04 September 2020

The normalisation of ties between Israel and the UAE

Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently agreed to normalise ties in exchange for Israel halting plans to annex parts of the West Bank. The agreement is a major diplomatic breakthrough for the two sides, the effects of which will be felt across the Middle East.

On 13 August, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel agreed to establish normal diplomatic ties in a deal brokered by the United States (US) which would see the Jewish state suspend, at least for now, plans to annex the West Bank. The agreement was reached following US President Donald Trump's attempted peace deal between Israel and Palestine which placed no conditions on Israel and would see the US recognise Israel's sovereignty over its West Bank settlements, while the Palestinians were required to meet difficult conditions to establish a state and even then sovereignty was to be limited. Since the agreement was reached, the first commercial flight from Israel to the UAE has landed, President Khalifa bin Zayed lifted an economic boycott against Israel and US officials have attempted to persuade more states in the region to normalise ties with Israel.

The majority of countries in the Middle East and North Africa have not recognised Israel since its establishment as a state in 1948. While Israel has maintained covert ties with many countries in the region over the years, only its neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, have recognised Israel and normalised ties. Touted as a major diplomatic achievement and step towards peace and stability in the Middle East, the agreement will also eventually lead to commercial, diplomatic and security ties between Israel and the UAE. Beyond Israel and the UAE, the agreement will have a profound impact on the region and some actors stand to benefit more than others.

For Israel, establishing ties with Arab countries has long been a strategic goal to help its image in world politics and to do more business regionally. Indeed, trade with the UAE is expected to be much more substantial than trade ever was with Egypt and Jordan. Historically, Israel has not been able to normalise ties without making concessions for the Palestinians so the deal with the UAE is a major breakthrough in that respect. The agreement is also a welcome distraction for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently standing trial on corruption charges, trying to combat a second wave of COVID-19 and dealing with an economic recession. While he may lose some support in the near-term from right-wing supporters who were promised annexation, Netanyahu has made clear that the annexation of the West Bank is only temporarily suspended and will happen in the future in coordination with the US.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas have rightly labelled the UAE's move as a betrayal because, as previously mentioned, the annexation could well go ahead in the future and it weakens a decades-long pan-Arab position of non-recognition. A failure for Palestinian diplomacy, the new agreement raises doubts about further Arab support, particularly from the Gulf states, in future negotiations on a peace agreement with Israel. The Palestinians have come off the worst from the latest agreement and the prospect of further armed conflict between Palestinian militant groups and Israel seems more likely than going back to the negotiating table at this stage.

Despite Emirati claims that the agreement is a step towards peace which benefits the Palestinians, the agreement was also a chance for the UAE to improve its global image and standing by deflecting away from its role in the Yemen and Libya conflicts. The UAE, along with Israel, also stand to gain economically, with cooperation anticipated in the areas of defence, medicine, tourism and technology. New trade could help to alleviate some of the ill effects of the decline in oil prices. The UAE could also benefit further by buying advanced weaponry from the US, like Egypt did following its normalisation of ties. Perhaps the most important reason for the new agreement, and one that puts the purchase of advanced weaponry in perspective, is the mutual distrust of Iran and its perception as an imminent threat.

Indeed, the agreement is a blow to Iran's influence and ambitions in the region and a sign that opposition is growing, with the prospect of an eventual coalition between Israel and other Sunni Gulf Arab states against Iran becoming more likely. Iranian officials have criticised the agreement but more aggressive action is unlikely against the UAE for several reasons, including the UAE being Iran's second trade partner after China, Dubai being a key trade route, and popular unrest at home fuelled by economic grievances made worse due to sanctions. Iran also wants to avoid further isolation with the possibility of more states in the region normalising ties in the future. That being said, the agreement is likely to displease Iran's allies and proxies in the region, including its militias in Iraq, President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, all of whom are united against Israel and might be more likely to carry out small-scale attacks.

The agreement can also be seen as an effort to curb Turkey's regional ambitions. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has condemned the agreement, threatened to suspend diplomatic ties with the UAE and confirmed Turkey's stance as vehemently opposed to that of Israel. The Turkish government hosted Hamas officials just days after the agreement was announced indicating that support for the Palestinian militant organisation will continue, and perhaps even be bolstered. Prior to the agreement, relations between Turkey and the UAE were already strained with the two countries on different sides on many regional issues, including the Libyan and Syrian conflicts, the Qatar diplomatic crisis, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and, more recently, UAE support for Greece in the eastern Mediterranean stand-off with Turkey. Tensions between Turkey and the UAE and Israel will likely worsen following the agreement which puts the two sides on course for further disputes in the future.

Despite pressure from the Trump administration for other Arab states to follow the UAE's lead, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain have all since rejected the possibility of normalising ties with Israel. Normalising is a much bigger ask for other states in which, unlike the UAE, leaders are more influenced by public opinion which tends to be pro-Palestinian. Although Saudi Arabia has officially rejected normalising ties, the first flight between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi crossed Saudi Arabia, marking the first time an Israeli flight has entered Saudi airspace and a subtle hint that the Gulf's largest economy approves of the agreement. While it seems unlikely that other states will normalise relations with Israel, at least not immediately, it does appear that the issue of establishing a Palestinian state has taken a back seat to countering the influence of Turkey and Iran. Time will tell whether the agreement will last but the intention is clear and the battle lines have been drawn.