The UAE is increasingly looking to the maritime domain as an area of regional and global cooperation but also as a vessel of continued power projection.
In an extraordinary direct message to the Israeli public, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, warned against possible large-scale annexations in the occupied West Bank contemplated for later this year. Otaiba made the appeal in an article in Hebrew for the leading Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth and also issued a separate video message in English. This outreach is noteworthy in multiple ways. It is plainly intended to impact the internal Israeli debate about annexation and serve as a stark and direct warning to the Israeli public, but Israelis may be misled by focusing on the form and even the existence of the message, rather than its content.
In effect, Otaiba is saying to Israelis: Many of your leaders appear to be suggesting that there won’t be any meaningful negative consequences regionally to annexation. I am telling you frankly that this is not true, and that there will, in fact, be a disruption in whatever thawing process might be taken further with my country.
Yet the tone of the message, and even its existence, communicates a more complicated underlying reality. Neither side in the Gulf-Israeli relationship is being fully candid with their publics about what has (and has not) happened since the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. All of the Gulf countries, without exception, made considerable strides toward dialogue with Israel. Each has its reason for doing so. The details of these interactions are less relevant than the fact that all six Gulf Arab states have opened up to Israel at various times in the past 30 years, some of them significantly.
The closest any of the Gulf countries have come to an open relationship with Israel was the establishment of an Israeli trade mission in Qatar in 1996. But it was closed in November 2000, just as the second intifada was picking up steam. What is noteworthy about this relationship is that it reached its height in 1996, arguably among the strongest periods for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a time when hopes for a two-state solution based on the Oslo agreements were widespread. But these moves toward more formalized diplomatic ties came to an end as those hopes collapsed amid the flames of the second Palestinian uprising.
It is certainly true that, like most of its Gulf partners, Qatar remains open to stronger relations with Israel, although it is held back by its current level of dependence on Turkey and Iran, which have significant tensions with Israel. At present, it is Oman that has the strongest ties to Israel, with the late Sultan Qaboos bin Said in 2018 welcoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials on a rare visit to an Arab country. Yet even here, there was some caution. The visit was not announced until Netanyahu had returned to Israel, and the Omanis clarified that they were not willing to normalize diplomatic and other relations with Israel until a Palestinian state was established, ending the occupation that began in 1967.
Despite Qatar’s history of groundbreaking ties with Israel and Oman’s willingness to publicly engage with Israeli political leaders, attention in recent years has focused on relations between Israel and the three Gulf states most united on regional affairs: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain. While Oman and Qatar maintain their own foreign policies, particularly toward Iran, and Kuwait works assiduously to avoid being drawn into regional, ideological, or sectarian disputes, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have taken a strong stance against Iranian hegemony and strongly oppose its proxies in the Arab world. Since Israel shares the view that Iran is the principal menace in the region and has been willing to take action in recent years, particularly in Syria and Iraq against Iranian-backed militia groups, the sense in the Gulf that Israel is a potentially valuable strategic asset – and even possibly a potential national security partner – has grown.
The same perception has developed in Israel. Israeli threat perceptions grew much closer to those of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain when the main part of the Syrian war ended with the fall of Aleppo to government forces in 2016. At that point, the bulk of the fighting in the most important parts the country was essentially over, leaving the powerful Iranian-supported Lebanese militia group Hezbollah free to consider other possible activities. Yet, the Syrian war transformed Hezbollah’s role into a broad regional vanguard for Iran’s militia network and rendered the group far more powerful, experienced, and capable militarily. They were also now connected with like-minded organizations in Iraq among the Popular Mobilization Forces, the Houthis in Yemen, and other, smaller pro-Iranian groups scattered around the Arab world. These were precisely the aspects of Iranian meddling that alarmed the three Gulf states. This increasing convergence of threat perception has strongly encouraged Israel and these Gulf states to consider the potential benefits of closer ties.
In addition, the UAE is deeply concerned about the rise of Turkey as a potential regional hegemon leading a fledgling Sunni Islamist regional bloc in association with Qatar, the Government of National Accord in Libya, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood parties, and other like-minded forces. Israel takes a similarly dim view of the Turkish foreign policy agenda. This powerful antagonism toward the Muslim Brotherhood has produced a convergence of Israeli and Emirati attitudes toward Hamas, in broad sympathy with Egypt’s perspectives as well. Israel is also seen as a potential trade partner and source of critical technology, particularly involving military and security matters, and above all, cybersecurity.
For all these reasons, both sides have been encouraged in recent years to speculate about the virtues of closer relations. However, Israeli leaders exaggerate when they speak of “our Sunni Arab allies.” There is no alliance between Israel and any of the Gulf countries. There are not even diplomatic relations. However, Saudi Arabia’s position that there has been no change since the adoption of its Arab Peace Initiative presented to the Arab League in 2002, and subsequently adopted by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, is also misleading. There is ample evidence of significant intelligence and low-level military communication, and quiet trade, particularly in strategic and security-related goods and services.
There has also been a change of attitude. This was most recently reflected in this year’s crop of Ramadan TV dramas from the Gulf, as well as in increased sporting, trade, and cultural ties. In addition, there is a marked change of tone regarding attitudes toward Israeli Jewish nationalism emerging in this new century, quite distinct from Arab attitudes of past eras. This is partly generational and partly a consequence of the Israeli peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and agreements with the PLO, as well as the fact that Israel is a significant player in the Middle East.
The bottom line is that the Gulf countries do not and never have believed that Israel poses an existential threat to their core national interests. The Islamic Republic of Iran, by contrast, is seen, certainly by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, as such a threat, a view that is shared by Israel. So, in the current era, Israel appears to be an established regional actor whose foreign policy may be very damaging when it comes to Palestinians but potentially useful regarding Iran and even Turkey. Even more distant seems to be the old idea that Israel is an artificial creation of the West or a temporary imposition doomed to go the way of the Crusader states of the Middle Ages.
All of this creates the extraordinary tone of the Otaiba message to the Israeli public. The fact of the message’s existence itself communicates seriousness and a willingness to speak directly, the complete antithesis of the deafening silence of earlier decades. It is, by definition, an act of recognition, and while not formally diplomatic, it communicates a degree of respect. It says you’re worth talking to, and we think (and hope) that you’ll listen to reason. The tone is not plaintive or begging. Nor is it threatening or coercive. It is, instead, an appeal to reason. This message was amplified by the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, when he spoke to the American Jewish Committee. He reiterated his country was still committed to a two-state solution and opposed annexation but is willing to continue communicating with Israel and encourages negotiations. He added that nonpolitical ties can still be pursued even as political disputes continue.
The UAE is walking a tight rope. There is little doubt it is sincerely trying to communicate two messages to Israel simultaneously. First, we very much would like to improve relations with you. Second, your annexation plans will make that impossible, and progress on ending the occupation is essential to moving forward. There is nothing contradictory in these messages. But there is a pitfall. Many Jewish Israeli leaders, mostly conservatives, appear to have wrongly concluded from the experience of the past 30 – and especially 15 – years that the price they will have to pay for better relations with Gulf Arab countries simply lessens over time. If they stonewall, they can keep getting what amounts to a better deal, and time is simply in their favor. This is not true since the impetus for closer relations with Israel is also dependent on factors that are largely independent of Israeli conduct, notably the rise of Iranian and Turkish power that threatens both Israel and the Gulf Arab states.
The danger for the UAE and other Gulf states with this kind of engagement with Israel is that the fact and tone of the message might be all that registers, rather than its content. Some Israeli media, like the Times of Israel, are misinterpreting Gargash’s comments as “a significant turnaround” from Otaiba’s remarks. Unsourced reports from conservative papers such as Israel Hayom claimed that “behind the scenes the [annexation] move is not being challenged as forcibly as the Palestinians might hope” and that Arab states “will not jeopardize their relationship with the Trump administration for” the Palestinians. The idea that Arab governments do not care much about annexation is so widespread in Israel that a leading columnist from Haaretz felt compelled to warn that “reports of Arab backing of Israel’s West Bank annexation plans are completely baseless.”
Palestinian leaders also have serious doubts about Emirati intentions. Most notably, they refused to accept two recent shipments of medical supplies because flying them directly from the UAE to Israel was simply an excuse for “normalization” of relations between the countries.
But the seriousness of the UAE opposition to annexation was underscored by Gargash’s recent comment at the Middle East Institute that, “ultimately, I personally believe that if we are going where we are going today, and we lose the possibility of really implementing a two-state solution, we will really be talking about equal rights and one state.”
Israeli leaders and citizens may well wrongly conclude that the fact the UAE has communicated directly to them in a respectful and sincere way is the real message. It is not wrong to identify the impulse for closer relations with Israel in these gestures. That message is there. But the actual message Otaiba and Gargash are delivering to the Israelis – that your annexation plans are incompatible with any idea of continuing to cautiously develop our dialogue and potential cooperation – may be getting lost. For the message to be properly understood, Israelis, and especially their leaders, need to receive it without hubris and with a prudent humility they sometimes struggle to maintain in dealing with the Arab world.
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