UAE-Israel Regional Cooperation:
The First Step Toward West Asian Integration?
by Maurizio Geri
The recent establishment of formal diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) could represent an important step toward stabilizing West Asia. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, impactful events such as the birth of Israel and the decolonization process, the ascendance of the Iranian theocratic regime with regional hegemonic ambitions, the recent failure of the so-called Arab Spring, the spread of criminal/terrorist groups like ISIS, and the proliferation of proxy wars have contributed to the region’s turmoil. This rapprochement could represent a new dawn for the region; for a real regional integration and stabilization, there will be a need for a long term agreement among the main regional powers.
Deciding the Region’s Future
The transition of the international order after the weakening of the post-World War II liberal one saw power vacuums at regional levels, in particular in the West Asia region. While at the global level we are witnessing the “Great Powers competition,” at the regional level in West Asia we are experiencing a new “Middle powers competition” for spheres of influence. This competition creates volatility and humanitarian disasters in many areas of Levant and West Asia. Sustainable West Asian integration would be essential to ensure economic growth and stability, increase human security, reduce the threat of the Iranian regime’s penetration and the risk of great powers use of their sharp power or even military might to meddle in proxy wars, like Russia in Libya and Syria.
West Asia is culturally, religiously and ethnically heterogenous with several powers vying for regional leadership. Therefore, the region’s future stabilization depends on a grand bargain between the three main regional powers – Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia. They need to decide between supporting West Asian integration to foster regional stability or reinforcing the nation-state sovereignty leading to regional alliances often one against the other. The peace deal between Israel and the UAE seems to show positive signs and could represent an embryonic stage for a future integration that could finally bring peace and development to the region.
The Necessary Grand Bargains
The Emirates are the third Arab country that established a formal relationship with Israel, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. This step goes in the direction of an Arab-Israeli rapprochement that commenced already a few years ago and has been supported by the US Trump Administration, even if an unidentified Israeli diplomatic mission in the Gulf seems to have existed since at least 2012. The normalization between Israel and the Emirates will set a precedent for other Arab Gulf states and could prepare the ground for the grand bargain with Saudi Arabia. The relationship between Israel and Turkey has always been a more positive one, at least until recently. Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize Israel, even if recently the Erdogan regime did not make the relationship easy.
On the other side, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have traditionally strong economic ties, but they sometimes have tense political relations. The problem is their rivalry for the leadership of the Muslim world, between the Ottoman “golden age” and the Arab “cradle of Islam.” They will have to agree on sharing the leadership if they want to build a new era for West Asia’s development and stabilization. These two grand bargains, Israel with Saudi Arabia and Turkey with Saudi Arabia, could create the basis for a possible future West Asia Union (WAU) built on the European Union (EU) model. And one day, even Iran could enter this new regional organization for the benefit of all.
WAU on the EU model?
The EU is living proof that decades of integration can lead to stability and economic growth. Even other younger regional organizations, like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), have shown the benefits of economic and political integration. The European project started with integrating European energy and industrial production of coal and steel that was key for post-war reconstruction, while the security aspect was guaranteed by an external superpower, the United States, through North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The problem for West Asia Union is that economically, there is no regional integration yet of what would be the sharing of “oil and steel,” but it could be created. From the security perspective, there is no superpower that could guarantee regional security, but the military superiority of Israel and the Turkish NATO membership could deter potential external attacks. Hence, security and economic architecture should originate in the region, be inclusive, and aim to manage the security-development nexus based on preventing conflicts and economic failures in the 21st century. Could the Saudi and Gulf monarchies be the economic power that Germany has been for Europe, Israel the democratic leader that France has been, and Turkey the bridge between East and West as Italy has been between North and South, for the stability of the region? Comparisons are always a risk, as every space and time has its unique features, but lessons learned and best practices can be adapted to different circumstances.
Like the Treaty of Rome followed the Ventotene Manifesto on Europe, West Asia integration also needs its manifesto. Regional intellectual and political figures need to take a visionary role to trace the road and start considering the urgency of a grand bargain for the peace, freedom and stability of the region and the world.
Two main questions arise for the possible West Asia Union’s future in comparison to the European case: could absolute monarchies and democracies get along in a regional organization that would eventually strengthen both economic and political ties? And could an external actor like the EU help facilitate this process as the US did in Europe with financial support or even a “Marshall Plan” for the region? The suffering of many people in West Asia over the past decades cry for a long-term visionary solution and the recent bold actions taken by Israel and the UAE demonstrate that it takes courage to lead a change but with political will everything is possible.