UAE and Israel can build on a year of normality
With the anniversary of the Abraham Accords fast approaching, the visit of Israel’s foreign minister Yair Lapid to the UAE this month was both timely and symbolic of the rapid pace at which relations between the two countries are developing.
It was the first official visit to the country by an Israeli minister, and to demonstrate the centrality of these relations to Israel’s foreign policy strategy, one of the first visits abroad by the new foreign minister. Lapid also inaugurated Israel’s embassy in Abu Dhabi and its consulate in Dubai, which further epitomises how seamlessly the ties between the two countries are evolving. The red-carpet welcome, both literally and figuratively, had all the hallmarks of two countries who see this budding relationship mutually benefiting their national interests, and enhancing their positions on the international stage.
Lapid, after all, is not only the foreign minister but also leads the largest faction in the government, and is the presumptive prime minister, two years away from taking the reins of power. Lapid’s warm welcome in Abu Dhabi included a meeting with the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, and was a clear message that both countries are seeking, as Sheikh Abdullah said, a “vision of opening new horizons.”
When the Abraham Accords were announced last August, it was as much a natural evolution of developments that had been taking place behind the scenes for decades, as it was a surprise to see the normalising of relations happen so suddenly and with no forewarning. For nearly a quarter of a century quiet diplomacy between the two countries, in addition to other GCC countries, has built a solid foundation for both formal and informal relations between the Jewish state and the Gulf region. From complete rejection by all countries in the region, Israel has gradually gained acceptance, initially by two of the countries with which it had fought several wars, signing first a peace agreement with Egypt in 1979 and then with Jordan in 1994. These peace agreements, which established and maintained diplomatic relations, are still based solely on common strategic interests, are extremely limited in civilian engagement, and haven’t led to warming of relations between the countries’ populations.
There was a very different feeling right from the outset about the normalising of relations between the UAE and Israel. It was as if a valve had been opened, releasing much stored enthusiasm for fulfilling the full strategic, economic and cultural potential of the two countries’ relationship, and also paving the way for the rest of the Gulf region to follow suit at their own pace. That Israel and the UAE have never been in a direct conflict also contributed to the easy transition to full diplomatic relations, as well as the incremental approaches to first building economic ties in areas such as the diamonds, agriculture and water sectors, and then allowing for a limited diplomatic presence by for instance opening a mission to the UN’s renewable energy agency in Abu Dhabi.
The trajectory of Israeli–UAE relations is of building further on a successful first year of normalized relations. These have passed the first test of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but it is inevitable that more are around the corner.
It was under the UN’s auspices, but nevertheless there was a sign and a flag in full view that legitimised an Israeli presence in the UAE. This was followed by visits from high-ranking officials that were supposed to be unannounced but in fact were an open secret. By the time the Abraham Accords were signed not only were the political, security and economic elites ready for it, but civil society and ordinary citizens were curious and eager to discover what normalisation of relations meant for them.
The question of whether relations between Israel and the UAE should remain shrouded in secrecy was never about any outstanding differences between them, but about the absence of a fair and just peace with the Palestinians and the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. According to the 2002 Beirut Declaration, which was inspired by the Saudi peace initiative, normalisation of relations between Israel and the region was intended to follow a peace agreement with the Palestinians. In the absence of any resolution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, however, commonality of interests between Israel and GCC countries started to take precedence, thus reversing the paradigm of peace first and normalisation to follow, but until last year without official normalisation.
This enabled the development of closer ties, but with obvious limitations and constraints and at a slower pace. Initially, cooperation on security and intelligence sharing was aimed at containing Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions, and tackling radicalisation — both major incentives that drew both countries closer together. In the immediate aftermath of the Abraham Accords, the Trump administration, which played a crucial role in helping this agreement to materialize, authorised the sale of 50 advanced F-35 fighter jets to the UAE, upgrading its military capability and status in the region and giving the UAE a strategic edge. The other side of the flourishing Israel-UAE ties has been a flurry of economic activity especially in agricultural products and technology, as well in as mechanical and medical equipment and petroleum by-products, all estimated to be worth more than $350 million this year. Scientific cooperation is also on the rise between growing numbers of academic and research institutions. Moreover, despite the current pandemic more than 200,000 Israeli tourists have travelled to the UAE, taking advantage of the newly available flights between the two countries. Rather impressive for a first year of normalised relations.
With the Abraham Accords, the conditionality of the nature and speed of cooperation between the UAE and Bahrain, and later Morocco and Sudan, on peace with the Palestinians was severed. How this is going to affect relations between Israel and the Palestinians remains to be seen, though at least it has helped avert the threat of Israel annexing nearly one third of the West Bank. And for now, Israel–UAE relations have withstood the test of confrontation in Jerusalem and war in Gaza.
The trajectory of Israeli–UAE relations is of building further on a successful first year of normalized relations. These have passed the first test of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, but it is inevitable that more are around the corner. During Lapid’s visit, both sides repeatedly spoke about the need for peace in the region, and declared that in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the UAE can play a central role together with other GCC countries. If this happens it will contribute immensely to regional stability and see Israeli–GCC relations maturing and reaching their full potential.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg