Israel and the UAE show they mean business
If the announcement of the normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel this month caught almost everyone by surprise, then the quick progression of relations between the two countries is a clear sign that this far-reaching deal, which might also become a game changer in the region, was the result of a shared perspective that their national interests align on an array of issues. Equally important is that this entire process was met with the encouragement and blessing of Washington.
Establishing diplomatic relations and opening embassies are the ultimate acts of mutual recognition between two countries; however, in the modern era, the symbolism of opening a commercial flight route between two countries is also very powerful. On Monday, a flight took off from Tel Aviv and landed in Abu Dhabi. Operated by the Israeli national carrier EL Al, it was the first ever commercial flight from Israel to the UAE and it carried a high-level Israeli-American delegation. This act carried with it a message to the world from the UAE and Israel that they intend to build on the momentum of their establishment of normal relations, and under the glare of public scrutiny. Coincidently, or not, the outbound flight number was listed as LY971, while the return flight is rumored to be LY972, alluding to the UAE and Israel’s respective country dialing codes.
Aboard were Jared Kushner, top aide and son-in-law to US President Donald Trump, and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, while the Israeli delegation was led by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to coordinate the talks between the countries. Over the last decade, much attention has been paid to the development of relations between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. This improvement in relations was largely incentivized by concerns over Iran’s expansionism and adventurism, and more generally around containing extremism in the region. Nevertheless, both the GCC and Israel realized that, if covert security and intelligence relations were possible, there are also viable reasons to expand into other sectors, including trade, investment, technology, science, health, and tourism.
Despite the restrictions around overt economic relations until the Palestinian issue is satisfactorily resolved, some estimate that Israeli exports to GCC countries have topped $1 billion, though most of it indirectly. A research paper by the Tony Blair Institute of Global Change argued that, given the right conditions, trade between the Gulf countries and Israel could be worth as much as $15 to $25 billion annually.
No doubt, security issues will be high on the agenda of the meetings between the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and the US-Israeli delegation, in particular regarding attempts to extend the arms embargo on Iran. But a great deal of Monday’s discussions and future interactions between the two countries will concentrate on fulfilling the commercial potential of their relationship. One of the first steps toward normalization was carried out by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on Saturday, when he issued a decree lifting the economic boycott of Israel. The decree stated the UAE wished to “expand diplomatic and commercial cooperation with Israel, leading to bilateral relations by stimulating economic growth and promoting technological innovation.”
Given the right conditions, trade between the Gulf countries and Israel could be worth as much as $15 to $25 billion annually.
The obvious areas of potential for cooperation are those of innovation and high-tech. Israel has, for some time, been dubbed the “Startup Nation,” or “Silicon Wadi.” It has a vibrant high-tech scene and companies like Waze, which was sold to Google for nearly $1 billion, and Mobileye, an autonomous driving company bought by Intel for an astronomical $15.3 billion, are just two examples of Israeli ventures that captured the imagination of the international businesses community. But they are not exceptions. Since the 1990s, the country has developed a startup culture, listing more than 10,000 startups and spending about 4 percent of its gross domestic product on research and development. However, despite the continuous success of this sector, it is still missing additional investment, which the formal removal of the UAE’s boycott will enable for the benefit of both. The accumulated experience in Israel in developing an innovative industry could also be transferred to help to further develop the high-tech industry in the highly entrepreneurial UAE environment.
Moreover, the proximity of Israel to the Gulf region, with a flight time of about three hours between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi, lends itself to tourism for religious, leisure and health purposes. Israelis are already talking about family holidays to the many UAE tourist destinations. Similarly, discussions are underway about student exchange programs once the coronavirus pandemic is contained, as both countries put a premium on education. Israel’s high-quality education system could encourage more academic cooperation, including in research and student and academic exchanges, not to mention the creation of joint programs. Days after the normalization of relations between the two countries was announced, the health ministers of both nations agreed during a telephone conversation to enhance bilateral cooperation in the health sector, including collaborating on pharmaceuticals, medical research, training, and combating the current pandemic.
Another potential area of cooperation, combining security and commercial, is arms procurement. Much has been discussed in recent weeks about the link between the normalization of relations between the UAE and Israel and the sale of F-35 stealth bombers and advanced drones by the US to Abu Dhabi. But this is only part of the picture. Israel has a very advanced arms industry, as demonstrated by companies such as Israel Aerospace Industries, Rafael, and Elbit. And, considering the UAE’s hefty defense budget — estimated to be $23 billion — it is anticipated that Israeli military technology may also enter into this market.
Admittedly, the normalization comes at a time of great uncertainty in the global economy, on top of the global health crisis, and both the UAE and Israel are not exempt from these circumstances. However, as much as the early signs can indicate, the two countries, with a tail wind from the Trump administration, are determined to move quickly in establishing bilateral relations on a wide range of issues, despite criticism from certain quarters of the region, mainly by the Palestinian leadership and those who support their cause. Monday’s visit is a bold statement that the two countries are looking to establish a warm peace and pave the way for other countries to join.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg