Could we be witnessing a dramatic geopolitical shift in the Middle East, with major implications for the region’s security arrangements, bilateral relations and ideological frontiers, or was last week’s agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel merely a case two countries aiming to strengthen their economic and political cooperation?
The question imposed itself after the US administration announced last week that the UAE and Israel had reached “a historic agreement” to normalise relations and establish full diplomatic ties in a US-brokered deal.
The UAE is the first Gulf Arab state and only the third Arab nation after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 to establish normalised relations with Israel. The significance of the move is undeniable, but the objectives and consequences of it are disputed. It was immediately rejected by the Palestinians.
“It is a landmark event, no doubt about it. For the first time, normalisation with Israel is not linked directly to the Palestinian issue,” Ian Black, visiting fellow at the Middle East Centre at the LSE in London, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Black said that the deal between Israel and UAE had less to do with peace with the Palestinians and more to do with regional remaking. “UAE-Israel ties have intensified and become increasingly visible over the last decade based on their shared hostility to Iran,” he said.
The US administration hailed the agreement as “a historic day for peace in the Middle East.” Officials in the UAE said the decision to normalise relations with Israel, in return for Israel delaying its annexation plans in the West Bank, was intended to provide the Palestinians and Israelis with the time they needed to resume peace negotiations.
However, moments after Trump’s announcement of the agreement in the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the annexation plans were only on “temporary hold” at the request of the US, emphasising that he had made “no change in my plans for annexation.”
American and Israeli officials in their public statements failed to mention the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians or on a two-state solution in historic Palestine. But Iran was mentioned as the “raison d’être” of the agreement.
Trump’s Middle East adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner said the agreement represented a “massive change” for the Middle East and a “dramatic breakthrough that will make the Middle East safer.”
Calling for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) to follow suit, Kushner said that “it is in the interest of a lot of these countries from a security point of view and from an economic point of view to have relations with Israel… The more that countries come together like Israel and the UAE... the harder it will be for Iran to divide and conquer.”
“If you think about the people who don’t want Saudi Arabia and Israel to make a peace agreement, the number one opponent for that is going to be Iran,” he said.
However, the UAE quickly distanced itself from this characterisation of the agreement. “The UAE-Israeli peace treaty is a sovereign decision not directed at Iran,” said UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash on Twitter on Monday after the UAE had summoned Iran’s charge d’affaires in Abu Dhabi in response to a speech by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in which he had accused the UAE of making a “huge mistake” in normalising ties with Israel, calling it a “betrayal” by the Gulf state.
Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps also said there could be dangerous consequences for the UAE, calling the deal a “shameful” agreement and an “evil action” that was underwritten by the US, according to its website.
Iran fears that the normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE could pave the way for more US weapons sales to the Gulf Arab country.
In a US National Public Radio interview on Friday, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said that “the more the Emirates become a friend of Israel, become a partner of Israel, become a regional ally of the United States, I think obviously that alters the threat assessment and could work out to the Emirates’ benefit” on future weapons sales.
The US guarantees that Israel receives more advanced American weapons than the Arab states, giving it what is labelled a “qualitative military edge”.
On Tuesday and contrary to Friedman’s assurances, the Israeli prime minister’s office issued a statement emphasising that the agreement with the UAE did not include any changes in arms policies, saying that “the US made clear to Israel that it will always make sure to protect Israel’s qualitative edge.”
But Tehran is also concerned that allowing Israel a foothold in the UAE will allow it to engage in acts against Iran. An Iranian official told the Weekly that “Iran has clearly stated its position on the UAE move. We warn against hiding behind normalisation to pursue an agenda against Iran.”
For the UAE, the deal is not without risks, among them regional reactions. If the other Arab Gulf states do not follow suit in normalising relations with Israel, the UAE will be in a perplexing situation, wondering whether to press ahead or to put on the brakes by waiting for other countries.
Only Bahrain and Oman from the GCC have welcomed the deal, while Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar have yet to comment. Government sources in Kuwait said its position towards Israel was unchanged, and it would be the last country to normalise relations.
The UAE agreement with Israel comes at a time when the US strategy towards Iran is faltering. The US suffered a humiliating defeat in the UN Security Council when it failed to pass a resolution extending the arms embargo on Iran last week.
Only one country supported the US resolution, the Dominican Republic.
During Trump’s four years in office, the “maximum pressure” strategy against Tehran has achieved nothing but suffering for ordinary Iranians. In June, Iran agreed to a 25-year strategic co-operation deal with China on economic and security issues worth about $600 billion. Under the deal, Iran will sell oil to the Chinese in exchange for investments in banking, transportation, energy, communications and technology.
China and Iran will also form a joint commission for developing weapons and scientific partnerships, including in cyberwarfare, as part of China’s moves to step up its intelligence and military presence in the Middle East. Iran is working on a similar strategic treaty with Russia.
The UAE-Israeli deal in its current shape does not represent an immediately significant transformation of geopolitical relations. “The impact on the Middle East cannot be predicted immediately. There are many possible variables,” Black told the Weekly.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly