The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel have had intense relations for decades since the UAE’s independence. This is because Israel’s mere existence has been antithetical to Arab and Islamic interests in the region. Israel has continued with its mistreatment of the Palestinians and has been opposed to a two-state solution. Israel has also increased their aggression against its Arab neighbors through expansionist policies, such as the West Bank’s annexation. However, Israel and the UAE’s relations started to thaw in the 2010s with the two countries establishing informal ties and engaging in unofficial cooperation. This improved state of affairs was catalyzed by their collaborative opposition to Iran’s nuclear program. In 2015, Israel established a diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi. In 2020, the US negotiated a deal for the complete normalization of relations between these countries in an agreement that required Israel to cease their annexation ambitions in the West Bank.
This paper will look at the reasons why the UAE should not establish its normal relations with Israel. One of the reasons that the deal should not have been signed, is that it was signed under the Trump administration; it was no secret that Trump had been accused of being an islamophobe who had instituted a Muslim ban in the United States. The fact that he would be generous and willing to broker a deal between the Muslim world should be put into question. Another reason why the agreement should be rescinded is that Israel cannot be trusted. This is because the entire normalization process was born out of Israel and the UAE having a common enemy, Iran, yet Israel’s status on nuclear weapons possession remains unknown.
Context/Scope of the Problem
The United Arab Emirates is a rising power in the Arab region. In addition to the country’s political and economic stability, it has also increased foreign policy activities by taking a leading role in the Arab region, including playing a part in the Israel-Palestinian conflict resolution (Lewin, 2016). The independent federal UAE was established in 1971 and derived its socio-political structure from several tribal coalitions that happen to be homogeneous (Mackintosh-Smith, 2019). Most of the citizens of UAE are Arab Sunni Muslims adhering mainly to the Maliki Islamic interpretation. The British empire ruled the region from the nineteenth century despite the local leaders having a relative say in managing their local affairs (Mackintosh-Smith, 2019).
The British played a vital role in the demarcation of the current borders according to local tribal affiliations. The country was established as a federal state comprising the seven emirates: Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Sharjah, Umm al-Quwain, Fujairah, and Ras al-Khaimah (Mackintosh-Smith, 2019). The emirates may have considerable homogeneity in properties but they differ in political inclination, religious intensity, and openness to the Western world. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are considered the most influential among the emirates in both economic and political terms.
The Regional System
The UAE constitution states that despite the citizens being one, they are also a part of the larger Arab community. On this basis, the UAE is part of the overarching Gulf Cooperation League (GCC) and the Arab League. The UAE takes a leadership role in the GCC, spearheading humanitarian efforts in the region (Zaga, 2018). The country’s membership in this regional league steers its foreign policy position towards other countries such as Israel; however, its economic muscle allows it to have more flexibility. One striking characteristic of the UAE is its moderate approach towards Islam, where religion is endorsed as a political component besides politics (Mackintosh-Smith, 2019). This position has enabled it to have a progressive approach towards foreigners and visitors within its borders and equal opportunities for women. Its foreign policy opposes Islamic fundamentalism, and it has taken part in the fight against terror organizations of both Shiite and Sunni inclination.
The UAE and Israel
The UAE was founded twenty-three years after Israel’s founding and after the regional counterparts had taken part in the infamous six-day war with Israel. The UAE may not have participated in the war, but the prevailing political climate heavily influenced its foreign policies towards Israel. Geopolitical factors can help in dissecting the political relations between the two countries. The two countries are geographically distant from each other, with Israel further in the Mediterranean; this means a direct conflict between the two is unlikely to occur (Zaga, 2018). The two countries also have different political systems: Israel is a democratic country while the UAE is a monarchy. The two countries’ positions in the global formation of power affect their relations. Internationally, both countries are considered pro-American, but regionally, they tend to stand on opposite sides (Zaga, 2018). The UAE has continued to follow the GCC’s cold treatment of Israel, including failing to recognize its legitimacy and blocking Israelis from accessing their lands.
From the day it was founded, the GCC has maintained opposition to Israel’s position against Palestinians in the resolution process. The UAE has condemned Israel numerous times but exhibits a willingness to seek an amicable conflict resolution that would bring stability to the region. An example of this is their support for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative by Saudi Arabia. The UAE policies towards Israel have not been constant; for example, the relations deteriorated rapidly in 2010 following the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, a Hamas leader in Dubai (Zaga, 2018). They had instituted measures such as denying Israelis with dual passports entry into the UAE, but this did not last long.
The UAE aspired to be integrated into world politics where it can host conferences; it received criticism for allowing Israelis into its territories but desired to be called a global destination. The thawing of relations between the two countries has continued to occur over the past decade; it culminated in a deal brokered by the Trump administration. The normalized ties between the two countries have many potential benefits, such as political, economic, security, and civil.
After the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, one would be tempted to assume that the only alternative is to scale back on the agreement entirely. However, there are alternatives, such as maintaining unofficial ties. Many challenges come with the UAE announcing their position so loudly in public by making it official. Firstly, it creates problems with the Palestinian Authority (PA), who have been dismayed by the UAE’s decision to support Hamas as the Palestinian leader (Lewin, 2016). Normalization of relations will pose a host of problems for the UAE, such as the distancing of the Turkey, Iran, and Qatar axis. This faction sees the struggle for power in Gaza, West Bank, and Jerusalem as a critical component of the broader effort for Islamist influence in the region (Ketbi, 2020). There are two factions: one led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and the Islamist faction led by Turkey and Qatar. The UAE is putting itself at crosshairs of Islamists.
The other reason why Arab nations should be cautious about normalizing relations with Israel is because of the Israeli intelligence Mossad famed in carrying out covert operations such as the assassination of scientists and politicians. They carried out an assassination of a Hamas leader in 2010, even before normalization; one wonders what havoc they could wreck with full diplomatic access. The reason for this position is that Mossad is uncontrollable and is popular for operating outside of even Israeli law. Given that the UAE still has relations with Israeli enemies such as Iran, it would raise immense controversy if they were to target Iranian interests in the UAE.
The recommendation to the UAE is to return to relations between 2010 and 2020 before complete normalization. During this period, the UAE had sensible policies toward Israelis despite disagreements with their government. For example, they allowed Jews into their territory, which showed that they could separate political and religious differences. Even though it was easier for Palestinians to enter UAE than Jews, this was an expected position since Palestinians are Muslims and part of the larger Arab community.
Another policy recommendation after the downgrading of the relations to the previous state would be to put stricter requirements before any chance of renegotiation. The problem with the current deal is not that it is wrong to have normal relations with Israel; it is that the Arab nations did not get enough from the agreement. For instance, the Gaza strip is still under blockade, and Israel was only asked not to conduct further annexation but was not asked to scale back on already existing settlements in the West Bank. To underscore that the Arab nations did not get enough from the US-led deals, they did not ask the US to return their embassy to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem (Ketbi, 2020). One is left to wonder that the UAE and other countries that took part in the normalization cared about Palestinians in the first place. Evidence continues to mount that Israel cannot be trusted to act justly toward Palestine. Even during their vaccination program, they did not distribute the vaccine equally with Palestine. This point underscores the need for renegotiation between the Arab world and Israel.
There is no doubt that opposition to the Iran nuclear program was a great catalyst for the normalization of relationship between Israel and the UAE. The US plays a vital role in these negotiations, being an ally of both nations. However, different US administrations have different foreign policies. It cannot be ignored that the Iran Deal was signed under the Obama Administration, of which the current POTUS, Joe Biden, was a part. It is curious whether Biden will have a soft spot for Iran as Obama did, which would complicate the recently concluded deal. It is unlikely that Biden would roll back on the Abraham accord, but he has shown willingness to undo many of Trump’s policies. The UAE should grab the opportunity that the new US administration may not be enthusiastic about the deal and use the chance to renegotiate better terms for the Palestinians.
Ketbi, E. A. (2020). Contemporary shifts in UAE foreign policy: From the liberation of Kuwait to the Abraham accords. Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, 14(3), 391–398. Web.
Lewin, E. (2016). The inevitable dead end of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Cogent Social Sciences, 2(1), 1227294. Web.
Mackintosh-Smith, T. (2019). Arabs: A 3,000-year history of peoples, tribes and empires. Yale University Press.
Zaga, M. (2018). Israel and United Arab Emirates: opportunities on hold. The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Web.