Long gone are the days when most Arab officials considered Israel a serious national security threat, viewing it as the usurper of the Palestinians’ land and denier of their human, civil, and national rights. Instead, many Arab governments appear to have resigned themselves to the idea that Israel has won the war of acceptance in the Arab region where, for decades, leaders refused to reconcile with its Zionist character and colonialist nature. Indeed, it has become quite easy to envision the possibility of Israel’s full integration into its surrounding environment despite the Arab public’s continued belief that the Zionist entity is the greatest threat to the region’s security and that Palestine remains a top concern in the Arab world.
The latest steps toward normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) boost the chances for such integration, notwithstanding Emirati attempts at camouflaging the matter as cooperation on technical issues such as research and development. In fact, the unabashed, open declarations emanating from Abu Dhabi about relations with Israel are manifestations of an approaching alliance between an ambitious Emirati leadership and an enthusiastic Israeli government anxious to break decades of either isolation from the Arab world or a cold peace with two of its states, Egypt and Jordan. With near-complete silence from other states in the Gulf and elsewhere, it is not hard to fathom an announcement soon of the establishment of full-fledged diplomatic relations between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv. This would also open the door to similar declarations by other Arab states in the future.
Building a UAE-Israel Alliance?
Helping to set the stage for the latest opening, in June at an American Jewish Committee conference, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash declared that his country can talk to Israel without agreeing with it on all issues. He added that communicating with Israel was important and would yield better results than what had been the case in the past. A few days earlier, the UAE ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, had penned a piece in Hebrew in Israel’s largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, to warn that annexing parts of the occupied West Bank would “reverse all of the Israeli aspirations for improved security, economic and cultural ties with the Arab world and the United Arab Emirates.” In other words, UAE diplomats are content with Israel’s continued occupation, if it does not annex occupied territories, and with its creeping apartheid in the West Bank and daily humiliation, harassment, and killing of Palestinians. What apparently matters for the UAE is talking and not claiming a moral position or taking a stand on the Palestine question, which is one of the most rights-centered causes for close to a century.
What apparently matters for the UAE is talking and not claiming a moral position or taking a stand on the Palestine question, which is one of the most rights-centered causes for close to a century.
Last December, Emirati, Israeli, and American officials met secretly in the White House to prepare for signing a UAE-Israel nonaggression pact that would be an advanced step toward full diplomatic relations. In October 2019, Israeli and UAE representatives participated in a conference in Bahrain sponsored by the Trump Administration to establish an anti-Iran maritime coalition. More recently, Emirati and Israeli companies signed memorandums of understanding to cooperate on fighting the coronavirus disease. Arab states have long been envious of Israel’s technological edge and industrial base, wishing they could be as successful in transforming their societies into hubs of innovation. But while the memorandums are of a technical nature and the UAE foreign ministry avoided appearing to be involved, the scope of the collaboration is telling since the two Israeli firms involved, Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries, are heavyweights in defense production. Moreover, the UAE is among a number of countries, including other Arab states, that have acquired Israeli technology for such uses as surveillance, drones, and airport security, among other things.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the UAE has sent two shipments of medical supplies for fighting the disease, declaring that they were to be used by Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority denied any knowledge of these deliveries or prior coordination with UAE officials. Had the UAE wanted the Palestinian Authority (PA) to be in charge of the shipments, it could have easily sent them to Jordan, from where they could have been transported to the occupied West Bank. But apparently the point was to specifically send them to Ben Gurion Airport, in Israel, as another example of open relations between the UAE and Israel. Other known instances of openness to Israel include public visits to the UAE by the former director general of the Israeli foreign ministry, Dore Gold, in 2015 and by former ministers Miri Regev and Ayoub Kara in 2018.
As a small state situated in a turbulent region but aided by plentiful financial resources, the UAE––just like Bahrain, Qatar, and others––has looked to hedge its fortunes and bets through an activist foreign policy that few states of its size dare to undertake. To be sure, the last two decades have witnessed Emirati ventures along a littoral extending from the Gulf to the Mediterranean and including stops in Yemen’s south and Socotra island, the horn of Africa, Egypt, and Libya. The burgeoning relations with Israel are but part of this activism and they help to boost the UAE’s hedging strategy vis-à-vis Iran––no matter the price to Palestinian rights––and to serve specific UAE goals in the eastern Mediterranean, especially confronting Turkey, Qatar, and the forces of political Islam. What appears to be dangerously neglected by UAE leaders, however, is the required attention to the vulnerability that small states should never ignore: that hubris and adventurism do not always turn out well and that the road back to the status quo ante may not be easy once bridges have willfully been burned.
The Trouble with Iran
There can be no doubt that for a long time, the Islamic Republic of Iran has represented a serious security challenge in the eyes of UAE and Israeli officials. This has become more prominent with the steady advance of Iran’s nuclear program and specifically during and after the rocky road to signing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which the Trump Administration––a friend of both the UAE and Israel––withdrew in 2018. Today, Iran continues to occupy the three Emirati islands in the Gulf, Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, and to represent a religious challenge to hereditary rule in the Gulf Cooperation Council states. But Abu Dhabi has clearly sidestepped a direct military confrontation or escalation of antagonistic rhetoric with Tehran, preferring two contradictory hedging strategies.
Abu Dhabi has clearly sidestepped a direct military confrontation or escalation of antagonistic rhetoric with Tehran, preferring two contradictory hedging strategies.
The first is to participate in international forums sponsored by the United States and accepted by Israel––such as the Manama maritime conference last October and the secret White House meeting last December about a nonaggression pact––and to augment relations with Washington and Tel Aviv. The second hedging strategy is to maintain security and commercial relations with Iran. For example, in July 2019, the UAE’s commander of the Coast Guard met in Tehran with Iran’s commander of the Border Guard to discuss mutual security threats. Annually, non-oil trade between the two countries amounts to some $17 billion. Iran is the UAE’s second export market after China; hundreds of thousands of Iranians live in the UAE and thousands of Iranian businesses operate there. At the same time that the UAE attended the anti-Iran conference in Bahrain, in October 2019, the UAE released some $700 million of frozen Iranian assets.
These and other examples of UAE overtures toward Iran, on the one hand, and the United States and Israel, on the other, provide clear indications that the UAE’s latest openings regarding Israel are intended to augment its hedging strategies toward the Islamic Republic. This hedging also has domestic elements, making it more necessary. Dubai, the second most consequential emirate that is ruled by UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, is the beneficiary of economic relations with Iran. Ending them can arguably cause serious dissension within the ruling circles of the country. At the same time, the emirate of Sharjah has a historical and legal claim to the island of Abu Musa while the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah owned the Tunbs. Thus, the Iranian occupation of the islands––begun as the UAE was achieving independence from Great Britain in 1971––is a national and a security issue that the UAE’s federation cannot ignore.
The Trouble with Political Islam, Turkey, and Qatar
The UAE has declared itself a dedicated enemy of political Islam in the region, represented not only in extremist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda but also in organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and in the states of Turkey––ruled by the Islamist Justice and Development Party––and Qatar, which have harbored Islamists. In a recent opinion piece, Andreas Krieg argues that the burgeoning Emirati relationship with Israel is a marriage of convenience aimed at securitizing political Islam. Since the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, the UAE has been at the forefront of the battle to prevent the ascendance of the brotherhood to positions of power. Its support––and that of Saudi Arabia––for Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s 2013 coup against Egypt’s late President Mohammed Morsi, an MB partisan, was a case in point. So is the UAE’s present antagonism for Islamists in Yemen, Tunisia, Algeria, Sudan, and Libya.
The UAE appears to be on a crusade to limit Turkey’s influence in some Arab countries and is working with other states in the Mediterranean basin to limit the role of Ankara and Doha there.
The UAE appears to be on a crusade to limit Turkey’s influence in some Arab countries and is working with other states in the Mediterranean basin to limit the role of Ankara and Doha there. In fact, this Emirati policy combines a clear anti-Islamist agenda with a geopolitical vision that is intended to curtail Turkey’s and Qatar’s access to—and success in—the area and enhance their adversaries’ interests. The UAE’s open support for Libya’s renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, against the country’s UN-recognized and Turkey-supported Government of National Accord is a clear example of this policy. Its adamant refusal to reconcile with Qatar, which—along with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt—it has blockaded since 2017, is at least partly explained by its opposition to the Islamist forces that Doha supports.
In its drive to limit Turkey’s influence in the eastern Mediterranean, over the last two years the UAE began to change its tune toward the Syrian regime after it initially supported the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018 despite a resolution by the League of Arab States to boycott the Syrian government. A recent report exposed UAE strongman Mohammed bin Zayed’s $3 billion offer to Assad to break the current ceasefire in Idlib province, a development that was halted when Russian officials learned of it because it would have led to an outright military confrontation between Syrian and Turkish forces, and possibly Russian troops in the area as well. Still, the UAE’s position on Syria has put it in direct violation of the recently promulgated American Caesar Act, which prohibits dealing with or supporting the Syrian government and imposes sanctions on those who do. Indeed, it is ironic that the UAE would wish to have a good relationship with the Syrian regime, which was and remains at least partly propped up by Iran—the very state it decries to the United States and Israel.
It is ironic that the UAE would wish to have a good relationship with the Syrian regime, which was and remains at least partly propped up by Iran—the very state it decries to the United States and Israel.
Combining Hedging and Abandonment
The UAE’s hedging strategy explains its apparent headlong openness on Israel. While augmenting relations with the United States and agreeing to full normalization with Israel, the UAE secures for itself at least a modicum of support in its Iranian challenge. Simultaneously, it does its best to mollify Iran’s leaders by sending conciliatory messages and maintaining crucial economic ties to the Islamic Republic. Along the Mediterranean coast, the UAE is active in confronting Turkish moves that it sees as helping to spread and strengthen political Islamist forces. There, it views teaming up with Israel as a marked advantage, despite not having a clearly defined and discernible economic interest. If hedging for small states is one art of balancing threat and assurance, the UAE’s current geopolitical maneuvering may be giving its leaders the peace of mind they crave.
But the incessant moral challenge such hedging presents in the current regional environment is that it comes at the expense of the Palestinians. One explanation is that Emirati leaders are under pressure by the Trump Administration to give Israel the official recognition it has sought from principals of the Arab political order. Another could be that these leaders are truly looking for Israeli help to transform their society into a hub of innovation, something Israel’s new Minister of Intelligence Eli Cohen recently asserted. However, the most possible and straightforward explanation is that at a time of great distress for the Palestinians and their national rights, and when Israel is seriously thinking of annexing more occupied Palestinian territory, UAE leaders have decided to abandon the Arab world’s most righteous national cause simply because they could.