On September 15, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Israel are celebrated the third anniversary of the Abraham Accords, the U.S.-brokered deal normalizing bilateral diplomatic ties between Tel Aviv and the two Gulf nations after decades of informal interactions and back-channel engagements. Since establishing open diplomatic relations three years ago, joint UAE-Israel cooperation efforts have made remarkable strides in building deep connections at the people-to-people and government-to-government levels.
Although the accords have delivered remarkable achievements in a short period of time, the major diplomatic breakthrough in Israel’s relations with its Arab neighbors since Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty is far from a flawless success story. The Middle East’s shifting geopolitical balance of power—and the Gulf states’ growing concern at Israel’s hard-right turn—have fueled uneasiness in UAE-Israel ties. The post-accords ebbs and flows between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv have shed some light on the normalization deal’s intrinsic limitations, and provided a more accurate and balanced perspective on what the accords could tangibly achieve.
Bitter, Battered Diplomacy
Since Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israel’s latest Prime Minister in December 2022, UAE-Israel public engagements have significantly faltered, particularly when compared to the engagements that occurred under the administration of Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu’s predecessor. The former Israeli PM visited the UAE on three separate occasions, twice in his official capacity as Israel’s head of government and once in late March 2023 as a private citizen. Another heavyweight of Israeli politics, former Prime Minister and current leader of the opposition Yair Lapid, visited Abu Dhabi while serving as Israel’s Foreign Minister. Lapid also recently met with Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Rome.
Although Netanyahu was the principal architect of the accords from the Israeli side during his previous tenure as prime minister, he has struggled to fully cash in the reputational gains of his previous term’s major foreign policy success. Indeed, since the establishment of formal diplomatic ties with the UAE, Netanyahu’s first official trip to the Emirates has been delayed five times. While the UAE’s formal invitation for the Likud leader to attend the world climate summit at Expo City Dubai next November appears to give Netanyahu’s visit a concrete date, it remains to be seen whether or not he will ultimately step foot in the country. Indeed, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who visited the UAE three times in 2022, also received an invitation and might eventually replace Netanyahu as the head of the Israeli delegation.
In the aftermath of the November 2022 Israeli general elections, Emirati concerns about Israel’s government moving sharply towards an ultra-right stance grew larger as numerous polarizing and controversial political figures—notably National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, a Kahanist who was previously convicted of inciting racism against Arabs, and finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has described the presence of Arabs within Israel as a “mistake”—were appointed to the current Netanyahu-led coalition government. In spite of Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s’s sordid history, the UAE initially sought to secure some reassurance by directly reaching out to these far-right political exponents after the government’s formation.
However, Netanyahu’s approach to governing in the months since his election—hawkish measures against the Palestinians and a hardline position on diplomacy with Iran—have made it clear that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s views are the mainstream within the new government, not the exception. For this reason, the UAE has become steadily more vocal in openly expressing its simmering uneasiness about the Netanyahu-led cabinet’s extremist stances. With UAE-Israeli ties notably colder than under the last administration, public high-key interactions have been circumscribed to side talks taking place within the framework of multilateral settings—such as the United Nations—and a few courtesy phone calls between Netanyahu and Emirati President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ).
As long as the current Israeli far-right government—individually through the actions of its ministers or more generally through the state apparatus—continues to put anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab measures front and center in its political agenda, Abu Dhabi is unlikely to give Netanyahu his long sought-after red carpet treatment. Still, the fact that the Emirati and Israeli leaderships have prevented the accords from collapsing despite their glaring divergences has showcased how both countries continue to believe in the mutually beneficial goal of making the normalization deal a fruitful diplomatic asset rather than a cumbersome political liability.
Half Full or Half Empty?
Although high-level contacts between Emirati and Israeli political and business leaders have substantially dropped over the past year, the bilateral tensions have not prevented Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv from consolidating their cooperation and achieving milestone results in key sectors. The signing into effect of the UAE-Israel Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), the joint production of a high-end unmanned surface vessel (USV), and the Abrahamic Family House’s inauguration are typical examples of how the two countries have managed to prioritize pragmatic and mutually beneficial goals over single-issue divisive matters.
Since the first day after the normalization of Israeli-Emirati diplomatic relations, enhancing trade and commercial links has played a central role in the two nations’ strategy to cement bilateral ties. With the lofty ambition of reaching $4 billion in bilateral trade within five years, Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv have actively sought to bolster economic ties between themselves by signing several Memorandums of Understanding defining cooperation protocols and by supporting engagement opportunities between their business communities.
Benefiting from this conducive commercial climate, the Emirati-Israeli trade more than doubled in value in the biennium 2021-2022, rising from $1.22 billion to $2.56 billion. The excellent figures for 2023’s first semester suggest that the trend is ongoing, with the import-export exchange standing at $1.55 billion.
With UAE-Israel trade projected to hit over $3 billion by the year’s end, annual bilateral trade is expected to reach new heights thanks to the CEPA. Initially agreed to in May 2022 and then officially signed into effect in March 2023, the free trade deal represents a pivotal breakthrough in the Emirati-Israeli economic relationship; it significantly loosens trade barriers by reducing or removing tariffs on about 96 per cent of goods traded between the two countries.
While the CEPA has a transformative impact on UAE-Israel economic relations, the tense circumstances of its inception also shed some critical light on the strategies that Emirati and Israeli leaders have used to navigate divergences and crises. The free trade deal came into force during heightened tensions between the two countries; during March alone, the UAE issued no fewer than four critical statements against Israel, attacking Smotrich’s anti-Palestinian incendiary positions and criticizing the Knesset’s decision to pave the way for new settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. The fact that these spats did not torpedo the CEPA speaks volumes about the political will of the two countries’ leadership to compartmentalize rifts when converging benefits are at stake.
Israeli-Emirati cooperation is particularly pronounced in the security realm. In late February, on the opening day of the Naval Defense and Maritime Security Exhibition (NAVDEX2023), a biannual defense systems exhibition held in Abu Dhabi, a brand-new 17-meter USV was fielded for a demonstration in the waters off the UAE’s capital. The USV represents the fruit of a years-long partnership between the EDGE Group, an Emirati defense and advanced technology consortium, and the Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Brought to fruition in record time, the USV’s case displays how the Emiratis and Israelis master both the political resolve and technical capability to operationalize joint initiatives efficiently.
While the UAE and Israel have made steady progress in cultivating profitable business ties and building mutual trust through joint projects and defense procurement deals, these concrete efforts have yet to translate a primarily industry-centric partnership into a fully-fledged strategic partnership. Indeed, although Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv hold similar concerns about Washington’s increasing reluctance to ensure regional security in the Middle East and combat some sources of regional instability, the UAE has expressed a marked reluctance to enter a formal defense alliance with Israel. This is mainly because the two countries share different national strategic priorities, have distinct perceptions of regional threats, and resort to markedly different policy options to cope with regional tensions.
With the UAE aiming to position itself as a leading player in the global defense industry, Abu Dhabi is likely to continue leveraging its special relationship with Tel Aviv to further strengthen its domestic military-industrial complex’s capabilities through technology transfer and export of critical defense knowledge from Israel. However, as long as different strategic logics inform the Emirati and Israeli geopolitical posturing, the UAE will continue to draw a clear distinction between its burgeoning business relations with Israel and a formal alliance, which it regards as a bridge too far.
On February 17, 2023, a multi-religious complex was officially inaugurated at Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi’s cultural and leisure hub. Known as the “Abrahamic Family House,” the site hosts a church, a mosque, and a synagogue within a stone’s throw of each other. Reviving the common Abrahamic roots of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as a beacon of peaceful coexistence, the initiative aims to spread a message of tolerance transcending political cleavages, state borders, and religious differences. A month earlier, the Emirati embassy in Washington announced that the UAE’s Culture and Youth Ministry would adjust curricula for primary and secondary schools to include instruction on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. These initiatives fit neatly into the UAE’s tolerance agenda, a broad set of state-backed measures to position the country at the vanguard of moderate Islam and as a regional bulwark against religious extremism.
While Abu Dhabi has sought to build meaningful interfaith bridges with Tel Aviv, it has also clarified that it will not tolerate Israeli attempts to escalate tension in Islam’s holy sites in East Jerusalem and the occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank. Against the backdrop of Ben-Gvir’s three visits to the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) compound since January 2023, the UAE has repeatedly issued condemnatory statements denouncing the storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard by Jewish nationalists and Israeli security forces and calling Israel’s government to respect the Jordanian custodianship of the holy site and halt the escalation of violence in the West Bank. The UAE’s outcries against increasing Israeli violence also paired with the mobilization of $3 million in financial aid to support reconstruction efforts for the Palestinian town of Hawara.
Frictions in Emirati-Israeli ties are not exclusive to the Netanyahu-led far-right government. Post-accords spats between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi have also occurred due to escalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians in 2021 and 2022. What is different now, though, is that the frequency of these low-intensity discords has reached unprecedented heights in the post-Abraham Accords era, blunting the Emirati public’s initial enthusiasm for the agreement and putting a strain on government-to-government engagements. Ups and downs are a natural component of interstate bilateral ties, but can be particularly dangerous when relations are nascent and countries are still crafting mechanisms to voice dissent and manage conflict peacefully.
As of today, Emirati-Israeli tensions have neither reached a point of no return nor led to a severe diplomatic backlash, showcasing how the Abraham Accords have rapidly turned into a resilient, flexible, and scalable political construct. As prospective new Arab states hold off on joining the Accords due to Israel’s policies, the UAE will likely continue capitalizing on the diplomatic niche offered by the accords to advance its national strategic interests, all while keeping itself at a safe distance from Netanyahu and his ultra-right government.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.