16 Sep 2020

Significance and implications of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel

Dr. Kristian Alexander

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the third Arab country and the first Arabian Gulf state to formalize and commence on a process of normalizing its relations with the state of Israel. According to UAE representatives, this accord not only establishes diplomatic ties with Israel but should be seen as a wider comprehensive strategic agreement between both countries, signifying a new discourse of change for the Middle East. The subsequent agreement between Bahrain and Israel builds on and testifies to the initial accord’s impact.

This Insight discusses the factors influencing the UAE’s policy on this issue, before considering the potential leadership opportunities arising from new alignments in the Middle East. It then discusses the economic opportunities that may stem from this initiative, before concluding that the agreement is a positive step that offers real opportunities to bolster regional stability while resolving the long-standing dispute between Israel and Palestine.

A new approach to an old dispute

According to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, the UAE agreement with Israel symbolizes “cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.” The UAE Ambassador to the United States of America, Yousef Al-Otaiba, writing in an Israeli newspaper in June this year, highlighted that Israel’s move to annex parts of the West Bank would constitute “the illegal seizure of Palestinian land.”

The diplomatic initiative has put Israel’s annexation plans on hold. It will give the UAE, Bahrain, and any of the subsequent Arab nations that may also join in giving Israel some leverage over future negotiations over the fate of Palestinian human and economic rights.[1] Engaging the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may make him more receptive to change in that direction.

The UAE has emphasized that this agreement is to be the first step in a process that will need time to develop into a trusted relationship and that the bilateral relationship is intended to, among other things, de-escalate the Israeli-Palestinian standoff. The UAE has also reiterated its commitment to preserving the opportunity for a two-state – Israel and Palestine – solution. At the core of the new approach emphasizes dialogue and the exploration of alternative paths to secure a sustainable long-term settlement that benefits all parties involved.

The UAE’s stance and activity should also be viewed in the context of a hardened Palestinian rejectionist point of view. The UAE will likely seek to change the dynamics of the negotiations, since it has devoted much political capital and resources to deal with the Palestinian leadership over the years, with little to show for the efforts that have been made.

The Emiratis have voiced their discontent and frustrations publicly with the entrenched intra-Palestinian leadership rift between Hamas, Fatah, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Although the UAE continues to provide financial and other forms of assistance, the Palestinian Authority rejected humanitarian and medical aid sent on a first-ever direct Abu Dhabi-Tel Aviv flight in May 2020.[2] The current status of this relationship thus makes the need for new approaches all the more urgent.

An emerging regional leadership

The UAE also believes that this treaty is another manifestation of its government’s emphasis on the notions of “moderation” and “tolerance” that fits into its broader foreign policy agenda. At a time when the UAE is working to build bridges with Israel while also pushing back against the forces of political Islam, the idea of inter-faith dialogue between Muslims, Jews, Christians, and other faiths is one way in which the UAE can frame its outreach to Tel Aviv. With many countries across the Arab region remaining opposed to normalizing relations with Israel, it will be important for the UAE to have reliable convincing narratives that justify improved ties with the Jewish state and encourage others to do likewise.[3]

In seeking to establish itself as a model for the Arab world, the UAE has taken on a more assertive role that further enhances its regional position as a progressive actor. The UAE has also benefited from the decline of traditional Middle Eastern powers, such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, at a time of the continuing rise in the GCC countries’ affluence and influence.

This shift in the power balance has enabled the UAE to step into a vacuum and make its presence felt. The country has shown that it is willing to take risks in the interest of peace and has publicly positioned itself by engaging directly with a peace process rather than be content to generally sit on the sidelines or wait for the US or other external powers to take the lead.[4]

The UAE’s objectives also partially reflect its national security considerations and rational response to the regional geo-political environment. By signing what has been labeled as the “Abraham Accord,” the UAE has made an effort to assume charge of Arab diplomacy to better manage regional security interests at a time of uncertain American intentions, Iranian belligerence, and Turkey’s regional hegemonic ambitions.

The UAE has also realized that Washington’s strategy for the Middle East is increasingly built on allowing regional players to take the lead as responsible actors to ensure security and facilitate economic development. As the UAE has taken a leading regional role, Abu Dhabi’s actions have much less to do with Israel specifically than with efforts to try and manage a precarious regional security situation, which requires a delicate balancing act to stave off pressures from Iran, Turkey, and extremist movements.[5]

The UAE’s approach contrasts with others in the region who continue to manipulate the Israel-Palestine dispute to benefit their agendas. For instance, Turkey, and specifically its ambitious populist leader, President Recep Erdogan, has sought to exploit Palestinian grievances to appeal to the broader Muslim sensibilities of Arab publics and also back Islamist forces, in particular those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood that are seen as partners of the Turks (and proxies to Qatar).

In contrast, the UAE has never believed that Israel has posed an existential threat to its core national interests. The Islamic Republic of Iran, by contrast, is certainly seen by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain as presenting such a threat, a view that is likewise shared by Israel.[6]

An American angle: Obtaining access and respect

By reaching an agreement with Israel, the UAE also perceives an opportunity to enhance its standing ahead of the November 2020 election in the United States through a move that would bolster strong bipartisan support for the country. Hence, “the UAE’s new diplomatic relationship with Israel”, according to Barbara Leaf, the US ambassador to the UAE between 2014 and 2018, “[is] warmly welcomed by Republicans and Democrats, [and] has increased its value exponentially as a US partner in the region.”[7]

The UAE has long sought more advanced weapons from the United States and. After years of American refusals to the sale and transfer of the most advanced US weaponry such as Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fifth-generation fighter jets, the change in position is linked to the diplomatic initiative. Of course, the UAE has also acquired state-of-the-art military technology from various international allies such as France, Germany, Russia and China. Nevertheless, this agreement will undoubtedly help the UAE overcome the long-standing objections to weapons sales based on the United States’ commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military advantage. In turn, Israel is likely to soften its policy on weapons exports to the Gulf states as well as its attempts to restrict sales of advanced US weapons to the Gulf states, in part as a signal that it sees the UAE as a potential partner rather than a threat.[8]

Economics of normalization

For the UAE, the Abraham Accord is far-reaching and includes cooperation in trade, tourism, and on a vaccine for Covid-19 as a matter of priority. With the ongoing pandemic hitting economies across the region, officials in Israel and the UAE may hope that a path toward normalization of ties can bring an economic dividend, with sectors such as medical technology and renewable energy that could quickly benefit. Reports suggest that Israeli business and financial interests hope to see bilateral trade volumes with the UAE and Bahrain grow to as much as US$ 6.5 billion in the future.[9]

The fact that the agreement’s focus is also on trade development will strengthen relations between the UAE and Israel. Israeli banks and airlines are already expressing interest in potential investment opportunities in the Arabian Gulf region.[10] Collaboration and joint projects in health, medicine, and private sector engagement and increased tourism will lead to mutually beneficial economic gains.

In particular, medical tourism and Israeli expertise on desalination and irrigation technologies could also prove beneficial to the UAE. The UAE will also be interested in Israeli cybersecurity, surveillance, and military technologies and partner with Israeli tech companies in developing those systems. As major new markets will open up, increasing commercial opportunities with Palestinian businesses may also present themselves.

Conclusion

The normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel is an imaginative diplomatic initiative that offers new regional alignments and a solution to the Israel-Palestine dispute. The latter factor, and mutual security interests in the face of a range of regional threats, explains the UAE’s policy in this context. The agreement also represents Abu Dhabi’s willingness to take a leading regional role and build on its existing international prestige through the encouragement of moderation and tolerance.

The economic opportunities offered by the accords between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain are also a factor that will help to strengthen ties, given that trade enhances predictability and lessens the potential for rivalry and conflict. Given the new situation established by these agreements, it is to be hoped that all the parties will seize this opening to strengthen regional security and resolve a seven-decades-old dispute through a viable solution that guarantees peace and prosperity.


REFERENCES

[1] The Atlantic Council. 2020. “Will US-brokered agreement between UAE and Israel be a game changer?” https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/will-us-brokered-agreement-between-uae-and-israel-be-a-regional-gamechanger/

[2] Cook, S. 2020. “What’s behind the New Israel-UAE Peace Deal?” Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/whats-behind-new-israel-uae-peace-deal.

[3] Fahy, J. 2018. “The International Politics of Tolerance in the Persian Gulf.” Religion, State & Society, 46(4), 311-327

[4] Bianco, C. and Lovatt, H. 2020. “Israel-UAE peace deal: Flipping the Regional Order in the Middle East,” European Council on Foreign Relations,

https://www.ecfr.eu/article/commentary_israel_uae_peace_deal_flipping_the_regional_order_of_the_middle

[5] Katzman, K. 2019. The United Arab Emirates (UAE): Issues for US Policy. Congressional Research Service. Washington, DC., p. 8-12

[6] Vakil, S. 2018. Iran and the GCC. Hedging, Pragmatism and Opportunism. Chatham House., p. 9-13

[7] The Atlantic Council. 2020. “Will US-brokered agreement between UAE and Israel be a game changer?” https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/will-us-brokered-agreement-between-uae-and-israel-be-a-regional-gamechanger/

[8] Cook, S. 2020. “What’s behind the New Israel-UAE Peace Deal?” Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/whats-behind-new-israel-uae-peace-deal.

[9] Bloomberg. 2020. “Israel Sees $6.5 Billion in Trade as UAE Peace Talks Start,” https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-31/israel-sees-6-5-billion-in-trade-as-uae-peace-talks-kick-off.

[10] Financial Times. 2020. “Israel expects $500m in deals with Bahrain and UAE,” https://www.ft.com/content/d554cc7c-5c49-46dd-ae2b-fb1bbc74a117.

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