Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have signed a historic agreement which makes the Emirates only the third Arab state to recognise Israel after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
As part of the deal, dubbed the Abraham Accord, Israel has suspended highly controversial plans to annex the West Bank. But it has been viewed as a treacherous betrayal by many Palestinians.
For the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the normalisation of diplomatic ties between the two countries is hugely symbolic, leaving him as one of only three Israeli leaders to have brokered a peace agreement with an Arab state. Since the deal was signed on August 13, a flurry of activity has already taken place, both building on existing ties as well as opening up new economic opportunities heralded by many in Israel and the Emirates.
But though some have described the accord as a “geopolitical earthquake”, the reality is that it changes very little.
Despite Palestinian anger, the Emirati decision to sign the accord has been met with a collective shrug from most states in the region, perhaps reflecting the shifting sands of regional security in recent years. Some Arab states may even be pleased at the deal, and Israel’s withdrawal of its threat to annex the West Bank.
This apathy is not surprising. In late 2017, the Trump administration recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In previous years, this would have prompted widespread protest and strong rebukes from leaders in the region, yet there was little by way of criticism.
Looking back, it’s clear why the Trump administration, particularly the president’s son-in-law and aide Jared Kushner, portrayed the recognition of Jerusalem as a symbolic step in their broader efforts to cultivate a realignment in the Middle East, in which Israel and the UAE have increasingly found themselves on the same side.
A common enemy
Clandestine relations between Israel, the UAE and Gulf Arab states have existed for decades – driven by shared security concerns about Iran. But in recent years an informal normalisation between Israel and these states has also taken place through cultural, political and economic exchanges – perhaps most visibly in an Israeli invitation to the 2020 Dubai Expo.
Although relations had improved from the 1990s, they picked up pace with the emergence of Iran as a common enemy. The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been at the forefront of regional politics since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Although the two countries experienced an apparent period of rapprochement in the decade before the US-led War on Terror, the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq opened up a new front in their rivalry.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq, Iranian actions in the region became increasingly belligerent, much to the chagrin of Gulf Arab leaders and their Israeli counterparts. During the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad between 2005-13, rhetoric from Gulf rulers often matched that of Israel in calls for strikes against Iran.
Israel fought a war with an Arab group, Hezbollah, as recently as 2006, and continues to exert control over Palestinian territory. But the shift brought by the formalisation of ties between the UAE and Israel has sacrificed some Palestinian grievances on the altar of realpolitik.
Alliances have long been burgeoning between the Gulf monarchies and Israel. The WikiLeaks cables revealed that in 2006, King Hamad of Bahrain spoke of the need for “real peace” with Israel so “we can all face Iran”. The new Israel-UAE agreement will do little to change the construction of this alliance against Iran, but it could open up broader intra-Sunni rivalries in the region, most notably with Turkey. Ankara has begun to play a more assertive role in regional politics and is increasingly positioning itself on the other side of issues to Israel and the UAE, notably in Libya.
No expectations for Saudi Arabia
Many expect Bahrain, Morocco and Oman to follow the Emirati lead but don’t expect Saudi Arabia follow suit quite yet. This is despite claims by Kushner that it would be “very good” for Saudi Arabia to normalise relations with Israel.
Unlike the UAE, the Saudi state derives a great deal of its legitimacy from being the protectors of Muslims across the world. The Palestinian cause has occupied a central, if superficial, role in the kingdom’s regional activity since before the establishment of the state of Israel. This has not stopped Saudi Arabia from engaging with Israel in a clandestine manner – but broader engagement will not be forthcoming until there is a peace accord with the Palestinians.
This points to perhaps the most serious tension across the region – between rulers and ruled. While rulers may be open to formal relations with Israel, there remains a widespread perception among people in the region that it is Israel, and not Iran, which poses the greater threat to regional security.
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing political, social and economic pressures across the Middle East. With these tensions straining relations between rulers and ruled, it’s likely that many rulers will be cautious about following the Emirati lead, out of fear that it may provoke unrest at home.