On July 14, President Joe Biden convened the first leaders’ summit between the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and India, now officially dubbed “I2U2”. While the summit focused primarily on economic issues like food security and clean energy investment, this new diplomatic framework marks the beginning of a strategic shift that could formalize a West Asian security architecture stretching from the Suez to the Strait of Malacca.
The Biden administration embraced this new geostrategic concept when Secretary of State Antony Blinken convened a meeting with his Indian, Israeli and Emirati counterparts last October, inaugurating the I2U2 grouping. A year ago, in an essay for the Middle East Institute, I developed the concept of a broader Indo-Abrahamic strategic alignment between India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States within a framework commonality that creates a balance of power in West Asia. . The adoption of West Asia as a geographic concept reflects changing geopolitical realities, including the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, codifying existing strategic lines. Regional peace and stability in West Asia cannot be guaranteed solely by the unilateral military presence of the United States, but on the contrary requires a balance of power that will moderate the ambitions of the emerging states of the region, namely the Iran and Turkey, along with those of the major powers threaten to fill a “vacuum”, as President Biden told Arab leaders.
Simply put, the Indo-Abrahamic framework is the strategic concept, and the I2U2 is the mechanism. The I2U2 summit took place in Israel ahead of Biden’s trip to Jeddah to meet with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq: the “CCG+3”. The temporal proximity between the Jeddah and I2U2 summits opens up new possibilities for the I2U2 group – the inclusion of Egypt, then Saudi Arabia, and later most of the GCC+3.
Harness the full security potential of I2U2
Part of the reason the I2U2 Summit was largely focused on economic issues is due to the capabilities and limitations of member states. India does not yet have the capacity to project defensive power in the Gulf as it faces rivals on two land fronts: Pakistan and China. Israeli-Emirati security cooperation is nascent but remains limited by their small geographic size. The United States has vast capabilities but is constrained by its other global security commitments, including the war in Ukraine and the strategic pivot to Asia.
To their credit, I2U2 executives already understand the limitations of the format’s security capabilities. In a joint statement, the leaders referred to the Negev Forum, a regional security framework that includes the Abraham Accord states (Israel, Morocco, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) and Egypt. I2U2’s endorsement of the Negev Forum is an indication that there is a latent security architecture built into the I2U2 group.
Cairo and Riyadh can add muscle
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the two West Asian states that have both the diplomatic clout and the military capacity to transform the I2U2 from a geoeconomic grouping into a true regional security architecture. Egypt is the only Arab state that has strong institutional and historical relations with every state in the I2U2. Cairo was the first Arab capital to normalize relations with Israel in 1979, is a major non-NATO ally of the United States, maintains strong historical relations with the United Arab Emirates and has maintained extraordinary bilateral relations with India since the non-alignment movement partnership between President Gamal Abdel Nasser and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Adding Egypt to the I2U2 group – due to its demographics, geography, civilizational outlook, military might, and geopolitical aspirations – is a logical and strategic next step.
Egypt provides substantial military capabilities and power projection in the Greater Middle East. Cairo has the second-largest Arab army in terms of manpower, is the world’s third-largest arms importer, and invests heavily in building its own domestic military production capacity. Its Air Force has a diverse and growing portfolio of aviation assets including Russian MiG-29s and possibly Sukhoi 35 fighters, as well as F-16s and potentially F-15s, French Rafales and Italian Typhoons. Indian Tejas may also soon join the fleet. The Egyptian strategy of exploiting diversified military means is not limited to its air force; the Egyptian Navy is also revamping its power projection assets and capabilities. Egypt’s efficient operation of aviation platforms such as the Mistral-class helicopter carriers makes it a middle ground naval power alongside Japan with its Izumo-class multipurpose destroyer and South Korea with its Dokdo-class amphibious assault. By acquiring two French-built Mistrals, continuously enhancing its submarine capabilities and gradually expanding its local naval industrial base, the Egyptian Navy has become a combat force capable of projecting maritime power both in the Red Sea and at sea. Mediterranean. In this context, in 2017, Cairo separated its navy into two fleets. The Northern Fleet focuses on the Mediterranean Sea and aims to deter Turkey from changing the Cairo-centric gas architecture that includes France, Israel, Greece and Cyprus. The Southern Fleet aims to secure the flow of international trade from Asia and Africa to Europe through the Suez Canal. Egypt’s significant naval capabilities position it as one of the key members of the new naval task force announced by President Biden at the GCC+3 summit in Jeddah.
Saudi Arabia is the second fundamental pillar of this envisaged Indo-Abrahamic framework and the resulting I2U2 mechanism. As the G20 economy, energy superpower and spiritual leader among Muslim and Arab nations, the kingdom wields enormous political and economic influence both regionally and globally. Riyadh’s ongoing economic transformation and its emergence as a rising military power in the Gulf are reshaping regional geopolitics. The kingdom is taking advantage of increased government spending on military acquisition in the United States, while diversifying its military purchases beyond the United States and building its own domestic military industrial base. As part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, Riyadh plans to spend half of its military budget in the kingdom by 2030. Given its immense wealth and aspirations to be at the center of regional security and geopolitics to bolster its credentials as a resilient global middle power, Saudi Arabia would likely support the establishment of a regional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) air defense system.
Saudi Arabia’s inclusion in the I2U2 framework is contingent on continued normalization with Israel. Engagement between Saudi Arabia and Israel is likely to continue to increase and take on a more institutional and legal form following the transfer of the strategically important islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egyptian sovereignty to Saudi Arabia, with the approval of ‘Israel. Riyadh’s decision to open its airspace to all commercial flights, including Israeli flights, is a clear sign that normalization is continuing, albeit at a slower pace than many analysts expected.
The I2U2+2 – India, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, the United States, Egypt and Saudi Arabia – has the potential to coordinate on global and regional security issues and cooperate on d other strategic theaters such as the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Horn of Africa, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Together, these six countries have the diplomatic clout and military muscle to turn the I2U2 mechanism into an effective security architecture that will reduce – not increase – the need for a forward US military presence in West Asia.
Mohammed Soliman is a Nonresident Fellow in MEI’s Cyber and Egypt Programs and Director of the Middle East and North Africa Practice at McLarty Associates. His work focuses on the intersection of technology, geopolitics and business in the Middle East and North Africa. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.
Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and the opinions of its scholars are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains exclusive editorial control of its work and its publications reflect only the opinions of the authors. For a list of EMI donors, please click hise.