We should not be so surprised that Israel and the UAE have now concluded a peace agreement, which will be signed amid much fanfare in Washington. For over a decade now, Israel and several of the Gulf monarchies have been moving closer together, a shared animus towards Iran being the most obvious driver pushing the UAE, Bahrain and, albeit more slowly, Saudi Arabia to align their regional security interests ever more closely with those of Israel. Of this triumvirate, the growing ties between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem were perhaps the worst-kept secret. Press reports as well as leaked cables underscored a burgeoning relationship in which Israeli expertise in cyber-security, and the perceived influence of Israel in the corridors of power in Washington, were increasingly valued by an ever-assertive UAE under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is mired in a damaging court case involving corruption charges, shaken by public protest over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, and leading a coalition government that is unlikely to survive for much longer, the agreement with the UAE is a personal triumph for the Israeli premier. The now famous photograph of Netanyahu alongside the late Sultan Qabus of Oman was part of a wider strategy of engagement with Arab Gulf monarchies that, over time, led to an Arab elite acceptance of rapprochement with Israel while, crucially, not conceding ground on the issue of Palestine. This ‘outside-in approach’ not only isolated the Palestinians regionally, but shattered a central myth of the centre-left in Israel: that peace with the wider Arab world can only be bought at the price of Palestinian statehood.
The UAE was quick to justify its recognition of Israel as crucial to forestalling Netanyahu’s ‘annexation’—others prefer the term ‘land grab’—of a third of the territory of the occupied West Bank. While much trumpeted by the Israeli premier, pressure from Washington, as well as the decidedly lukewarm support of his coalition partner, Benny Gantz, effectively stymied this unilateral move. Moreover, opinion polls in Israel hardly evinced strong enthusiasm for the move among the general Israeli populace, a mood reflected among many in the security establishment. After all, it has been the Palestinian Authority that has effectively controlled insurgent violence against Israel since 2005. In short, the statement was little more than the necessary window dressing to ‘sell’ the deal to the wider Arab street.
Will other Arab Gulf monarchies now follow the UAE’s lead? Certainly, relations between Israel and Bahrain have been close for some years. Israelis have participated in a series of conferences held in Manama and, more recently, a Bahraini team participated in the Israeli leg of the Giro d’Italia cycle race, an example among many of such events being used as an entrée to broader public acceptance of engagement with Israel. Moreover, the security situation faced by the al-Khalifa regime—a Sunni monarchy ruling over the far more numerous Shi’a population—has raised the shared spectre of Iranian-inspired Shi’a subversion that Israel has long faced along its border in southern Lebanon. The building blocks for the establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel are certainly in place. Whether such diplomatic moves will now proceed, however, depends on Riyadh. Unlike the UAE, which has adopted an increasingly assertive policy across the MENA region and has the financial wherewithal to do so, Bahrain remains the diplomatic surrogate of its powerful and much larger neighbour. And while Jared Kushner, son-in-law of President Trump, has stated that Saudi Arabia will eventually conclude a deal with Israel, the portents are not so obvious. True, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has expressed warm words for Israel, while at the height of the Khashoggi affair Netanyahu warned against the vilification and ostracisation of the Saudi Crown Prince, given the centrality of Saudi Arabia in confronting Iran.
But Israel remains wary of Saudi Arabia’s intentions on other fronts, not least in reports of its desire to acquire non-conventional weapons, notably in the realm of fissile material and the development of ballistic missile systems. In short, the type of relationship that Israel has established with the UAE might not be so easily replicated with Saudi Arabia. Still, all are aware that faced with US retrenchment from the region, the interests that bind all together, be it through informal alliances—a tacit security regime—or more open and formal arrangements, highlight the growing importance of regionalism in deciding new and emerging security alliances across the Middle East. As we suggested in our book, Fraternal Enemies, the agreement between Israel and the UAE allows us to at least reimagine how the contours of power across much of the Middle East could be recast.
Fraternal Enemies: Israel and the Gulf Monarchies | Hardback | January 2020 | £45.00 | 9781787382121 | 224pp
Clive Jones is Professor of Regional Security at Durham University, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and editor of, inter alia, Israel’s Clandestine Diplomacies, also published by Hurst.