Abu Dhabi Crown Prince (and de facto ruler of the UAE) Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed may look impetuous but he rarely acts without a grander plan in mind. So one asks what does the UAE and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (also known as MBZ) get out of his dramatic decision to normalize relations with Israel?
No one doubts the significant political benefits that the agreement confers on both Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Trump. Trump gets to tout a foreign policy victory in the midst of a re-election campaign that appears to be going off the rails and appear as a great peacemaker and benefactor to Israel. The agreement’s timing, just before the Democratic National Convention, appears designed to distract attention from the bump Joe Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris brought to his campaign and from Trump’s domestic travails. It marks the first time that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law-in-charge of everything can brag about a real accomplishment after three years wandering in the policy desert.
Politically in a leaky boat not unlike Trump, Netanyahu gets to take on the mantles of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin as a great statesman who made peace with an Arab State, albeit without the same stature as Egypt and Jordan, Israel’s neighbors and erstwhile military opponents. This accomplishment comes at a particularly good time for Netanyahu who faces a criminal indictment, a botched response to Covid19, and the possibility of new elections.
On the face of it, neither Trump nor Netanyahu paid much of a price for this success. As of this writing, Trump’s policies in the Gulf show no signs of changing in the UAE’s favor whether on the subject of Qatar, the US presence in the Gulf, or Iran. It is difficult to imagine what Trump might be able to do to substantively give an advantage to Abu Dhabi in its rivalry with Doha. He certainly will not cancel arms contracts with Qatar worth about $15 billion nor could he decide to abandon America’s biggest military investment in the Middle East, the al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Withdrawal from the region appears equally implausible considering how he has made the promise to do so an essential element of his re-election campaign. Even if Trump was indeed planning, as some have suggested earlier, an October surprise – a last minute war with Iran for electoral advantage – this agreement does nothing to advance his planning.
Netanyahu made only one potentially risky concession, his announcement that he will “suspend” annexation of the West Bank. However, this promise comes thoroughly caveated with his announcement that “I will never give up on our right to our land.” Annexation has not been taken off the table by this agreement; it was removed some months ago because even the Trump administration made it clear that annexation now would not be in his interests in the run-up to the elections. In fact, this concession will probably be up for grabs should Netanyahu need to do something dramatic if he calls elections soon.
At worse, Netanyahu has infuriated some of the more extreme settler leaders. Some believe that suspending annexation might cause Trump some small hiccups with pro-Israeli American evangelicals. This does not appear to be a problem; this part of his base did not react to Trump vetoing annexation so far.
Will Qatar now tell the Emirates, who boycott Qatar; they just “bought” the Gaza file?
So what does the UAE get out of this? Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed tweeted that the agreement “stopped annexation” despite Netanyahu’s insistence that the suspension is only temporary. MBZ claims that his action guarantees Muslim access to the Haram Ash-Sharif without elaboration but no one has spelled out anything so far affecting this issue. A number of commentators opine that the UAE has gained an important ally in its confrontation with Iran. The agreement changes nothing in Israel’s policy towards Iran. Israeli airstrikes hit Iranian and Iranian connected targets in Syria on an almost weekly basis. Israel makes only a nominal effort to avoid taking credit for things blowing up in Iran. The mullahs may hate Israel but in no way do they fear it militarily more than they fear the military threat from the United States; Israel’s rapprochement with the UAE adds literally nothing to Iran’s defense threat assessment nor has Israel anything to offer the UAE in a war with Iran that adds to what the Americans can bring to the fray. In fact, UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash specifically indicated that the agreement is not directed at Iran; maybe he meant it.
Others argue that the agreement with Israel gives the UAE access to Israeli technology that it lacked until now. Israel already exports a lot of military and intelligence technology to the UAE, why would this agreement free up Israel to expand the list? Nor does the agreement give the UAE any access to American-made equipment it does not now have. The US exports what wishes to export. The suggestion in one quarter that this would change US calculations to sell the F-35 stealth strike fighter to the UAE because Israel has the F-35 is frankly ludicrous. Israel alone in the Middle East operates America’s best fighter plane and it intends to stay that way.
On the downside, the UAE has taken a large risk that it can trust Netanyahu not to reopen the annexation issue. That would be a very long-shot gamble and MBZ is a better odds-player than that. Several sources have pointed out that UAE and Israel had economic and strategic ties before, that the two countries are roughly a thousand miles apart, their troops have never met each other in battle, and have no issues between them that may cause them to fight. As for the Palestinian issue, the Israeli occupation is unchanged and there is no indication that this agreement can advance the cause of Palestinian national self-determination, UAE public statements aside. In fact, the UAE statement allowed observers to infer that it merely “sets a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship” with Israel; formal diplomatic relations will/may follow.
Some have speculated that the UAE has made this agreement with Israel in order to get Trump’s support in its feud with Qatar. Israel has nothing to gain by being the UAE’s stalking horse. Qatar was the first Gulf country to establish a formal relationship with Israel in 1996. In the same year, Qatar abolished the primary boycott of Israel and established telephone links. Abu Dhabi just announced with fanfare its first-ever establishment of telephone links with the Jewish state. Most importantly, Qatar finances Gaza to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars annually with the enthusiastic support of Israel’s security services. Would the UAE pick up the bill and the send money to a territory controlled by the hated Muslim-Brotherhood offshoot?
A superficially more plausible argument has it that the UAE wants access to Israel’s technology to improve its own. The UAE believes a relationship with Israel will improve its own standing, according to some, as it can provide financial resources and to benefit from Israel’s smarter people. Other than demeaning young Emiratis, this argument assumes that other countries cannot provide the same without the political baggage.
This would seem a rather profitless bargain for Abu Dhabi and not the type that Mohammed bin Zayed would put his name to, unless another game is afoot. Perhaps we should look at the long-term relationship between Saudi Arabia and the UAE to explain the seemingly inexplicable. Dramatically, this agreement has broken a long-standing Arab and Islamic consensus that all relations with Israel must be based on the Saudi-sponsored 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. What does the UAE gain from out going on this particular limb?
Memories are shorter in the West than in the Middle East. The smaller states of the Gulf have always feared two predatory neighbors equally, Iran and whoever controls the interior of the Arabian Peninsula. The principal threat to the small sheikdoms of the Gulf during the 170 years of the British protectorate came from the desert interior of the Arabian Peninsula, not Persia. The British spent no little effort in keeping their protectorates safe from the Nejdi and al-Hasa tribes. When Abdulaziz bin Saud Al-Saud finally established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, he made it clear that he found British control of the Gulf’s littoral unacceptable. All historians agree that Abdulaziz made his agreements with the Americans to allow what later became ARAMCO to exploit Saudi oil wealth in order to keep the British out. We should view the defense relationships he forged with President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 in the same fashion; Abdulaziz feared the British more than the Soviets whom he had once cultivated. We forget that the first country to establish full diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Hejaz and Nejd (the name of the Saudi state until 1932) was the Soviet Union. The relations began in 1926 as a means for Riyadh to stand up to the UK.
The Al-Saud made several abortive attempts to grab territory from and exert influence over the Trucial States. The “Buraimi Dispute” from 1949 until 1974, arose from Saudi Arabia’s claim of sovereignty over a large part of Abu Dhabi territory then known as the Buraimi Oasis. The Saudis claimed historical precedent going back to the Wahhabi conquests in the period between 1800-1870. Abu Dhabi and Muscat disputed the claims that led to a truce under the 1950 ‘London Agreement’ to peacefully negotiate issues of sovereignty. The Saudis nevertheless attempted to capture Buraimi in 1952 when a small force of the White Army (now the Saudi National Guard), led by the Emir of Ras Tanura occupied an Omani village in the oasis, claiming it as part of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Desultory hostilities continued for a couple of years, interspersed with negotiations, until the British were tired of the dispute and sent in their colonial forces, the Trucial Levies, to forcibly eject the Saudis. The dispute was settled in 1974 by the Treaty of Jeddah between the new UAE President, Sheikh Zayed and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. Recently, Saudi Arabia blocked UAE nationals from entering the area in a dispute using ID cards as provided for in the 1974 agreements. The UAE responded by stating the agreements were never ratified.
Earlier, Saudi Arabia had supported an insurgency against the Sultan of Oman in the Jebel Akhdar Rebellion ‘the Green Mountain War’ from 1954 to 1959. The leaders of the rebellion rook refuge in the Kingdom after their defeat. The war was ostensibly over oil rights but it did reflect Saudi determination to be rid of the British. Even after the British left the lower Gulf, Saudi Arabia continued to push on boundary issues. Qatar and the Saudis came to blows in 1990, despite being aligned against Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, with four border guards losing their lives. The Kingdom did its utmost to prevent the formation of the United Arab Emirates and may have exacerbated the conflict between Bahrain and Qatar in order to keep those two countries out of the new federation.
Professor James Dorsey, a Gulf expert, writes “The UAE’s recognition of Israel puts Saudi Arabia more than any other Gulf state in the hot seat when it comes to establishing relations with Israel and it puts Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in the driver’s seat. Saudi Arabia fears that any challenge to its leadership could fuel demands that Saudi Arabia signs over custodianship of Mecca and Medina to a pan-Islamic body.” The UAE action undermines Saudi Arabia’s image as a leader of the Arab and Muslim world. It flies in the face of the Saudi Peace Initiative endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 and until now the unified Arab position on ending the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Saudi Arabia cannot easily follow the UAE, not least because it cannot be seen as following a small Gulf state. In the final analysis, Saudi claims to Islamic leadership demand that the Saudis obtain more than just Jared Kushner’s vanilla promise to make the Haram Ash-Sharif “available to all Muslims” to pray under Israeli jurisdiction. King Salman has rarely objected to the actions and statement of his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, except when MBS hinted at any relaxation of relations with Israel. Other Arab States prioritized Arab ethnic ties to religion in their support of the Palestinian cause. Saudi Arabia’s stake in the dispute emphasizes its role as the custodian of the Holy Mosques. Abandoning the Haram Ash-Sharif permanently to Israel undermines that role.
The UAE has, more than most GCC countries, taken a long view of policy. Abu Dhabi created the first Gulf think tank, the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research in 1994. Emirati leaders have never concealed their concerns and resentment of Saudi efforts at hegemony. Now, we see the UAE positioning itself diplomatically and militarily to challenge the Kingdom in the future. Abu Dhabi has worked diligently to influence Oman under its control. Abu Dhabi has diverted its joint intervention with Saudi Arabia in Yemen into a vehicle for fomenting separatism in south Yemen and Aden. It has established naval bases in Djibouti and Socotra. This fits a pattern. Its actions enable it to deny access to both Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb in the event of a confrontation with Saudi Arabia. Now, having built a security relationship with Israel, MBZ has put Riyadh in a position of having to look over its shoulder behind it in any future confrontation with Abu Dhabi.
Ambassador Patrick Theros is a Strategic Adviser for Gulf International Forum.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.