Normalization is the new normal for the UAE and Israel
Conventional wisdom holds that the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE is, at most, an expression of mutual antagonism toward Iran, driven by concern about Tehran’s nuclear program and its support for terrorist militias throughout the Middle East.
This month’s historic meeting of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed puts paid to that conventional wisdom. For one thing, the UAE and Israel have differing approaches to the Iran issue. For another, the cooperation the countries seek goes far beyond security and shared enemies.
An examination of the leaders’ joint statement after their meeting, together with a close look at who the Israeli prime minister did and did not meet in Abu Dhabi, suggests that it is the economy, rather than security, that is pulling the two sides closer together. Bilateral trade between the two nations reached close to $800 million by the end of September. In March, the UAE announced a $10 billion fund to “invest in strategic sectors in Israel.”
According to the joint statement, Bennett and MBZ discussed “private- and public-sector cooperation in R&D, technology, food security, climate, water, energy, environment, health and tourism.” Security was not listed as one of the topics.
The nations said they plan to create “a joint research and development fund,” alongside “a corresponding joint business council,” that would wed startup nation Israel to the entrepreneurial UAE, with its advanced banking and marketing industries, and allow the two to deal with problems that vary from “climate change and desertification” to “clean energy and future agriculture.”
Bennett and his hosts also explored the possibility of reaching a “comprehensive economic partnership agreement.” In September, the UAE’s state-owned Mubadala bought a $1 billion stake in an Israeli natural gas field.
In addition to meeting MBZ and Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed, Bennett met Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology Sultan Al-Jaber, and Minister of Culture Noura Al-Kaabi.
Note that he did not have a one-on-one with National Security Advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed, the third man from the top in the UAE. Tahnoun had just returned from a visit to Iran last week, a meeting that raised eyebrows in the Israeli security establishment.
Bennett’s meeting with officials in charge of industry and culture but not security and intelligence suggests that — at least publicly — the UAE and Israel do not wish to be seen as creating an anti-Iran front or alliance.
True, during their one-on-one meeting, which lasted more than two hours, MBZ and Bennett must have talked about Iran. If so, no one knows what they said — but we can speculate that Bennett updated MBZ about Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s trip to Washington, and also on reports that Israel is preparing a strike against nuclear targets in Iran, given that the Vienna talks are going nowhere.
While MBZ might have expressed private support for a possible Israeli strike on Iran, he must have told his guest that the UAE cannot be publicly supportive of any such action. The UAE is a stone’s throw from Iran and might want to sit out any military conflagration for fear that Iranian missiles could wreak havoc on a country whose prosperous economy depends on stability.
The UAE and Israel share many of the same concerns about Iran and many of the same commitments and strategies — but not all. They are separate countries with differing interests and differing priorities. They don’t need to have identical interests and policies on Iran for a deepening of ties, just as they did not need normalization to cooperate on the Iranian threat.
In effect, the UAE faces the same dilemma that South Korea does regarding the nuclear weapons of its northern neighbor. Seoul, a densely populated city with an extremely advanced and developed economy, is within the range of North Korean missiles and fears that, in case of war over the North’s nukes, the South’s capital might suffer if missiles start flying.
Iran’s situation is slightly different. Tehran is unlikely to hit the UAE, or any of its neighbors, unprovoked. Unless the fighter jets that strike Iran take off from the UAE, Tehran will not drag its southern Gulf neighbor into a war.
Just like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, the UAE would most likely be rooting for Israel in private and offering intelligence and other discreet logistical support if war was to break out between the Jewish state and Iran. Yet Gulf states remain cognizant of their Achilles heels — geographic proximity to Iran.
While security must have been one of the top priorities in the budding partnership between the UAE and Israel, it certainly has not been the only one. If and when the Iranian threat has been dealt with, peace between the two countries will prove to be durable, while economic cooperation will continue to fuel their strong relationship.
This expanding partnership, and even apparent disagreements on security, should be seen as reassuring. The UAE and Israel are two countries in the region with mostly overlapping security interests, but some notable differences. They are both wealthy, developed economies but radically different in their comparative advantages. They can cooperate in some fields to mutual benefit, compete in others, agree discreetly on some issues, and disagree politely on others.
A year on from the initial agreement, and despite all the sour grapes from critics and cynics, normalization seems to be, well, the new normal.
• Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Shany Mor is an adjunct fellow. Follow Abdul-Hussain on Twitter @hahussain.
• Follow Mor on Twitter @ShMMor. The FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.