Two years ago, UAE citizens were barred from entering Israel. No longer. The inaugural Emirates flight touched down in Tel Aviv last week, a Boeing 777 carrying 335 passengers. For much of the 20th century, the only thing that the Middle East could agree on was the destruction of the Jewish state. But attitudes are changing. The purported reason is the so-called Abraham Accords, signed in 2020 after Donald Trump decided to solve the seemingly intractable problem of the Middle East. If Don the Dealmaker couldn’t do it, who could? Seven decades of antagonism had failed, the White House argued, and the Palestinian cause seemed as troubled as ever, so why not try a different approach? The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain formally recognised Israel in September that year, signing a document that declared a new era of ‘peace, security and prosperity in the Middle East’. Sudan and Morocco quickly followed, agreeing to normalise relations with a nation that the Arab world had once committed to driving into the sea.
Earlier this month, I travelled to Morocco as part of a British delegation that sought to drum up support for the Abraham Accords. After Russians, the second largest ethnic group of Israelis are Moroccan Jews. It’s something the assorted dignitaries were keen to remind us of. Traipsing around Rabat’s Old City, we were introduced to the dwindling number of Jewish residents before reaching the (locked and guarded gates) of the capital’s last remaining synagogue. For all the talk of long histories of co-existence, the tiny population of elderly Jews revealed the uncomfortable truth: prior to the founding of Israel, there were over a quarter of a million Jews living in the North African country. Now there are 2,000.
Of course, it wasn’t really Trump’s deal-making prowess that reset Arab-Israeli relations. At least not on its own. Israel and the Gulf States recognise that Iran is becoming a greater threat. With Washington shifting its focus to the Indo-Pacific, regional actors realised that Tehran is becoming a problem without an American solution. As Anshel Pfeffer wrote in the magazine last week, Turkey and Israel are being pushed closer together by Iranian subterfuge against the two countries. My enemy’s enemy and all that. But Morocco isn’t nearly as troubled by Iran as those at the other end of the Mediterranean. Instead, it’s motivation is trade. In the year after the UAE and Israel signed the Accords, the value of trade between the two countries increased from $180 million dollars to around $1 billion. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, Morocco decided to play along.
Part of the reason is Rabat’s ‘New Development Model’, an extensive plan for shifting the country from a predominantly agricultural economy into something more high-tech. The plan has been seen as a response to simmering discontent and protests in the country, one with eerie echoes of the Arab Spring. Last year, a food vendor had his cart confiscated after he failed to wear a Covid mask. When police refused to return his stall, the 25-year-old set himself on fire. Precisely the same story – a self-immolating grocer in Tunisia – triggered the Arab Spring a decade ago. King Mohammed VI had thought his country immune from the destabilising influences that saw other Arab leaders overthrown. As one politician we met was keen to tell us, Morocco is the only country that has seen an Islamist party peacefully transfer power to its successor.
The new Prime Minister took over last October. Already his party has attempted to chart a more pro-business, globalist path. It helps that the country’s authoritarian king is on board. GDP per capita has increased less than 10 per cent over the last decade, below average for an emerging economy. In response, Morocco is undergoing something of a Chinese-style shift: pursuing prosperity through greater trade while cracking down on dissent at home. Journalists are increasingly being detained; the government used Covid as a pretext to shut down critical newspapers. In 2017, after 16 years of marriage, the king’s wife simply disappeared. She has rarely been seen in public since.
While the country’s elites were keen to talk up their newfound fondness for Israel, around 88 per cent of Moroccans opposed normalisation. But the economic incentives are too hard to ignore, especially when good relations with Israel are a proxy for better relations with the West in general. What’s more, 66 per cent of trade for an average European country happens within Europe; in the Middle East, that figure is just 13 per cent. It’s a region where neighbourly trade is an untapped opportunity. Like the UAE, Moroccan-Israeli trade grew rapidly following the Accords, almost quadrupling from $131 million to around half a billion dollars.
There’s an admirable nakedness when it comes to Morocco’s foreign relations. The country’s politicians made clear that recognition of the Western Sahara, a contested region to the south, is a prerequisite to further economic ties. Since the 1970s, Morocco’s tumultuous neighbour Algeria has funded separatist fighters, the wonderfully James Bond-sounding Polisario group, which accepted arms from Cuba and the then-Soviet Union. Morocco’s former colonial powers, France and Spain, have both accepted Rabat’s approach as the only viable option. But Britain seems more ambivalent, a source of awkwardness for the British MPs on the trip. It seems more as though the UK lacks a policy rather than objecting to Morocco’s attempts to return lands it sees as rightfully Moroccan.
In truth, the Israeli detente felt shallow. Politicians in the country’s parliament sounded open to furthering relations, but unmotivated to properly explore what that might mean (no doubt aware that their constituents aren’t particularly keen on cosying up to Israel). The businessmen we spoke to, like all businessmen, were excited about the possibility of new markets opening up. It’s a fact that underlies the pitfalls of the Accords. If the new Israel’s new position is going to stabilise, citizens in the Middle East – from Moroccan farmers to the Bahraini middle classes – are going to have to feel this new relationship is making their lives better. Without it, another Palestinian intifada could easy derail the tentative steps toward friendly relations. No one wants to witness the last Emirates flight leaving Tel Aviv.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.