The United Arab Emirates stands to increase its influence in the Middle East in the wake of the deal announced with Israel on Thursday. The accord has the outspoken support of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, as well as other key figures in the UAE. This is important because the UAE has attempted to increase its stature as a result of this deal, portraying itself as helping to halt annexation plans by Israel. The deal is also anchored in Washington, which is a key ally of Abu Dhabi.
On the surface all this is obvious. It was well known over the years that Israel and the Gulf states were growing closer. The visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman in 2018, the Deal of the Century discussions in Bahrain in 2019, the Manama Dialogue Conference and other meetings suggested that ties were just around the corner. However, the overall picture was always that ties could only come with some kind of concession from Israel. That has been the usual model for past peace deals, so the UAE needed something to show for its decision to proceed.
In the last months, the COVID-19 crisis gave an impetus for more ties, with aid flights from the UAE to Tel Aviv and cooperation with two leading Israeli defense companies and a company in the UAE. The annexation crisis also presented an interesting way for Israel's leadership to climb down from its promises to annex while also handing the UAE a perceived win. This was classic brinkmanship. It comes after years of the Trump administration being in power and ostensibly could have happened earlier.
However, the Gulf has its own timetable and understanding of its needs. In the past, the concept was that some country in the Gulf, often thought to be Bahrain, would be the trial balloon of better relations with Israel. But Bahrain has a sizable Shi'ite population and has faced protests and tensions in the past due to this fact. Famously, the Gulf Cooperation Council had to intervene in 2011 during the Arab spring in Bahrain. Bahrain was facing an uprising. The UAE was therefore more well-placed, and was in many ways the architect of new policies in the Gulf. These policies transcend making the UAE into a cultural and business hub. They are also about confronting extremists like the Muslim Brotherhood and their fellow travelers such as Hamas, the regime in Turkey and scattered elements in Libya and elsewhere.
However, the UAE faced challenges with the Gulf crisis of 2017 when Saudi Arabia led the UAE, Bahrain and other states to break relations with Qatar. This suddenly shifted the balance of power in the Gulf, as Turkey sent troops to Qatar. Qatar itself had its own role to play with Israel, as a broker of calm with Hamas. The Qatar crisis was compounded by another challenge: The Saudi involvement in Yemen. Saudi Arabia faced increasing challenges as Iran pumped weapons, including drones and ballistic missiles, into Yemen. Riyadh intervened in 2015 to stop the Iranian-backed Houthis from taking Aden and the strategic Bab al-Mandab straits. But the war in Yemen dragged on, and the UAE played a role with reports indicating they provided money and training. Accusations swirled of UAE-based advisers, including a role for former Palestinian leader Mahmoud Dahlan. An island off the coast, called Socotra, also was important to the UAE. And the Horn of Africa was important; Turkey was building a base in Somalia, and the
UAE was open to looking at Somaliland and other places for influence.
Israel is the obvious choice of ally against Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In short, the period of 2011 brought the Arab spring to Bahrain and the GCC intervention. Then the 2015 crisis in Yemen brought the UAE and Saudis to intervene. The Iran deal also was a huge challenge for the Gulf and the Riyadh-Abu Dhabi desire to not be left alone against Iran. Israel was an obvious choice of a country that shares interests with these states against Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. But open relations, so-called "normalization," would be hard so long as Israel would not move on the Palestinian issue.
What changed calculations in Abu Dhabi? The rise of Donald Trump presented a window. But it was not an entirely open window. Both Qatar and Turkey, as well as the Saudis and UAE, sought to find favor in Trump's DC. Several scandals resulted, and Qatar bankrolled trips by pro-Israel voices to Doha. Other problems, such as the killing of former Saudi insider Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and Trump's appearance of a close relationship with Turkey's president, left many in the Gulf wondering if Washington had the clout to push through a "deal of the century." Another factor may have been the general failure of Trump's first Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to do much in the Gulf. Former national security adviser John Bolton would have seen eye-to-eye on the concept of better relations between DC, Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, but he was pushed out in 2019. What was left was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a keen supporter of Israel.
In the end, the UAE choose to go ahead, and this gamble may result in Abu Dhabi increasing its stature in the region. It is also a gamble that could lead to Iran and Turkey trying to exploit concerns about normalization through propaganda against the UAE. But they already spread propaganda against the UAE. Meanwhile in Kuwait the newspapers are saying Kuwait will stand with Iraq in protest against recent Turkish airstrikes. Kuwait is generally more hostile to Israel, but a new strategic push for regional consensus by the Trump administration will be felt in Kuwait as well.
The UAE deal gives Saudi Arabia cover for its own apparently warming views of Israel.
The UAE says it will continue to be a strong supporter of the Palestinian people. Al-Ain says there will be no embassy in Jerusalem until peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Jordan will be put in a tough position, even though it has peace with Israel it was generally against more normalization. For Riyadh, the US sponsorship of the deal is key cover for its own apparently warming views of Israel. However Riyadh, unlike Bahrain, Oman or the UAE, has not been as open to any public visits by Israelis or even the kind of discussion of Jewish life that we've seen in the UAE. These are key symbolic steps. All these countries have done other things, such as hosting Evangelical and Jewish American influential leaders, to the extent of publishing World Jewish Congress head Ron Lauder in Arab News, a publication rooted in the Gulf.
The overall question now in the Gulf is how Qatar will react and whether there will be grumblings of pushback among any elites, whether religious officials or influential sheikhs. Much of these types of voices have remained quiet in recent years or been sidelined. But that does not mean they are not there. There is always opposition to closer ties to Israel and there are those who want to exploit these moves to try to undermine the leadership of these states. Observing the next weeks of discussions and media reactions from Baghdad to Amman and Kuwait, across to Oman and the Gulf, will be key to understanding the broader implications on the region. For now the UAE has made a bold choice and put itself at the center of new strategic policymaking in the Gulf, cementing itself as the influential player it has become over the last decades.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.