The UAE and Israel: Exploring the Logics of Engagement

Dr David Roberts, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

On Thursday 13th August, after trilateral discussions, President Trump announced a “full normalization of relations” between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel. This makes the UAE only the third Arab country to break the boycott of Israel (alongside Egypt in 1970 and Jordan in 1994). The UAE recognized Israel in return for an apparent halt to Israel’s plans to annex further Palestinian parts of the West Bank.

For the Gulf monarchies, this deal is significant, but not hugely surprising coming as the logical extension of a trend of increasing Gulf-Israel relations. However, in terms of regional politics, it is far more impactful. Breaking the Arab boycott of Israel for the first time in a quarter of a century and inverting the long-held premise of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations of ‘land for peace’ to merely ‘peace for peace,’ is a bold and controversial unilateral move for the UAE to take.

Why engage?

Four overarching rationales, and one key impediment, explain the ebb and flow in relations between the Gulf monarchies and Israel.

First, sometimes disparate states are united against a common enemy. This explains Israel’s unusually close relations with Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran in the 1980s, both united in their fear and loathing of Iraq. It also animated the first Israeli-Gulf engagements in

the late-1960s and 1970s when Israel helped the nascent Omani state counter threats in bordering Yemen and in the Omani civil war in Dhofar. As well as limited air-dropped munitions, supplies, and logistical support, Israeli-designed water irrigation plants were used in Oman. Israel aided Oman as a part of a wider Cold War conflict against the expansionist, aggressive approach of Egypt’s President Nasser, whose forces were deeply involved in the Yemeni conflict.

This rationale is of prime importance to the UAE’s recent engagement and recognition. Both the UAE and Israel are profoundly troubled by what they fear are potentially existential threats posed by Iran and politicized Islam. Coordination of the containment and roll-back of these interlinked threats will surely expand apace. 

Second, some monarchies judge the blanket confrontational nature of Arab-Israeli engagement to be unproductive and seek another approach. This was evidenced by Oman and Qatar whose leaderships took advantage of the Arab-Israeli détente in the 1990s to open Israeli trade offices and host a range of visits from senior Israeli politicians. Today, the UAE arguably sees the status quo as lamentable, Palestinian leadership as ineffectual relics, and peace an improbable prospect. Such conclusions warrant, this logic runs, another approach to the hostility that has led to decades of dead ends for Palestinians. 

Third, demonstrating utility to the US as a progressive and helpful regional ally is a long evidenced trope among Gulf monarchies. This is a key reason Qatar developed close relations with Hamas, the central political actor in Gaza. Such relations have long been praised by the Israelis (and thus are also beneficial for the US too) as an important factor in dealing with the ‘devil you know.’

This logic likely contributes to the UAE’s normalization decision. Indeed, this policy is a masterstroke for the UAE position in Washington DC. It helps President Trump burnish his image and record as he can claim he oversaw a symbolically important breakthrough in Middle East peace during a difficult election season. Given that the US is widely perceived to be critical to the ultimate security of the monarchies, constantly topping up credit in the US bank with a transactional leader like Trump might even directly allow the UAE access to arms otherwise out of its reach. Moreover, this is a bipartisan policy move for the UAE that also finds favour with Presidential candidate Biden.

Fourth, there can be real benefit trading and dealing with Israel. Oman found this with water technology. In similar fields, as well as in the security sphere, there is considerable benefit to be accrued by the UAE in developing ever more open links with Israel’s often world-leading companies.

The impediment

This is a historic move in the Arab world and demonstrates the UAE’s regional leadership that will resonate positively, as least in some domestic circles. Moreover, facilitating UAE citizens’ access (as the only Gulf nationals) to one of Islam’s holiest places, the Al Aqsa Mosque, would be a seismic PR win.

But issues abound. The core impediment historically to engagement with Israel is the widespread belief that such normalization is deeply unpopular among Arab citizenry. So far, as expected, angry Twitter hashtags (“Normalization is treason”) intimate some level of disquiet. But there is no reliable data to draw on to ascertain how broad or truly important such sentiments are. A cautious initial conclusion suggests that wider conciliatory movements towards Israel, strongly courted doubtless by both the UAE and President Trump, remain challengingly outside the Overton Window of politically accepted policies among most mainstream Arab populations. The UAE government offers, after all, an unusually generous socio-political bargain and, though citizens are far from pawns denuded of influence, elites clearly enjoy relatively unhampered decision-making abilities.

It seems likely that Saudi Arabia, a state whose identity is entirely bound up as a leader of Islam, would struggle to normalize relations without an obvious benefit for Palestinians (nor would it want to so clearly follow a smaller state like the UAE). Oman officially welcomed the news, as did Bahrain. But such reactions fit with the wider tenor of cautious encouragement of Israeli relations, and by no means indicate an immediate policy change. 

This deal will put pressure on the UAE to prove that its taboo-breaking approach ultimately benefits Palestinians. Thus far, the lack of coordination with Palestinian leaders undercuts their authority, while the promise of normalization were Israel to negotiate has been undercut. Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear that existing approaches, inherently tied to non-recognition, have consistently and miserably failed to alleviate the plight of the Palestinians. This policy is neither the death knell of a solution in waiting, nor a panacea, it rather represents something new in a staid dynamic.

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