Across the world, the August agreement between the UAE and Israel, signed in September in Washington, to normalize their bilateral relations has been hailed as revolutionary. Certainly, it is a diplomatic triumph for the administration of US President Donald Trump which, in the face of criticism, continued with its “Deal of a Century” settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite its absolute rejection by all Palestinian parties. Then, Trump’s son-in-law and special advisor on Middle Eastern affairs Jared Kushner continued to claim that like-minded Arab states would seek to cooperate with the Israelis, support the administration’s proposal, and ultimately normalize their relations with Israel.
Now, that the UAE has agreed to just that, Kushner has certainly been vindicated. Already the UAE’s decision has precipitated Bahrain’s normalization of relations with Israel with Oman likely to follow. But was this as decisive a decision as Abu Dhabi has led many to believe? Supposedly, the UAE finally agreed to normalize its bilateral relations with Israel as the first Arab country to do so since the Oslo Accords in order to halt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex the West Bank and specifically the western banks of the Jordan Valley. However, that later claim that the UAE somehow prevented annexation seems unlikely to have been a real motivation, and rather a means of justifying the UAE’s decision as acting on the behalf of the Palestinians. In fact, Netanyahu quickly responded to criticism by Israeli settler groups of the deal declaring that annexation remains on the table, clearly negating this as a possible justification by the UAE for normalization. In fact, recent reporting suggests the US only promised the UAE it would not support unilateral annexation until 2024, only long enough for the UAE to save face.
There are better theories that explain the UAE’s normalization than the looming West Bank annexation. Over the past few weeks many have argued that this is just the next logical step by the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) an organization of six oil-rich Sunni Arab monarchies, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to ally with Israel and deter the mutual threat of Iran. Indeed, the United States has openly supported the creation of an “Arab NATO” that would align the Sunni Arab states and Israel against Iran’s “Shia Crescent” of allied militias and states across the Levant. Iran and its ally in the Lebanese Hezbollah are staunch advocates of the Palestinian cause and military and financial allies of the Gaza based Hamas. Yet, the UAE in particular has always taken a more conciliatory stance towards Iranian expansionism, as demonstrated by its overtures to Tehran as tensions heated up in the Persian Gulf region over the safe passage of oil tankers in the summer of 2019.
Others have pointed out (more convincingly) that this is about deterring Turkey. Both the UAE and Israel now feel threatened by Turkey’s projection of power across the Middle East’s maritime environs. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, Turkey has become a close ally of the UAE’s arch-nemesis Qatar, and deployed thousands of troops to defend the microstate after Saudi Arabia and the UAE blockaded it in 2017. Recently, Turkey is now facing off against a coalition of Greece, (Greek) Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and France in the Eastern Mediterranean as it looks to secure its own zone of military and economic influence in the region. It has also intervened directly in the Libyan Civil War, saving the Tripoli based government from the warlord General Khalifa Haftar and his Russian, French, Egyptian, and UAE backed forces. Moreover, Turkey is now fast becoming the leading advocate for the Palestinian cause in the Sunni Muslim world, a role that has worried Israeli policymakers for some time.
Yet, the UAE’s security collaboration with Israel (let alone Saudi Arabia’s) is well documented to have been occurring covertly for some time now. Israel’s intelligence services have cooperated with the UAE in Syria, Libya, and now Sudan. Infamously, the UAE hired ex-Israeli and American special forces operatives to assassinate its opponents in the Yemeni Islah Party, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and the two states may have a joint intelligence base on the Yemeni island of Socotra. Emirati diplomats are in close collaboration with pro-Israel think tanks and lobbyists in Washington, and the UAE (along with Saudi Arabia)personally pressured Palestinian factions to support the US “Deal of a Century” –and that is only what is public. So, is this decision so surprising or shocking?
A simple metaphor is useful. If two lovers sneak off together every night for months, is anyone surprised when they announce their engagement? Not especially. The UAE and many other Arab-Muslim nations have flirted with recognizing Israel for years, if not decades. Initially, support for the Palestinian cause was an enticing prospect to unite Arab countries morally and politically in the quest for Palestinian liberation and resistance to the West. But the power and prestige invested in any country that could lead the Arab World by taking upon itself the mantle of defender of Palestine quickly evaporated with the end of the Arab Cold War and the beginning of the Oslo Peace process. Now, the mantle of “peacemaker” is more profitable and more powerful for any country in the Arab World seeking to lead the reshaped post-Arab Spring Middle East.
A Cause Abandoned Long Ago
Frankly, it is the Egyptian decision to normalize relations with Israel that began this inevitable trend in the Arab World. After watching its military destroyed in detail and the Sinai Peninsula occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat rebuilt his nation’s armed forces and fought the Israelis to the negotiating table in 1973. Once Egypt agreed to the Camp David Accords, that year the most capable advocate for the Palestinian cause was removed from the game. The Palestinians were also expelled from Jordan in 1971 during the events of Black September into Lebanon, where they were received not with open arms. Internationally, without Egypt, the only possible defenders of Palestine left were Iraq and Syria.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein took upon this role with relish, but instead of using Palestine to rally the other Arab states, its invasion of Kuwait left Iraq devastated and isolated by American bombings and sanctions. The fall of Saddam in 2003 and the collapse of the country into civil war ended its role as a patron of the Palestinians. Finally, Syria under the then youthful President Bashar al-Assad was the only major supporter of the Palestinians left standing, and it soon became the external location for the Hamas political bureau, that is, until the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.The explosion of Syria into a sectarian conflict split both the nation and the Palestinians between pro-Assad nationalists and leftists in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and pro-opposition Islamists in Hamas. With Syria devastated and now an international pariah, Palestinians were left without a leading Arab state to take on their cause.
With the Iraq and the Levant in ruin, the Palestinians turned towards the GCC. The GCC has always offered an economic lifeline to Palestinian parties and militant organizations, both overtly and covertly, in their resistance struggle against the Israelis. This is not to mention the millions in remittances sent back to Palestine by diaspora workers in Kuwait, Riyadh, Doha, and Dubai sent back home to those living in Gaza and the West Bank. In the 1970’s Saudi Arabia in particular rallied the Islamic World to support the Palestinian cause after the al-Aqsa mosque fire, when a Jewish extremist attempted to burn down the Muslim holy site in Jerusalem. Then, the inveterate anti-communist King Fahad led Muslim countries from across the world to form the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1978, dedicated firstly to the support of the Palestinians and the preservation of the al-Aqsa Mosque, and other Islamic causes more broadly.
But despite this support, the GCC states have always been a natural partner of Israel. A collection of small states, if not micro-states, threatened by larger powers on every side, the impetus for normalization with Israel has always existed. Just consider the entire citizen population of the GCC (thus not including foreign guest-workers) is on par with that of pre-civil war Yemen at approximately 26 million people. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the kingdoms of the Persian Gulf have relied heavily on external powers, like the United States, Great Britain, the Shah’s Iran, and even Pakistan, in order to provide for their national defense and the protection of their oil and gas reserves. The list of threats is long, and includes at various times, the Soviet Union, Egypt, Iraq, South Yemen, Syria, and since 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose regional power and ambition to dominate would lead to the creation of the GCC in 1981.
Moreover, the economic impetus for normalization remains strong, especially as the world faces the possibility of permanently low oil prices. As such, all of the GCC states are facing the difficult question of how to diversify their oil and gas economies. Although GCC states like Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE now rely more on the income generated from investing their oil and gas revenues abroad rather than the extraction of natural resources itself, the GCC nations’ best hope for diversification lies in the development of high technology sectors. Such industries can utilize their small affluent societies and provide employment for a well-educated youth population. Israel, as a technology leader and with a robust financial sector, offers to be a strong economic partner of the GCC states, that is if they commit to normalization, and abandon the Palestinians.
A Battle for Prestige
Hence the practical rationale of current political normalization has been building up since the 1970’s, but why has the UAE in particular chosen this path? The answer is not in Abu Dhabi but Doha. In the 1990’s a new phenomenon emerged in the Middle East with the rise of Qatar. In 1991 Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani overthrew his father to become the county’s emir. Al-Thani looked to assert Qatar as the first of the smaller GCC states with a foreign policy in the region independent of its larger neighbor Saudi Arabia. With a population of little more than a quarter-of-a-million citizens, Qatar could not deploy the military implements of its national power to gain influence and prestige.
Instead, Qatar used its financial wealth to raise its stature as a regional peacemaker. It mediated conflicts between local actors and nation states in Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea, and Libya, and famously offered the Taliban an “embassy” in Doha, at America’s request, to begin peace talks in 2014. Most of all, Qatar quickly provided US Central Command the al-Udeid airbase in 1996 to maintain thousands of forces in the region after the post-Gulf War withdrawal from Saudi Arabia. Notably, Qatar was also the first Arab Gulf state to begin normalizing its relationship with Israel when it opened a trade office in Doha in 1994, although it was soon closed with the al-Aqsa Intifada. Instead, it captured the 1990’s explosion in Arab media with the state-supported Aljazeera network, and later the political tsunami of the Arab Spring by allying and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and associated Islamist political forces across the region.
In this sense, the UAE is really playing catch up to its regional competitor Qatar. In the 1990’s the UAE, like Bahrain today, closely followed the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia. This was since the UAE, as a small confederation of seven rival states, was historically threatened by its larger neighbor. From 1952-1955 Saudi attempts to assert their control over the oil rich Buraimi Oasis led the British to militarily intervene to secure the borders of the Trucial States (now the UAE) and Oman. This border dispute would last after the British withdrawal from its engagements East of Suez and the independence of the UAE in 1971. Although the two countries concluded a treaty in 1974, it was never confirmed until 1995, and never completely ratified by the UAE.But the UAE still looked to placate Saudi Arabia by following its foreign policy leadership. For example, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia and regional states Pakistan and Turkmenistan as the only countries to ever recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 1996.
However, the development of the UAE into the modern financial center it is today began to change this historic power dynamic. The UAE first began asserting its independence with the expansion of Dubai into an international center of business and commerce, but while the emirate of Dubai grew to become an internationally respected state let in its own right, the UAE’s largest emirate, Abu Dhabi, was overshadowed by its gaudier, although less economically stable sister. As much as UAE foreign policy is national, it still remains a hotly contested union of microstates.
This changed with the rise of Abu Dhabi’s influential crown prince Muhammad bin Zayed, the infamous “MBZ.” Prince Zayed attempted to raise the stature of Abu Dhabi using the political and military tools under the control of Abu Dhabi as the state chiefly responsible for the governance, administration, and foreign policy of the UAE. He quickly brought the UAE in as a major leader and financer of the Arab counterrevolutions against the 2011 Arab Spring, bankrolling the government of President Abdul Fatah el-Sisi in Egypt, and anti-Islamist parties and forces from Mauritania to Jordan, along with Saudi Arabia and its ally Bahrain.
The war on the Muslim Brotherhood is both a personal crusade by MBZ and an attempt to undercut Qatar’s regional sphere of influence. The UAE has always felt al-Udeid would be better located in their country and was particularly incensed after it was passed up by the US to host the Taliban “embassy.”Yet, the UAE has had success in denting Qatar’s influence. Not only did it remove Qatari allies from power across the region, it has successfully raised the suspicion in Washington of Qatar as a state-sponsor of terrorism in the region and as a destabilizing force. This attempt to weaken Qatar’s influence in the region culminated in the UAE and Saudi Arabia leading a coalition of states to blockade Qatar in summer 2017 unless it agreed to abandon its independent foreign policy, including the Aljazeera network and its location as a haven for Hamas. While Qatar has survived the blockade, the UAE did succeed in dislodging its position as a regional power.
What has changed in the past three years is that the UAE has begun to strike out and pursue its own foreign policy goals separate from that of Saudi Arabia. Although the UAE originally entered the war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels as another ally of Saudi Arabia, it quickly looked to carve out its own sphere of influence. Beginning by reemphasizing historic ties with the tribes of South Yemen, it came to patronize and support the South Yemen separatists that provided the UAE an ally but undermined Saudi Arabia’s support of the internationally recognized government of President Abdul Mansour Hadi. In fact, the UAE’s support for the dramatic rise of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) is itself a sign of the UAE’s outsized diplomatic influence over the kingdom and the changing nature of their bilateral relationship.
Moreover, the UAE took the unprecedented step of deploying its own military forces to obtain its strategic objectives. The UAE suffered a relatively large amount of battlefield casualties in Yemen that helped united the country around a national cause and propelled the further modernization of the armed forces, with the support of western officers and American and Israeli security firms. It also allowed Abu Dhabi to bring the other emirates in line behind its policies, exiling opposition princes, and thus bringing the country closer towards internal political unity. Now a veritable nation in war, deploying forces, cultivating allies, and building bases in Yemen allowed the UAE to construct its own, distinct security architecture to control the Yemeni coast, the port of Aden, and the strategic island of Socotra that commands the entrance of the Bab el-Mandab strait. In addition, it has looked to construct bases and invest in strategic ports along the East African coast in the port of Berbera in Somaliland, and Bosaso in Puntland, and has shown interest in acquiring the management of Massawa and Assab in Eritrea for Dubai Ports World.
A New Leader?
After consolidating its position in the Arabian Peninsula, the UAE has moved up one more logical step to try to become a regional power. Although its military forces are probably the most professional in the GCC, the UAE is still too small to compete militarily with the likes of Turkey let alone Iran. This became all too clear when tensions exploded in the Persian Gulf in Sumer 2019 between Iran and the US after Iran began targeting international shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and possibly coordinated a missile attack with the Houthis on a Saudi oil-refinery that cut the kingdom’s oil production in half. Among the incidents was a most-likely Iranian bombing in May on tankers stationed at the major Emirati port of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. After this direct threat to its critical infrastructure, the UAE quickly dropped its aggressive rhetoric towards the Iranians and secretly sent its national security advisor to Tehran. The UAE is still a microstate, Abu Dhabi, let alone Dubai, would not survive a regional war as any larger country could. Thus, the maritime tensions of 2019 were as a rude awakening to the UAE as the blockade of 2017 was to Qatar.
It is in part and for this reason that the UAE has now scaled back its aggressive military deployments. It now looksto displace Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman for the favor of the United States as a regional “peacemaker.” Therefore, the UAE has billed itself as America’s greatest ally in the region as a patron of “Moderate Islam.” It has cultivated a diverse group of supportive Muslim scholars internationally whose unifying theme is a generic message of tolerance. The UAE has also implicitly contrasted itself with the “Qatari” or “Turkish” Islam as political and “Saudi Wahhabi Islam” as ultra-conservative. Of course, this is political semantics, intellectually all modern Sunnism in the Persian Gulf region derives from a similar (Wahhabi) source.
Regardless, the UAE has received international acclaim for this Islamic role around the world. It has been recognized for its leadership in the Muslim world by the likes of former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and, importantly, Pope Francis. The later conducted the first papal mass ever to Christian migrant workers in the Arabian Peninsula in 2019. The UAE has further leaned into the image as a “tolerant” country domestically through a “Ministry of Tolerance” and the construction of the first Hindu, Sikh, and Mormon temples in the Middle East. It has leveraged this image bilaterally to develop bilateral ties with China, India, and now with Israel.
Therefore, the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel is the logical conclusion of that groundwork built over the past few years. Normalization allows the UAE to unambiguously and unilaterally claim its role as a leader in the Middle East and moreover the Islamic World. It can position itself to be a bridge between the United States, the West, and other Arab Muslim countries, by demonstrating a vision of peace, cooperation, and harmony between all religions. It fits well into its narrative as a collection of cosmopolitan, high-technology city states. It’s the culmination of its regional ambitions, and probably signals its new hopes to escape the Earth and explore space.
In other words, there was nothing surprising about the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel. The only question that remains is “Will it matter?” Even if every state in the world recognizes Israel, it is unlikely the Arab Muslim street will ever totally abandon the Palestinian cause. The UAE may be part of a diplomatic coup that will sustain its rising international status, but as long as Muslim populations themselves remain committed to the Palestinian cause it will not disappear. It remains to be seen whether the “Deal of the Century” can change that fact.
As for the UAE’s regional ambitions, it still remains a small state. The UAE has effectively used the diplomatic tools at its disposal to become a regional power in the Persian Gulf region. But there is little precedent in history for small states outliving large empires. Many have affectionally called the UAE “Little Sparta” in recognition of its power. But while Sparta may have overcome Athens during the Peloponnesian War, it could never match the power of Macedon. While the UAE’s recognition of Israel may be significant, it is still a small state in a world of some 450 million Arabs and 1.7 billion Muslims. Can it really hope to become the political leader of an entire region in the international system, let alone a civilization?