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The UAE has the financial wherewithal, organisational skills and experience to manage initiatives in the main areas identified for common action Image Credit: Gulf News

Nearly a year after the Abraham Accords facilitated the first Negev Forum to promote security, prosperity and stability in the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates will host the third steering committee meeting of the conclave of foreign ministers of six countries in Abu Dhabi.

This working group meeting involving officials from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, the UAE, and the United States — occurs amid continuing complex regional and international developments — global economic slowdown, Russia-Ukraine War, growing tension in the occupied Palestinian territories, lack of progress in the Iranian nuclear programme negotiations, as well as instability in other parts of the region.

While some analysts viewed the ministerial forum last March as symbolic, a significant outcome was the announcement that it would become a permanent rotating platform, which is reinforced by Morocco being designated to host the next edition of the forum during spring.

Formation of working groups

Another practical outcome was the formation of six working groups to focus on security, energy, tourism, health, education, as well as food and water security. Some of these working groups met in the capitals of the member countries twice during the last year.

The meeting in Abu Dhabi has an important goal — to come up with themes and projects that benefit the entire region and guarantee a better future for its people. The UAE is in a unique position to be the driving force of such cooperation and to focus on all participants achieving practical and tangible progress.

Given the array of projects that UAE has undertaken in each of these sectors in the last few decades, it surely could find ways to collaborate with the other members and ensure a win-win formula for all.

Focusing on improving regional water security, advancing clean energy initiatives and joint tourism projects that boost economic development are just some of the possible priorities. Similarly building regional and national public health capacities or expanding cooperation in education can also cement this new regional forum for the future.

The UAE is a key to the success and durability of the grouping. With its economic, diplomatic and security clout, it is well positioned to channel the required energy to achieve the forum’s goals. The UAE has the financial wherewithal, organisational skills and experience to manage initiatives in the main areas identified for common action.

Traction towards minilateralism

In some ways, the Negev Forum mirrors the increasing traction towards minilateralism, like the I2U2 format, which brought together India, Israel, the UAE and the US. In its very first summit, a virtual one at that, the grouping announced food security projects worth $2.3 billion.

Likewise, Israel, Jordan and the UAE renewed in 2022 a UAE-brokered deal to channel Jordan-produced solar energy to Israel, in return for desalinated water. Such economic- and development-oriented small groupings are thus being viewed as the future of diplomacy.

The forum itself is also a reflection of regional countries trying to also evolve regional solutions rather than relying on external intervention. This signals a significant diplomatic shift, which opens doors for creative and out-of-the-box fixes to some common problems. Active US participation in the format is also an indication of America’s commitment to the Middle East.

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While the economic opportunities are important, the political and security considerations are also essential tools to make this a constructive and enduring forum. Economic growth requires a peaceful and stable environment, thus needing a thread linking the three considerations, which the UAE is capable of stitching together.

Three major issues fall in this realm: one, keeping the political channels of constructive engagement open in the wake of the formation of a new coalition government in Israel and some of its controversial policy announcements, and working towards reinvigorating the Middle East Peace Process to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; two, balancing the tightrope walk with Israel and Iran in the extended frame of the forum agenda; and three, ensuring the buy-in of other important non-member stakeholders like Jordan and the Palestinians in the group’s initiatives.

It was stressed at the first forum’s deliberations that the grouping “could expand the potential for peace and conflict resolution across the region”.

Though each of the countries in the grouping have different concerns and agendas, they are undoubtedly united on developmental issues. But the process of tapering over some of the political and security irritants to ensure developmental progress leaves the UAE with the task of balancing the various interests to ensure that the meeting ends on a substantive high and facilitating a constructive forum later this year.

Dr Muhamad Olimat is a professor of international relations and Dr N. Janardhan is a senior research fellow at the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, Abu Dhabi