Disruptions emanating from a combination of socio-economic-political factors, including energy transition, technological revolution, Covid-19, and uncertain international order, among others, have induced a review and recalibration of diplomatic gameplans around the world.
With bilateralism possibly inching towards a saturation point and multilateralism yielding limited results, the idea of ‘minilateralism’ has gained traction in recent years. Such mechanisms are generally narrower, informal, and adaptable, centring on task-oriented initiatives to address speciﬁc problems with fewer countries sharing the same interest.
Seeking to expand the scope of the Abraham Accords, a few think tanks in the UAE and Israel have been engaging with their counterparts in other Asian countries to promote the idea of minilateral partnerships first at the Track II and then at the business and government levels.
They [The UAE, Israel and South Korea] are all straddling tradition and modernity, possessing innovative technological know-how and the financial wherewithal to serve as incubators of new ideas and convert them into reality.
In a recent workshop in Abu Dhabi, which also involved several South Korean research and policy institutes, the discussion among experts from the three countries revolved around opportunities to strengthen out-of-the-box synergy in a variety of fields. The focus was tapping cooperation over aggressive competition in similar domains of expertise, thus evolving a win-win-win strategic template based on complementarity for the future.
The UAE and South Korea elevated their engagement to the ‘Special Strategic Partnership’ level in 2018. South Korea and Israel signed a free-trade agreement in 2021, which is in the process of being ratified. And the UAE and Israel signed the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in May 2022. Rather than compete for the same pie, since they have similar expertise and interests, the three countries should consider pooling their resources by collaborating and expanding bilateral to minilateral mechanisms.
With this new vision in mind, a ‘UAE-Israel-South Korea Free Trade Agreement’ is not a pipe dream. This would not only increase trade or ease existing bottlenecks in the bilateral trade relations, but also open new markets and trilateral collaboration avenues in brand new areas.
For any minilateral engagement to yield results, cooperation needs to be built around long-term economic projects that are lucrative and appeal to the concerned governments and the private sectors in their countries.
A few practical minilateral economic cooperation ideas that were flagged for active consideration during the workshop were — a trilateral ‘Blue Economy R&D Fund’ that could positively impact global issues like carbon neutrality, green energy and energy security, using data, AI and robotic solutions; nuclear energy cooperation to benefit the push for a diverse energy mix, which also necessitates devising innovative ways of nuclear waste disposal; and benefiting from the fourth industrial revolution, which is the mainstay of digital commerce.
Some initial projects discussed include developing an ‘Arabic chatbot’ tool for regional agriculture development that would augment food security, and joint space research and development, which is crucial for achieving sustainable development goals, as well as cybersecurity. These could foster economic integration, eventually enhancing political stability and cooperation in the region and beyond.
In this endeavour, the experts argued that the three countries boast of a combination of geostrategic location, tech abilities and their own successful development models to inspire others to expand into a wider plurilateral growth-oriented grouping. Depending on the nature of projects and the interest in them, especially in the infrastructure, education and health care sectors, other Gulf, Asian and African countries could also be brought into the mix, both as providers and beneficiaries of services. And by extending the engagement into the strategic domain, the three countries would also be able to strengthen their positions as rising middle powers in Asia.
There is no doubt that the economic centre of gravity is moving from the West to East, in which growth is being fuelled by more intra-Asia trade than East-West trade. This calls for greater East-East camaraderie.
These three middle powers have achieved massive economic growth in recent decades. More importantly, they are all straddling tradition and modernity, possessing innovative technological know-how and the financial wherewithal to serve as incubators of new ideas and converting them into reality. They can do this by promoting a connectivity agenda in a “multi-networked world” through facilitating movement of trade, energy, people, and capital. This would ultimately benefit not just these countries but the broader region and beyond.
These countries face ongoing political instability and threats in their regions and seek new avenues to overcome them. A new UAE-Israel-South Korea strategic grouping could enhance their respective strategic autonomy, especially in a milieu where all three are impacted by big power competition in one way or the other and are looking for new avenues to strongly position themselves in a new and evolving world order.
While plenty of challenges lie ahead in translating these ideas into reality, the long-term cumulative benefits are far greater, which this new trilateral Track II initiative aims to propagate among the three countries’ governments, policymakers and industry leaders.
Dr Narayanappa Janardhan is Senior Research Fellow, Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy, Abu Dhabi, and Non-Resident Fellow, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington; Mohammed Baharoon is Director-General, B’huth (Dubai Public Policy Research Centre); Dr Gedaliah Afterman is head of the Asia Policy Programme, Abba Eban Institute for International Diplomacy at Reichman University (IDC Herzliya), Israel; and Dr Il Kwang Sung is Senior Research Fellow, The Sogang Euro-MENA Institute, Seoul. (The Korea Institute for International Economic Policy and the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, Seoul, were also involved in the workshop.)