How UAE became a key player in the Middle East


The signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020, through which Bahrain and UAE normalised ties with Israel was a significant development which analysts believed had the potential of altering the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East. In December 2020, Morocco also signed an agreement for normalising relations with Israel, while in January 2021, Sudan followed suit. The 2020 accords which many believed was more about symbolism than substance, drew criticism for ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (the events of May 2021, clearly reiterate this point) and overlooking other complexities of the region.

Hailed by the Biden Administration

The Abraham accords which have been dubbed as one of the significant achievements of the erstwhile Trump Administration were welcomed by Biden (who was then not President) and have been hailed by him and senior officials within his administration repeatedly. Commenting on the Abraham Accords at the one year anniversary, US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken said:‘Today, a year after the Accords and normalization agreements were signed, the benefits continue to grow’.

Israel opened a consulate in UAE in June 2021, while UAE had opened a consulate in Tel Aviv in July 2021.

Abraham accords and UAE-Israel ties

The accords have also given a boost to economic ties between both UAE and Israel ( Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that bilateral trade between both countries had surpassed $ 600 million in June 2021, less than a year after signing of the Abraham Accords). In the past year there has been a significant jump in Israeli tourists visiting UAE (Israel on its part is also trying to woo tourists from the UAE). In October 2021, Foreign Ministers of US, UAE, Israel and India met and discussed potential areas of cooperation – specifically trade, infrastructure, technology and maritime cooperation (this grouping has been dubbed as a new ‘Quad’ in West Asia.

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price while commenting on the thrust of the meeting said that the four countries:

      ‘discussed expanding economic and political cooperation in the Middle East and Asia, including through trade, combating climate change, energy cooperation, and increasing maritime security.’

UAE’s outreach to Iran and its impact on UAE-Israel ties

While improving ties with Israel, UAE has also been reaching out to Iran (economic ties between both countries remained robust even in the midst of tensions). Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a telephonic conversation with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, last month, said that Tehran attached great importance to its ties with UAE and that it was important to give a boost to bilateral economic linkages.

National Security Advisor of UAE, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan led a high profile Emirati delegation to Iran on December 6, 2021 and met with his counterpart, Admiral Ali Shamkhan, the Iranian National Security Adviser as well as the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi and discussed bilateral as well as regional issues. This visit came days after the Vienna talks pertaining to the revival of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) /Iran nuclear deal 2015 had broken down on December 3, 2021 (both US and EU countries had blamed Iran for its rigid approach). Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president said that Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan visit to Iran :

  ‘comes as a continuation of the UAE’s efforts to strengthen bridges of communication and cooperation in the region which would serve the national interest’.

   While the UAE is a key player in the Middle East and could play an important role in talks pertaining to the Iran Nuclear deal, both Israel and the US would be watching the attempts by UAE to reach out to Iran. Many analysts argue that UAE could show lesser interest in getting other Gulf countries to normalize relations with Israel (Saudi Arabia arguably the most influential country in the Arab Gulf has also stated that it could not normalize ties with Israel without a sustainable resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict).

UAE-China-US trilateral

Another important point to bear in mind is that there have been differences between US and UAE after the former alleged that China was building a military installation inside the Khalifa port, not far from Abu Dhabi (UAE’s capital) (this construction was halted after discussions between senior US officials and their UAE counterparts).

UAE shares close strategic ties with the US (the latter has 3,500 of its troops based at Al Dhafra air base which is 30 kilometres from Abu Dhabi), the sale of 50 F35 stealth fighter planes (worth 23 billion USD) has been delayed for a number of reasons — Abu Dhabi’s use of Huawei 5 technology, the presence of China at strategically important points and offer of military technology by Beijing to UAE. The agreement for sale of F35s to UAE had been signed during the Trump Administration.

UAE has the ability to reinvent itself and this has stood it in good stead in the economic sphere, it will now need to recalibrate its foreign policy and keep it in sync with the geopolitical developments in the Middle East (the geopolitical landscape of the region has changed significantly ever since the signing of the Abraham accords). Its biggest regional challenge will be to maintain cordial ties with Israel and Iran, and at a global level ensuring that its strategic ties with the US do not get impacted by its cordial ties with China. In the midst of all the challenges and complexities, UAE could leverage its ties with Iran to reduce tensions between the West and Tehran.

Tridivesh Singh Maini
Tridivesh Singh Maini
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India


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