoken publicly about the United Kingdom’s support for the Abraham accords, including, I believe, earlier in the year at an event here in the House of Commons. There is an opportunity for us to use our diplomatic power, our diplomatic and security relationships and our rapidly building commercial ties actively to get fully behind the initiative. Through that, we can support those nations who have already signed up to the Abraham accords, to help ensure that we do not see that progress slip through our fingers. We can also think carefully about which other nations might be willing to sign up to the accords or to take steps in that direction. I have mentioned a few. Saudi Arabia would be the most significant, but others might be easier and faster to achieve, and we are particularly well placed with our relationship with Oman.

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister and the Foreign Secretary will take that forward. It seems to accord with all our foreign policy objectives. It helps us to build and deepen relationships with our friends and allies. It helps to bring lasting peace to the middle east, one step at a time. It helps us to bring different communities and faiths together for the benefit of individuals living in the middle east and in our country. It also helps to point towards a better future beyond the middle east, showing that long-standing enmities can be set aside and that, with a leap of faith, we can make moves towards peace and a better future.