The UAE-Israel Accord Signals Changing Strategic Orientation of Arab Gulf States

The UAE and the Jewish State have been unofficially cultivating increasingly more robust relations over the past decade. Sources: My Jewish Learning & International Atomic Energy Agency.

In a surprise announcement on 13th August 2020, US President Donald Trump unveiled the Abraham Accord, a comprehensive deal normalising relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel. This accord is the most significant breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations since the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty in 1994. This historic agreement will be signed in the coming weeks in a ceremony at the White House, and as of this writing, many of the fine details are still forthcoming. 

Trump’s announcement, while unanticipated, is not a complete shock; Israel has been known to maintain covert ties with a number of Arab states on shared security and intelligence interests for decades. Even so, the present agreement reflects the changing geopolitical landscape of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf region. Ultimately, this deal represents a historic shift in the strategic objectives of the Emirati regime in which the threat of Iranian aggression has superseded the principle of pan-Arab solidarity united around the Palestinian cause.

For any Arab or Muslim State thinking of normalising ties with Israel, the potential for acute domestic fallout over such a move cannot not be understated. The UAE, home to a sizable Palestinian diaspora and ruled by a traditional Islamic monarchy, is no exception to this general observation.  However, notwithstanding the longstanding Arab states’ support for the Palestinian cause at the expense of developing overt ties with Israel, the UAE and the Jewish State have been unofficially cultivating increasingly more robust relations over the past decade.

For instance, in October 2018, Miri Regev, then-Minister of Culture and Sports, visited the UAE, making it the first-ever state visit of an Israeli official to the country. The Emirati side too relaxed the ban on Israeli athletes from competing in Arab-hosted competitions and has been tolerant of a budding Jewish community in Dubai; both testify to warming public ties. In the light of last week’s events, these successive milestones in Israeli-Emirati rapprochement can be interpreted as the regime’s attempt to “test the waters” and accustom the Emirati public to the idea of official Arab-Israeli ties. Openly announcing relations with Israel was once unequivocally anathema for a Gulf State; its prospect has been gradually introduced to an otherwise unreceptive public through this series of diplomatic gestures and culminated into last week’s accord.

Thanks to a changing regional landscape the UAE has had to reverse its long-standing national policy of hinging normal relations with Israel on a just resolution of the Palestinian issue. This reversal was partly motivated by the fact that the Emirati ruling class is answerable neither to a voting public nor a critical civil society. Particularly on matters of defence and national foreign policy, it is a trusted and limited inner circle enjoying the trust of Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed that takes all the high-level government decisions.

Structurally, the UAE, like other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is a monarchy awash in petrodollars. Some analysts categorize the UAE and its GCC counterparts as rentier states par excellence i.e. states deriving substantial part of their revenues from exporting one prominent resource (here, oil); such countries can easily offset the domestic fallout of an unpopular policy by providing tax-breaks, economic benefits and personal favours to their    privileged and limited class of native citizens.

Indeed, a number of regional developments have influenced the UAE’s decision to officialise ties with Israel and are likely to influence calculations of other states in the Gulf region, too. With US President Trump withdrawing from the JCPOA nuclear deal in 2018 and shadow wars between Washington and Tehran escalating, the UAE and its GCC allies have begun perceiving the Iranian threat with a newfound urgency and seriousness. Iran is pursuing a policy of strategic encirclement of the Arabian Peninsula through supporting Houthi rebels in Yemen, penetrating militarily and politically in Iraq and building an asymmetric naval response in the Persian Gulf.

In fact, the UAE’s leadership has calculated that the looming threat of Iranian aggression outweighs the possible backlash at this (UAE-Israeli) diplomatic coup at home and in regional conclaves such as GCC and the Arab League. In an attempt to counter Iran’s regional ambitions, the UAE has begun to flex its own muscles as an emerging local power-player. Its involvement in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen from 2015-2020, and a recent push to re-establish ties with Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria, signal its willingness and capability to contest Iran’s influence in important Arab states on the Gulf’s periphery. 

This shared concern over Iran’s spreading regional footprint is the keystone of the Emirati-Israeli normalisation. Both states, despite differences, regard Iran and her Shi’a proxy allies as an existential threat. For decades now, the Israeli-American special alliance has served as the bulwark against Iranian influence in the region. The GCC, in addition to its economic and political functions, also acts as a collective security arrangement for the Gulf states in response to the same threat. Given that the UAE largely shares its cultural, political, and strategic worldview with other GCC members, we can reasonably anticipate these like-minded states to develop a similar pragmatic pivot towards Israel in the future. 

In a broader sense, the Abraham Accord thus represents the interlinking of Israeli and GCC grand strategy in the Middle East, facilitated by the assurance of American military power and diplomatic mediation. When it comes to strategic balancing in the Middle East, we may therefore view the UAE-Israel accord as the “joining of forces” between two small states backed by the guarantee of American power, both sharing the objective of resisting an aspiring regional hegemon (Iran).   

This does not mean that the Palestinian issue has disappeared from the UAE’s or the GCC’s agenda. The Palestinian question continues to have symbolic and emotional importance for Arab states, however an interest-based approach to policy and diplomacy has prioritized the shared strategic need and objective of a united regional front against Iran. By this logic, the UAE is not necessarily alone; Bahrain, with a restive Shi’a minority, and Oman, which straddles the southern entrance to the Straits of Hormuz, are two states most likely to follow the UAE’s path in the near future.

It is too early to tell whether this announcement is a historic breakthrough or a mere diplomatic blip. But when viewed through the lens of power politics, Israel, the UAE, and the entire GCC stand to gain from deepening overt relations in response to a shared regional threat. 

Jacob Zucker

Jacob Zucker is a graduate from Princeton University and has served in the Israeli Defence Forces in the Paratrooper Brigade. He continues to participate in reserves. He is currently pursuing Masters' in Security & Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University.

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The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.

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