The United Arab Emirates announced the establishment of relations with Israel, becoming only the third Arab country after Egypt and Jordan, and the first Arab Gulf country, to formally recognise Israel. This comes as part of a deal negotiated with the help of the United States that will pause Israel’s recent annexation plans of parts of the West Bank with the UAE hoping that the move will encourage a restart of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. According to the joint statement, Israeli and Emirati officials will soon meet to sign bilateral deals in numerous fields, such as education, healthcare, investments, energy, security, establishing direct flights and embassies in each others’ territory, and together with the US, the UAE and Israel will launch a Strategic Agenda for the Middle East. The two Middle Eastern middle powers were brought closer by processes kickstarted by the so-called Arab Spring, which altered regional dynamics and spurred a reshaping of alliances, driven by the shared perception of Iran and its expanding network of non-state actors and the growing role of the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to regional stability that would change the existing status quo. The move is therefore from the UAE’s part largely a result of strategic calculations in a changing and increasingly volatile environment, emerging as a combination of threat perceptions, new partnerships and national ambitions.
The move provoked mixed reactions, some rejected it, largely as a betrayal of the Palestinians, while others welcomed it as an important step towards regional peace. The Palestinian Authority rejected the “surprising” step as a ‘betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa and the Palestinian cause,’ while Hamas in a similar tone denounced the agreement as serving ‘the Zionist narrative’ and encouraging the continuation of Israeli occupation and crimes against Palestinians by Israel, denying the Palestinians people their rights. Iran also highlighted the UAE’s complicity in Israel’s crimes against Palestinians, while warning that ‘[t]he UAE government and other accompanying governments must accept responsibility for all the consequences of this action,’ expecting that the move ‘will undoubtedly strengthen the axis of resistance in the region.’ Also right-wing Israeli settlers were outraged by the decision, albeit for different reasons—they seek further annexation of Palestinian lands.
View from the GCC
Bahrain praised the deal ‘halting the annexation of the Palestinian territories, as step towards the achievement of peace in the Middle East.’ Similarly, Oman expressed support for the UAE’s step. This was not entirely surprising given that Oman previously hosted senior Israeli officials, including Netanyahu (2018), Shimon Peres (1996) or Yitzhak Rabin (1994). Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar are yet to release their comments. Kuwait has been a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, Deputy Foreign Minister, Khaled Al-Jarallah, was quoted saying in 2019 that ‘Kuwait will be the last country to normalise [relations] with Israel.’ To reaffirm that commitment, Kuwait appointed its first Ambassador to Palestine later that year and boycotted the June 2019 event on the Israeli-Palestinian “deal of the century” in Manama. Qatar’s relations with Israel had their ups and downs. Doha hosted an Israeli trade office since 1996 and welcomed Israeli Vice President, Shimon Peres, in 2007, signalling expanding bilateral ties. However, this changed, particularly following the 2008/9 Gaza war and Qatar’s diplomatic and financial backing of Hamas against Tel Aviv. This was cemented in 2017, when Israel expelled Qatar’s Al-Jazeera from its territory in a sign of support for the Saudi-UAE-led bloc’s decision to severe ties with Doha. The most awaited response, however, is perhaps that of Saudi Arabia that needs to struck the delicate balance as a close ally of the UAE with which it shares many views and security concerns, and a custodian of the two holiest places of Islam, Mecca and Medina, responsible to the Muslims across the world. Therefore rather than Saudi Arabia following suit in officially recognising Israel it is more likely that their behind the scenes relations will be boosted due to the UAE’s step. It is noteworthy, for example, Saudi Arabia’s $500 billion mega-city project, NEOM, announced in late 2017, could not go through without the Kingdom’s back channel negotiations with Israel because of the plan to build a bridge to connect NEOM with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. However, the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty guarantees Tel Aviv unrestricted access to the Red Sea through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Straits of Tiran, which could be threatened with the Saudi-Egyptian bridge over it and Riyadh’s acquiring of the adjacent Tiran and Sanafir islands from Cairo.
Impact of Changing Regional Dynamics
Over the past few years, regional rivalries have crystallised into two opposing camps with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt on the one side, and Turkey, Qatar, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood and an assortment of other non-state actors on the other, competing over the future regional order. The Arab Gulf countries, wary of Iran’s encroachment towards the Mediterranean via Syria, Lebanon and its new partners, have stepped up their engagement with Greece and Cyprus, locked in a long standing escalating dispute with Turkey, and became increasingly involved in the Eastern Mediterranean affairs, particularly since 2018. Meanwhile, the East Med saw another alliance being formed around energy interests between Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel, later joined by Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, culminating in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, with France and the US planning to join and Ankara being left out disgruntled. This new emerging dynamics in the East Med and the developments in Libya, Syria, Iraq and other critical hot spots, where the two opposing blocks have (indirectly) collided, have undoubtedly accelerated the UAE’s rapprochement with Israel. It is yet to be seen how exactly this open relationship will affect regional conflicts.
UAE’s Soft Power Strategy
Significantly, the White House called the UAE-Israeli agreement the “Abraham Accord,” highlighting the ‘that the problems of the Middle East can only be solved when people of all faiths come together to fight Islamic extremism and pursue economic opportunity.’ This is in line with the UAE’s 2017 Soft Power Strategy and its recent endeavours to present itself as ‘a modern and tolerant country’ and ‘a gateway to the region’ in pursuit of its global influence ambitions. The UAE has recently undertaken many strides in that direction with naming 2019 “The Year of Tolerance,” during which the UAE welcomed Pope Francis in a historic visit to sign the Human Fraternity Document with Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the initiative to build the three Abrahamic religions’ houses in Abu Dhabi. Positioning itself as a modern country, the UAE has also invested heavily into science, technological innovation and research, establishing the world’s first Artificial Intelligence (AI) university, developing a space programme and launching the first Arab Mars Probe, constructing the first nuclear power plant in the Arab world, developing renewable energy sources, hosting the inter-governmental organisation, International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), of which Israel is also a member, and the list goes on. Cementing ties with a Jewish state, which is among others also heavily invested in science and technology, as a Sunni Muslim majority country and overcoming the enmity built along religious lines will certainly contribute to those efforts.