The answer to this question can, in part, be found in the institutionalized nature of the Islamic Republic as well as the regime’s externalization of the crisis, ruthlessness, and pragmatism.
Not only will 2020 be remembered for the coronavirus outbreak, but it will also be remembered for the historic Abraham Accords that saw the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and other Arab states agree to normalize relations with Israel. The discourse surrounding the accords – the terminology and logic used to explain the cooperative relations – however, requires more nuance. There is no discourse without flaws, but oversimplifications and exaggerations should be highlighted to achieve a more accurate understanding of current and future relations between respective Gulf Cooperation Council states and Israel. In the discourse on the agreements between Gulf Arab states and Israel, three particular notions have been oversimplified or exaggerated: alliances, the “Gulf” as a monolith, and the centrality of Iran.
Alliances or Partners?
The first misconception is the notion of alliances. Some commentaries have considered the UAE and Bahrain “allies” of, or in “alliance” with, Israel. Cooperative relations with the once Israeli foe have indeed dramatically improved over the past decade. And the UAE and Bahrain each have developed a partnership with Israel. However, the term “alliance” may not be an accurate description of such relations, especially in military affairs.
One of the more prominent definitions was put forth by J. David Singer and Melvin Singer in 1966. In their conceptualization of alliances, they described three types. The first one was a “neutrality pact,” in which the signatories remained neutral, the second was an “entente,” in which cooperation was only limited to consultations, and the third was “defense pacts,” in which “the signatories obligated themselves to intervene militarily on behalf of one another if either were attacked.”
Brett Leeds and his co-authors fleshed out the previous definition in their article “Reevaluating Alliance Reliability” aiming to reduce the confusion around alliances. They defined an alliance as a “written agreement, signed by official representatives of at least two independent states, that include promises to aid a partner in the event of military conflict, to remain neutral in the event of conflict, to refrain from military conflict with one another, or to consult/cooperate in the event of international crises that create a potential for military conflict.”
Alliances, for these scholars, revolve around an obligation to cooperate and therefore can be seen as an official contractual form of military assistance. Even other definitions of alliances that mention “tacit” or “unofficial agreements,” such as those put forth by Patricia Weitsman in “Dangerous Alliances” in 2003 do not negate the obligatory and contractual elements of alliances. This then begs the question as to why the terms allies and alliances are still used to describe the respective relations between GCC states and Israel, since no such alliance language was included in the accords.
Perhaps the term alliance is used too lightly in part because heads of states themselves describe their partners as allies when they are officially not, making the concept foggier. Regardless, in the discourse on these new relationships with Israel, it is crucial to use the term “partnership” to enable a more accurate understanding of the respective relations while maintaining the conceptual integrity of alliances.
Who is in the “Gulf”?
The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War was referred to by some scholars as the first “Gulf War.” The U.S.-led Desert Shield/Desert Storm that followed the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait is commonly known as the “Gulf War.” The fact that the main protagonists in these wars are geographically located on the Gulf, and with the conflicts aptly named, shows the widespread recognition that the “Gulf” subregion encompasses Iran and Iraq, not just the GCC states. So, the notion of a “Gulf-Israeli alliance” against Iran (a country that is in the Gulf region) is not only misleading, it is empirically incorrect.
If the Abraham Accords illustrates anything, it is that the GCC countries are anything but unified in their policy toward Israel. Abu Dhabi and Manama agreed to normalize relations with Israel. However, Kuwait and Oman refused to jump on the normalization bandwagon; Qatar also refused to join the accords while maintaining its “working relationship” with Israel; and Saudi Arabia reaffirmed the Arab Peace Initiative but permitted flyover rights of its airspace to Israeli carriers while also dropping hints the door was not closed on Riyadh signing such an accord with Israel in the future. This hinting from Riyadh is a mechanism of not being too close nor too far from Israel. Such a varied response to the Abraham Accords in the GCC shows how it is not a monolithic entity, rather, GCC members are individual actors with agency and different dynamics with Israel.
This is not to say the GCC, and its member states, never had a unified position on Israel. The GCC states demonstrated their unity at the 1991 Madrid Middle East Peace Conference, where the GCC was invited as an observer and presented itself as having a monolithic platform, articulated by the Saudi ambassador to the United States. But fours year later, following a joint GCC decision to lift the secondary and tertiary restrictions embodied in the long-standing “Arab boycott” on corporations that traded with Israel, the monolithic position began to crack, and a clear multiplicity of respective policies began to appear.
Another reason why the term “Gulf” is an oversimplification is that it blurs the regional leadership aspirations evident in the UAE’s willingness to stake out a bold position on reaching an accord with Israel and also tends to occlude the slight intra-GCC turbulence that has resulted from it. For decades, Saudi leaders have led the Arab states in a unified, yet fragile, policy toward Israel through the Plan for Palestinian Independence that came out of the 1982 Arab League summit and subsequently the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative. The UAE has now inspired a new (but arguably limited) trend that challenges the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative. Jared Kushner, former White House advisor, made a speech, after landing in Abu Dhabi from Israel in late August 2020, suggesting that the Abraham Accords were a sign of the UAE’s regional leadership. He stated, “Mohammed bin Zayed is truly leading the new Middle East.” Following a call among Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and then-President Donald J. Trump, the parties issued a joint statement commending Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed for his “leadership” in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. By signing on to the Abraham Accords, Bahrain has had to carefully navigate between its traditional support for Riyadh’s legacy position championing the Arab Peace Initiative (while also carefully assessing the Saudi crown prince’s influence on this issue) and charting a new course that reflects Abu Dhabi’s taking the lead on this issue.
The term “Gulf” is not just overly simplistic, as it also encompasses Iran and Iraq, but it also overlooks the complex intra-GCC dynamics that were further amplified by the historic accords. Rather than treating the GCC as a monolith, it is more telling to take a closer look at individual GCC members’ relations with Israel.
Is It All About Iran?
The logic of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a premise often used to explain interstate relations, but such a logic runs the risk of being too simplistic. Are the cooperative relations between respective GCC members and Israel primarily due to a shared goal of countering Iran? The quick answer is no, as the relations between respective GCC members and Israel are far broader and more complex.
Even among the GCC states that have not yet agreed to normalize relations with Israel, their shared concern over Iran has not been enough to push them to join the Abraham Accords. In a 2018 interview with The Atlantic, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was asked whether Saudi-Israeli mutual concern over Iran would bring the two countries closer together. Mohammed bin Salman said, “Israel is a big economy compared to their size and it’s a growing economy, and of course there are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countries like Egypt and Jordan.” Given Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification initiatives and increasing economically orientated foreign policy, Saudi leaders see Israel as more of an economic asset than a geopolitical or security one.
The UAE-Israeli bilateral relationship is also more economically driven than about countering the threat posed by Iran. This can be seen in the plethora of trade deals unveiled just after the Abraham Accords were announced in August 2020. December 2021 marked the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to the UAE. It was a trip that aimed at boosting ties as well as solidifying the progress that was made in the wake of the Abraham Accords. Notably, there was a lack of emphasis on Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said, “The relations between the two countries have strengthened in all fields, and I am very satisfied with that, as many cooperation agreements were concluded in the fields of trade, research and development, and cybersecurity, health, education, aviation and more.” Note, there was no mention of an alliance with the UAE, and while there was likely some effort to publicly undersell the counter-Iran aspects of the deal, to avoid antagonizing Tehran, the trade and research and development aspects of the deal were self-evident.
What was also absent in Bennett’s statements was any explicit mention of Iran and the need to counter it. The lack of emphasis on Iran sparked a surprising tone from some commentators, suggesting that many observers are still attached to the logic of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But respective GCC members’ relations with Israel cannot be reduced to a shared concern over Iran. Particularly, some GCC states see much utility and compatibility with Israel’s tech-driven economy.
In addition, placing too much emphasis on Iran perpetuates a sectarian narrative the involved Gulf countries don’t support. Such a simplistic narrative of a Sunni-Israeli alliance against a Shia-led Iran can lead to negative consequences. This discourse could encourage more sectarian and anti-Semitic narratives that would risk perpetuating division rather than highlighting commonalities and compatibility. In the discourse on respective GCC states’ relations with Israel, oversimplification is unconstructive. Being more diligent with the terms used in the analysis of this complex web of relations will help combat an overly simplistic sectarian narrative.
A Discourse Befitting Complexity and Nuance
There cannot be an accurate understanding of any relationship without an accurate discourse surrounding it. Exaggerating notions of a “Gulf”-Israeli alliance may be due to a convenience of overused concepts or an attempt to sensationalize narratives for the sake of catchy headlines rather than nuance. But fine-tuning the discourse on the GCC states’ relations with Israel is crucial, as it challenges an overarching orientalist discourse that has historically depicted Arabs as a monolithic entity with primitive logic. Regardless of the temptations to simplify or exaggerate, the GCC states’ relations with Israel require a discourse that is befitting their complexities and nuances. Once that is achieved, observers will not only be able to understand the current relations more accurately, but it will help highlight more opportunities to overcome antagonisms between Israel and other Arab states that have not yet normalized relations with Israel.
This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2022, “Expanding Regional Partnerships for Security and Prosperity,” held on November 17, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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