The changing Middle East offers new diplomatic templates with Asia - opinion

The UAE, India and Israel will hold their first in-person meeting in March.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett is welcomed by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi last month. (photo credit: UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation/Reuters)
PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett is welcomed by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi last month.
(photo credit: UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation/Reuters)

Amid the debate surrounding the changing global landscape and future of diplomacy in a COVID and post-COVID world, a 2021 announcement by the United States, United Arab Emirates, India and Israel offers a new template. This new grouping is expected to hold its first in-person meeting of foreign ministers in March, which will focus on collaborating in technology and infrastructure projects, enhancing political and economic cooperation and maritime security issues. 

While recent, more tentative diplomatic templates in the region like the UAE’s and the Saudis’ recalibration bids with Qatar, Turkey and Iran are focused on tension management, the most promising is the “partnership for the future,” also referred to as the “new quad.” However, this nomenclature is misleading. This US-UAE-India-Israel bloc, unlike the original quad, is rooted in increasing regional cooperation, rather than competition with China.

The visit of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to Abu Dhabi and the impending visit of Indian Premier Narendra Modi may not have been deliberately scripted but they are furthering the collective interests of this new grouping. Further, they hold the promise of opening potentially new opportunities with their common strategic partners, especially in Asia.

While the United States is the chief unifier in the club, the three others in this group are striving middle powers. India’s strategic ambition gels well with that of start-up Israel and scale-up UAE. They are capable of forging their own trilateral partnerships and expanding them into other minilateral or plurilateral mechanisms, with their partners, especially Japan and South Korea, among others.

This stems from several factors. First, power in the 21st century is no longer determined by military prowess alone, but through technology, connectivity and trade components. Second, new relations are more partnerships and coalitions than alliances, driven by strategic autonomy. Lastly, such partnerships are rooted in economic pragmatism rather than political ideology.

 PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at the COP26 conference in Glasgow earlier this month. (credit: GPO) PRIME MINISTER Naftali Bennett with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at the COP26 conference in Glasgow earlier this month. (credit: GPO)

With bilateralism inching toward a saturation point and multilateralism yielding limited results, the idea of minilateralism or plurilateralism has gained traction in recent years. It is a narrower – and usually informal and adaptable – initiative to address specific problems with fewer countries sharing the same interest; they are in essence, task-oriented.

It is in this spirit that a UAE-Israel-India trilateral agreement was signed in May 2021 with an Israeli company producing an innovative water-free robotic solar cleaning technology in India for a project in the UAE. With the three governments confident of replicating such collaboration in other sectors, the innovation and international business potential of the UAE-Israel-India trilateral is pegged at $110 billion by 2030.

Other trilateral partnerships, which include a combination of these countries, continue to develop re-enforcing cooperation within the core grouping. For example, the UAE, India and France are joining hands to spearhead the International Solar Alliance and are conducting joint naval exercises. The UAE and India are also collaborating to set up an ICT center in Ethiopia, as are the “UAE and Israel uniting with Africa.”

Within the grouping, specific bilateral mechanisms could bolster plurilateral cooperation. The UAE and India are likely to sign the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) in 2022, which foresees deals and investments in a range of sectors – construction, clean energy, logistics, hospitality, services, tourism, healthcare, cybersecurity, education, space, advanced technologies and food security. CEPA is expected to double bilateral trade to about $120b. in five years.

Israel’s strategic cooperation with India especially around technology, innovation, education and health is meanwhile pushing ahead following Modi’s visit to Israel in 2017 – the first by an Indian prime minister – and by Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar in 2021. 

This coincides with the potential for further UAE-Israel cooperation as the two nations have recently begun talks to establish a free trade agreement. After normalizing diplomatic relations in 2020, bilateral trade crossed $700 million in 2021, a significant uptick from the $125m. in 2020. UAE Minister of Economy Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri said he was hopeful of $1 trillion of economic activity over the next decade with Israel. A step toward facilitating this was the launching of free trade agreement talks in late 2021.

The synergies of these middle power groupings could provide a base for a modular arrangement by adding or replacing one with another country based on both strategic and economic cooperation. To facilitate this expansion, diplomatic and defense meetings could be broadened to economic agencies, as well as high-level business roundtables. 

The world has been on a geostrategic reset mode over the last two decades. It is currently in between orders, with foreign policies drifting and unraveling. These trends have been accelerating over the past decade, and particularly over the past few years with the acceleration of superpower competition. 

The changing geostrategic landscape globally and in the Middle East provides new opportunities for cooperation between middle powers in Asia and the Middle East. The example set by the UAE, India and Israel paves a promising path forward. 

Dr. Gedaliah Afterman is the head of the Asia Policy Program at the Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya), and Dr. N. Janardhan is senior research fellow, Gulf-Asia Program, Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, Abu Dhabi.