The United Arab Emirates’ decision to begin full normalization of relations with Israel is a breakthrough in diplomatic and, potentially, strategic relations in the Middle East. While it merely formalizes a relationship that has been steadily growing, especially behind the scenes, it has the potential to accelerate and broaden Emirati-Israeli cooperation. For the UAE, it is a bold and possibly risky move that shatters the preexisting Arab consensus – based on the Saudi-crafted Arab Peace Initiative adopted by the Arab League in 2002 – that diplomatic relations with Israel are contingent on the development of a two-state solution between Israel and an independent Palestinian state. In recent years, while that consensus held in theory, and even became the centerpiece of Palestinian policy toward Israel, the initiative was amended to allow for mutually agreed upon land swaps. Over time, the idea was widely accepted that steps toward achieving a two-state solution could be met by concomitant steps toward building Arab relations with Israel. By moving forward now on the basis of a suspension of wide-scale territorial annexation in the West Bank by the Israeli government, the UAE effectively abandoned the Arab Peace Initiative framework. It claims its action has preserved the option of a two-state solution, although it has offered normalization of relations in exchange for Israel refraining from actions it had not, and in the short run, probably was not going to take.
A number of Arab countries have been developing their views on a relationship with Israel to the point that additional normalization initiatives become readily imaginable. But the UAE arguably had more reasons than most others, which is presumably why Abu Dhabi was willing to risk crossing this well-established Arab “redline.” The UAE and Israel share a distrust of Iran with many other Middle Eastern countries, but they have a particular antipathy toward Turkey and its emerging Sunni Islamist-oriented coalition. Abu Dhabi was also keen on solidifying ties with the administration of President Donald J. Trump while simultaneously performing damage control with Democratic Party leaders, both of which strongly support their decision.
The UAE also says it secured the Trump administration’s agreement to bypass objections based on preserving Israel’s “qualitative military edge” to purchase fifth-generation F-35 fighter jets and advanced military drones. The UAE maintains it also had Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement for this, but after a wave of criticism in Israel, he expressed opposition to the F-35 sale. The UAE reportedly has responded by cancelling a meeting between the two parties to signal that these military sales are a key aspect of the deal from its perspective. Assuming it gets back on track, the rapprochement with Israel also supports the UAE’s intention to emerge as a cutting-edge technological hub in the region, a goal for which Israel is the obvious partner.
But what might prompt other countries to follow suit? Israeli officials have repeatedly said they expect several other Arab countries to also engage in a formalized normalization process in the coming “weeks or months.” Secretary of State Mike Mike Pompeo, followed by a team led by Senior Presidential Advisor Jared Kushner, is visiting a number of Arab countries in the coming days to promote precisely such steps. Potential candidates include Bahrain and Oman, as well as Sudan and Morocco. Until the UAE breakthrough, the zenith of Israel’s diplomatic relations with Gulf Arab countries was its official trade mission that operated in the mid-1990s in Qatar. Based on that history, Qatar probably would be interested in such ties, but its strong partnership with Turkey and close relations and dependence on Iran almost certainly exclude that option in the medium term.
Probably Not Saudi Arabia
The UAE joins Egypt and Jordan, which have formal peace treaties with Israel, and Mauritania, which recognized Israel in 1999 but froze relations in 2009 as a result of Israeli attacks on Gaza. But the most significant Arab country not to be on the list of potential candidates is, of course, Saudi Arabia. Given the sharp decline in regional influence by traditional Arab centers of power such as Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad, it has emerged as the de facto Arab regional leader and a major force in the Islamic world. Saudi Arabia also carries the gravitas of its history as the birthplace of Islam and the site of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Securing diplomatic relations with Riyadh would be the biggest diplomatic breakthrough for Israel since the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979, a historic, transformational event.
Yet it is highly doubtful that Riyadh would take such a step while King Salman bin Abdulaziz remains on the throne. Saudi Arabia was the author and principal sponsor of the Arab Peace Initiative, and its statements articulate a strong continued commitment to that framework. Moreover, the king has quietly intervened in recent years to reassert Saudi commitment to the Palestinian national cause when public and private comments attributed to his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, appeared to signal its weakening.
Like the UAE and the other candidates for a potential normalization process, Saudi Arabia has obvious strategic reasons to contemplate such a move. Primary among them is the perception that Iran and its network of regional nonstate proxies pose an existential threat to Saudi Arabia and its allies. But given its sizable and diverse population, Saudi Arabia must be far more concerned about domestic political blowback as well as regional reaction and damage to its standing as an Arab and Islamic leader. It would sacrifice its commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative and invite rhetorical, and possibly even physical, attack from its enemies, from both inside and outside the kingdom. However, it is possible that if and when Mohammed bin Salman ascends to the throne, he could take Riyadh in a different direction and open such a process with Israel. That would reflect, among other things, the generational shift in Arab and Gulf thinking toward Israel as well as the bold, decisive, and, at times even reckless, approach to policy that has been his hallmark as a leader.
Bahrain is an obvious candidate to follow the UAE into the normalization process. Bahrain has a history of tolerance and inclusion toward its small but prominent Jewish community. More important, Bahrain’s anxiety about Iran is singularly intense. Both under the shah and, at times, the Islamic Republic, Iran has claimed sovereignty over Bahrain. While Bahrain has a Sunni ruling family and governing elite, it has a Shia majority that feels disenfranchised, marginalized, and dissatisfied. This has led to unrest in the country repeatedly since at least the 1950s. Some of the more extreme figures in the Shia community have ties to Iran, and Tehran has made no secret of its efforts to promote destabilization in Bahrain. The Bahraini government has every reason to fear Iran’s long-term intentions.
That alone is enough to explain why the Bahraini royal family and government would be interested in diplomatic and strategic relations with Iran’s most dangerous military enemy in the Middle East: Israel. But, in recent years, Bahrain has largely deferred to Riyadh on matters of defense and foreign policy. Manama, therefore, sometimes serves as a test case for potential Saudi diplomatic or political moves. If Saudi Arabia were interested in the possibility of normalization but disinclined to take such a step, Bahrain could act as a kind of proxy for Saudi Arabia at the diplomatic level. In addition, Bahrain always looks for opportunities to strengthen its relationship with the United States, which bases its 5th Fleet in its territory.
The close relations with Saudi Arabia and strong bond with the United States – Bahrain is formally designated as a “major non-NATO ally” of the United States – provide the country with its basic defense posture, particularly regarding Iran.
Adding Israel to this mix as another militarily powerful partner would strengthen Bahrain’s strategic position. Since 2015, Bahrain has improved its relations with pro-Israel Jewish Americans and permitted its citizens to visit Israel. In 2018, it recognized Israel’s right to defend itself, and therefore, to exist. In 2019 it hosted a conference on the economic component of the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” proposal for Israel and the Palestinians and welcomed a number of Israeli officials and the chief rabbi of Jerusalem. It is, therefore, well positioned to make the transition to an open and formalized normalization process.
Oman has traditionally sought to position itself as a mediator in a tense and challenging region and, to that end, has attempted to maintain warm relations with as many players as possible. It has excellent relations with Iran and the United States, is a core member of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and was the host of several crucial meetings that eventually led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal. From Oman’s perspective, not having diplomatic relations with Israel only hampers its ability to mediate and, when necessary for security purposes, triangulate between more powerful regional players. So, the imperative to normalize relations with Israel is virtually axiomatic for Muscat.
Like Qatar, Oman established a process of normalization of relations with Israel in the mid-1990s, at the height of Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. In 1994, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Muscat where he was received by Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The following year, Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi visited Jerusalem and was received by Shimon Peres who was serving as acting prime minister because of Rabin’s assassination a few days earlier. Between 1994 and 2000, the two countries operated open trade relations and in 1996 signed an agreement committing to the reciprocal opening of trade offices. As with Qatar, Israel’s progress with Oman was halted by the outbreak of the second intifada in the fall of 2000.
However, contacts did continue, including a meeting between foreign ministers in Qatar in 2008. In October 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Muscat and was welcomed by Sultan Qaboos, although the trip was not publicized until it was over. Immediately afterward, then-Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi declared Israel “an accepted Middle East state.” There have been several suggestions since then by Omani officials pointing to a readiness to normalize relations. Oman may therefore be even further along the path of normalization with Israel than Bahrain.
Sudan and Morocco
Beyond the Gulf, Sudan and Morocco have clear but very different reasons for strongly considering developing formal ties with Israel. Following the February 2019 ouster of former President Omar al-Bashir, who is now awaiting trial on numerous charges, the new Sudanese government led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan moved firmly into the regional orbit of Egypt, the UAE, and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia, and has made repeated overtures to the United States.
The dialogue between Sudanese and Israeli officials was already fairly advanced, having begun at the latest in 2016 under the former regime. In February, Netanyahu and Burhan met in Uganda and reportedly agreed to start preparing to normalize relations. In addition to solidifying its partnership with Egypt and the UAE, Khartoum would undoubtedly be hoping to finally be removed from the U.S. Department of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism and be relieved of the concomitant sanctions. Like Egypt, the UAE, and Israel, the new government of Sudan is hostile to Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, and is already effectively serving as another member of this de facto anti-Islamist coalition.
Morocco’s immediate interests probably center most around the occupied territory of Western Sahara. While Morocco’s claims over this territory have been historically rejected by the United Nations, the Trump administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem and the Golan Heights has opened a new era in which Washington appears ready to overlook the prohibition on the acquisition of territory by war and recognize the sovereignty of occupying powers in such territories. Israel has reportedly been urging the United States to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, thus far without success. But such a prize could be potentially sufficient, along with other forms of aid and support from parts of the Gulf, the West, and Israel, for Rabat to also undertake a normalization process with Israel.
Morocco has a prominent Jewish population and many Israelis have their origins in that community. Dialogue between the two has been quietly proceeding since at least the 1960s. Moreover, Morocco probably has little to fear from such a move in comparison with many other Arab countries. The Western Saharan Polisario rebels are now left primarily with the Algerian government as supporters given the overthrow of the former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. However, the prospect of restoring relations with Mauritania would be complicated by the process, given that Nouakchott is likely to be angered by formal recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara.
While there are other Gulf and Arab candidates for following the UAE in normalizing relations with Israel, Abu Dhabi’s bold step is unlikely to lead to a flood of sudden Arab diplomatic recognition of Israel. Each country has specific reasons, aims, and strategic calculi for being willing to consider such a step. Some face far greater costs than others, in particular, Saudi Arabia, which would face one of the most challenging and complex strategic decisions of any Arab country. But as both history and recent experience confirm, diplomatic and political change can happen suddenly and dramatically. And recognition, even when extended, can be withdrawn.