A free-trade agreement struck last week between India and the United Arab Emirates is the first of a series of deals which will soon bring together members of US-sponsored strategic alliances in the Middle East and Asia. The UAE, a wealthy oil exporter and the Middle East’s top trade hub, is also close to wrapping up free-trade negotiations with Israel , Emirati officials said, underpinning a rapidly growing relationship established under the Abraham Accords in August 2020. Marking the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations with Israel in January, India announced it had also entered into free-trade talks with Jerusalem. United Arab Emirates plans to buy Chinese jets amid US concerns Alongside the free-trade deal concluded by India and the UAE on February 17, it would establish the economic framework of the so-called Western Quad alliance established last year in partnership with the US. “The signing of the historic Abraham Accords has not only opened up new opportunities for our own bilaterals, but also the quadrilateral strategic cooperation between the UAE, the United States , India and Israel,” Ahmed Albanna, the UAE ambassador to India, said at an event in New Delhi on February 10. Describing the West Asian Quad as “an offspring of the Abraham Accords”, Albanna said that the multilateral approach embodied by the US-backed alliances was “more critical than ever to respond to increasingly complex threats to global economic growth and stability”. The nomenclature of the Western Quad echoes that of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in the Asia-Pacific, of which India is a member alongside Japan and Australia . Together, the two quads and the Abraham Accords bloc – which also includes Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – comprise a new US-backed security and economic architecture stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pacific via the Gulf and Indian Ocean. Why India isn’t joining other US allies in condemning Russia over Ukraine Israel and Morocco signed a free-trade agreement on Monday, three months after they finalised a bilateral security pact. Rabat reportedly placed a US$500 million order in early February for an Israeli air defence system. Israel also concluded a security cooperation agreement with Bahrain on February 3. Under it, the first serving Israeli officer ever to be posted to a Gulf emirate will be appointed as a liaison officer to the Bahrain-based US Navy 5th Fleet covering the Middle East. This reflects the shifting of Israel’s position in Washington’s strategic set-up from Europe to the Gulf-based central command after the signing of the Abraham Accords. A new reality “The changing global geopolitical landscape, superpower competition, and the Abraham Accords are all bringing about a new reality in the Middle East,” said Gedaliah Afterman, who heads the Israel-Asia policy programme of the Abba Eban Institute of International Diplomacy at Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel “Not only are they leading to a new realignment of Israel’s interests and relationships in the region, particularly with the UAE and Bahrain, but also to a substantial change in India’s strategic approach to the region,” he said. The urgent free-trade talks follow an understanding reached by its members’ foreign ministers at their first meeting last October. They are next scheduled to meet in Dubai in March. Middle East’s new BFFs? Israel-UAE ties grow as US calls for China rethink While the initial discussions and meetings of the West Asian Quad are being led by the foreign ministers and, therefore, are more strategic by nature, Afterman said, the recent free-trade signing between India and the UAE and growing trade between Israel and both countries, “might indicate that the content of this new partnership could focus more on economic cooperation”. Whereas the accords are an alliance against the threat posed by Iran and the Indo-Pacific Quad aims to counter China’s influence in the region, the Western Quad does not seek to confront either of America’s opponents. “It is, at least for now, about increasing regional cooperation and creating more strategic space for the middle powers in this minilateral arrangement,” Afterman said. However, since signing the Abraham Accords Israel and the UAE have been under immense pressure from the US to cut back their economic relationships with China – the second largest trade partner of both countries. Experts said the free-trade deals between the members of the Western Quad were expected to provide them with a US-corralled “alternative” source of trade and investment to China. India is already the UAE’s top trading partner, due largely to the Emirates’ role as the sole supplier of India’s strategic oil reserve and the transshipment of much of India’s international trade via Dubai. EU makes US$170 billion play to rival China in Africa A key element of their agreement, which aims to enhance bilateral trade from about US$60 billion last year to US$100 billion in 2026, is the UAE’s facilitation of Indian trade and investment in Africa – a service it already provides to many of the 6,000 Chinese-owned businesses based in Dubai. China has been Africa ’s largest trading partner for the last 13 years, while India is currently ranked third. Speaking to Modi last Friday, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan said the UAE-India pact would “breathe new life into trading corridors from Africa to Asia”. The security implications of the Western Quad are particularly evident from the defence-centred relationship between Israel and India. Jerusalem has established itself as New Delhi’s top armaments supplier in recent years. Backed by America’s diplomatic heft, the new alliance would partner Israel’s cutting-edge technology and defence capabilities with the UAE’s deep pockets and global trade outreach, and with India’s enormous manufacturing capacity and pre-eminent naval role in the Indian Ocean. “The new security and economic architecture is still at a nascent stage but what is significant is that key actors have recognised its imperative,” said Harsh V. Pant, a professor of international relations at the India Institute of King’s College London. “China is only one of the many variables shaping this evolution. This is also about regional powers like the UAE and Israel recognising the need to diversify and find their own solutions of the changing balance of power,” he said. India’s engagement with the Middle East has reached its strongest levels since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first elected in 2014. India has established strategic partnerships with the UAE and Saudi Arabia , and increasingly is looking at the Middle East as a collective entity. “This is why it is comfortable today with the [Western] Quad format where it sits with the US, Israel and the UAE,” said Pant, who is also head of the strategic studies programme at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “The fact that this Quad could emerge is a reflection of strong bilateral ties between India and Israel, and India and the UAE, as well as between Israel and the UAE,” he said. “At a time when politics in the region is undergoing a transformation, a new institutional architecture is needed and this [Western] Quad is one of the responses.” Indonesia plays down upswing in Israel ties, amid talk of ‘normalisation’ While the US is the key convenor of this new club, Israeli analyst Afterman said the real long-term potential of this grouping lay with the three other members. The UAE, India and Israel were all “striving middle powers”, and India’s evolving strategic ambitions gelled with those of “start-up nation” Israel and “scale-up” UAE, he said “Moving forward, there is room for the UAE, India, and Israel to take the initiative and create new flexible and issue-based partnerships”, adding new members like Japan and South Korea , Afterman said.