Israel-Jordan-UAE infrastructure deal highlights converging interests - opinion

If this process goes ahead successfully, it could pave the path for additional Middle Eastern multilateral agreements in the sectors of energy, infrastructure, climate, health, and other issues

 THE SOREK desalination plant in Rishon Lezion. (photo credit: ISAAC HARARI/FLASH90)
THE SOREK desalination plant in Rishon Lezion.
(photo credit: ISAAC HARARI/FLASH90)

Israel, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates signed two Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) for economic projects on November 22, and while it is still unclear when, and how, they will be implemented, the agreements send a bright signal regarding a new era in regional cooperation.

The first agreement includes the construction of a solar power plant and storage facility in Jordan that will produce up to 600 MW per year of green electricity that will be sold to Israel and incorporated into its power grid.

The second agreement deals with the setting up of a desalination plant on the Israeli coastline, with the potable water it generates exported to Jordan at a scope of 200 million cu.m. per year – on top of the existing water deals in place between the two countries, which recently were expanded due to growing Jordanian needs.

Companies from the United Arab Emirates will be involved in building the projects, according to the agreements, which are only at the MOU stage thus far. In the coming year, the final details are scheduled to be finalized, as well concrete feasibility checks prior to implementation. The US special presidential Envoy for climate John Kerry was involved in securing the two agreements.

Three processes came together to create the new agreements: The Abraham Accords, the thawing of Israeli-Jordanian relations in the past six months – which included visits by senior officials – and the growing engagement with the climate crisis along with Jordan’s growing water crisis.

 Israel's Energy Minister Karin Elharrar is seen signing a climate cooperation deal with Jordan in Dubai, on November 22, 2021. (credit: Courtesy) Israel's Energy Minister Karin Elharrar is seen signing a climate cooperation deal with Jordan in Dubai, on November 22, 2021. (credit: Courtesy)

For Jordan, the current and past water agreements provide solutions for what is an existential need. Jordan today suffers from a water shortage of 500 million cu.m. per year. The annual per capita water availability in Jordan is under 80 cu.m., much lower than the global water poverty line, which stands at 500 cu.m.

If this was not bad enough, the trend is going from bad to worse by the year. Current reserves, particularly the Disi Reserve on the Saudi border, will thin out in the coming years, and demographic growth coupled with accelerated dehydration linked to climate change will intensify Jordan’s water stress, leaving Jordanian soil parched, its agriculture in a state of collapse and its residents thirsty. The amount of water to be provided under the terms of the MOU will not solve these problems but will certainly help Jordan improve its situation.

Alongside this essential need, the ability to attract foreign investments is a priority for Jordan’s King Abdullah. Environmental initiatives are a lucrative new means to attract funds for investment in the Jordanian economy. To that end, multinational-regional projects are a concept that Western countries and international funds are willing to invest in.

For Israel, the agreement, if implemented, might help to achieve a governmental goal of boosting renewable energy production (the target is 30% by 2030). In addition, there is the obvious strategic benefit that comes from strengthening Jordan’s durability and stability, and the peace between the two countries, which is highly significant for Israel’s security, and for strengthening cooperation with the UAE in the context of the Abraham Accords.

The picture is not totally rosy. The MOUs will face some challenges.

First and foremost, as with previous public agreements with Israel, there has been pushback from the Jordanian public and from parliament, both of which are characterized by strong anti-Israeli sentiments.

From the moment that news of the MOU signings surfaced, demonstrations broke out against the agreements. After Friday prayers following news of the agreements, demonstrators took to the streets of Amman under the leadership of youths affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and some Jordanian tribal leaders. As in previous Israeli-oriented protests, there were voices calling for dissolution of the peace accords, although these were only on the margins of the protest. In line with Jordanian political tradition, accusatory public fingers were pointed at the government and at normalization steps with Israel, but not against King Abdullah himself.

At the same time, the Jordanian Parliament, with whom the government didn’t consult prior to the signing of the MOUs, held a meeting on the subject, in which several MPs attacked government normalization steps with Israel, and even called for a vote of no confidence.

In order to enable the agreement, the Jordanian prime minister was sent in to reduce opposition and usher in the agreements, and, at the same time, initiated dialogue between the tribes.

A month into the signing, it seems that protests have calmed down, but previous cases demonstrate that it is just a matter of time before the opposition will pick up on an issue as a means to once again attack the government.

Unfortunately, there will be ample opportunities for renewed protests during the coming year, when the sides will need to formulate the details of the agreements, and afterwards, while the project’s infrastructure construction is ongoing. King Abdullah and his government will have to continue to market the agreement as vital, and to employ tools to calm protests. One of those tools will need to be outside support, in the form of American and Emirati assistance, as well as keeping relations with Israel relatively free of crises over regional and Palestinian matters.

There are ample potential challenges to this new cooperation. According to media reports, Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, who is already in complex relations with King Abdullah (after alleged Saudi involvement in Jordanian royal family feuds), was angered by the MOUs, which left him “outside of the picture,” including in terms of relations with the US.

The Palestinian Authority was not part of the agreement despite being at the center of the Israeli-Jordanian-Emirati triangle. Technical, financial and environmental issues could also emerge along the way that could complicate implementation of the projects.

In summary, if this process goes ahead successfully, it could pave the path for additional Middle Eastern multilateral agreements in the sectors of energy, infrastructure, climate, health, and other issues. It is of great importance that policy makers around the Middle East and in the US be creative and enterprising, while displaying goodwill and adequate resources to shape and implement needed regional integration and cooperation, which will benefit countries struggling with common challenges ranging from Iran to the climate crisis.

The writer, an IDF (Ret.) Lt.-Col., served in the military for 21 years, including in Intelligence and the Strategic Planning Division. He is a publishing expert at The Miryam Institute.