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The UAE’s Israel-Iran Balancing Act

On December 12, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE), marking the first-ever official visit by an Israeli PM to Abu Dhabi. Although the national media in both countries stressed the economic significance of Bennett’s visit, the fact that he declined to visit the country’s commercial capital, Dubai – currently hosting the “Expo 2020” world’s fair – is indicative of how concerns relating to regional security were the primary motivation guiding his hurried visit to Abu Dhabi. This happened despite Dubai having invited Israel to join the event much before the official normalization occurred.

Bennett’s visit was overshadowed by the ongoing negotiations between Iran, France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China in Vienna, three years after President Trump withdrew the United States from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In addition to its ties with Israel, the UAE’s leadership has also sent overtures to Iran, with Emirati National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon visiting Tehran, and Iran’s top nuclear negotiator visiting Emirati officials in Dubai, all in a span of two weeks. The timing of the visits suggests Bennett’s desperation to prioritize security concerns before economic or cultural cooperation in his maiden visit to the UAE.

Even though Iran, which Israel regards as its primary external threat, topped the agenda of the PM’s visit, the visit’s symbolic meaning cannot be underestimated. Bennett’s trip to Abu Dhabi came several months after the first anniversary of the August 2020 UAE-Israel normalization deal. In the year since the “Abraham Accords” were reached, the two countries’ relationship has solidified; Israel and the UAE have each opened an embassy in Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv, and bilateral trade between the two nations has grown from virtually nil prior to the Accords to $700 million. The deep ties between the two countries belie the notion that the normalization was simply intended to improve the U.S. and Israeli leaders’ chances of re-election, as frequently claimed by skeptics in the West. Bennett’s visit can therefore be understood as evidence that the two nations continue to desire to work together, well after the political novelty of the Accords has faded.

A Common Threat in Iran

The UAE has a more nuanced position with regard to Iran. While Abu Dhabi does not want Iran to possess a nuclear capability, it also does not want a direct confrontation between the West and Iran, fearing the immense possible harm such a conflict would inflict on the UAE’s national security. When Iran fired several missiles at the bases hosting American troops in 2020 in response to the U.S. attack that killed IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, Tehran threatened that if the US retaliated, it would not hesitate to bomb Dubai. That threat likely confused Washington, but provoked serious concern in the UAE.

Moreover, in spite of Abu Dhabi’s implicit support of hawkish rhetoric by Riyadh and Washington, Iran and the UAE share significant economic ties. Iran had invested around $200 billion in the UAE by 2015, and the trade volume between the two was almost $12 billion before the renewal of U.S. sanctions in 2018. Dubai is home to many Iranian businesses, albeit with tighter restrictions placed on those with ties to Iranian regime officials. Early in December 2021, news agencies reported that the U.S. had planned to send a senior delegation to the UAE in order to warn banks and other entities doing business with Iran of the dangers of violating American sanctions.

With such deeply rooted economic, demographic, and geographic relations, the UAE cannot be as willing as Israel or the United States to pursue military action in dealing with Iran. However, while the UAE has signaled that it wants better relations with Iran, the meeting with Israel and its desire to build deep ties can be considered part of its ambivalent stance toward the JCPOA negotiations.

Meeting to Review the Meetings

The UAE-Israel meeting took place after a series of other diplomatic meetings between the UAE and other regional powers. Mohammed bin Zayed’s visit to Turkey, UAE’s National Security Advisor’s visit to Iran, Saudi Crown Prince and de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to other Gulf states, including the UAE, and French President Macron’s visit to the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia were part of a series of high-level meetings in the region that took place at roughly the same time. Even though many of these meetings were about bilateral relations and cooperation, most also dealt with regional development, such as the Iranian nuclear deal. Macron’s agenda points in his Gulf visit, according to press reports, discussed Gulf states’ positions on the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

Before and after Bennett’s visit to the UAE, Israeli and Emirati officials had a chance to review their countries’ stance in regional politics. Because Emiratis have now had the opportunity to meet most of the regional powers in recent months, they are also aware of their individual red lines and expectations regarding Iran. It was also reported that Abu Dhabi’s normalization with the regional powers could give it the ability to mediate regional differences. As Israel’s explicit friend in the Gulf, the UAE can negotiate between Israel and Iran, if only in private.

Abu Dhabi Caught in the Middle

Bennett’s Abu Dhabi-focused meeting indicated that his closed-door discussions with UAE senior leadership were focused more on security and regional geopolitical developments than the economy. In addition to meeting the Crown Prince, Bennett also met Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed.

Despite Prime Minister Bennett’s warm reception from the Crown Prince and other high representatives from Abu Dhabi, no one knows if Bennet achieved his objectives or even what he hoped to accomplish beyond domestic politics. The UAE is in the midst of a foreign policy shift, intent on scaling back its previously aggressive geopolitical stance in the region at large. At the same time, though, strong relations with Israel are important for the UAE to rebuild its uncertain influence in faraway Washington and to counter its regional competitors such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey.

On the other hand, the ongoing U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and the Gulf states’ grudging acceptance of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, mean that Iranian influence in the region is expected to increase in the years to come. This increased influence worries both Israel and the UAE, partly explaining Abu Dhabi’s desire to normalize its relations with Iran as well. Considering the hardline stance of the new Iranian administration, however, Abu Dhabi and Tehran’s newly ‘normalized’ relations might not be permanent, and future provocations could drive it closer to Tel Aviv once more.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Hamdullah Baycar is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on the identity politics of the Gulf. His academic interests also include orientalism, colonialism, and post-colonialism.

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