Later this spring, the UAE is set to host a new round of meetings on regional security cooperation as part of the Mechanism for Middle East Security and Cooperation (MESAC) initiative.
The MESAC meetings are sponsored by the Institute for Islamic Strategic Affairs, a UK-based and Gulf-funded non-profit organisation with the announced mandate of “providing practical solutions for peace and stability across the Islamic world and worldwide”, the Berghof Foundation, a non-profit organisation “that supports efforts to prevent political and social violence” and “peace research”, and the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The first round of meetings was initiated a few months after the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain in April last year.
“The meetings, part of a wider momentum that the UAE, under the leadership of Mohamed bin Zayed, is pursuing, seek to establish a new regional architecture based on the assumption that the Palestinian leadership has to act realistically to allow for the resumption of negotiations,” said an informed diplomatic source.
“This new regional architecture will eventually normalise relations with Israel. Significantly, Bin Zayed is in agreement with Israeli leaders that Iran and radical Islamist groups constitute the main threat to the region.”
Participants in the first three rounds of MESAC talks, the same source said, included representatives of most Arab countries, alongside Israel, Turkey, and Iranian opposition figures.
“They were mostly former officials with close ties to current officials in their respective capitals, academics and think-tankers,” said the source. He added the initiative promotes an idealistic vision for the region in a post conflict scenario.
It is an agenda likely to meet with resistance in more than one Arab capital, and informed diplomatic sources say that Bin Zayed has so far got his audience to listen, but not necessarily to agree.
On 22 March, Bin Zayed was in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt to meet with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. On 25 March, he was in Al-Aqaba, Jordan, where he met Jordanian monarch King Abdullah, Al-Sisi, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, and Saudi State Minister Turki bin Mohamed bin Fahd bin Abdel-Aziz.
After close coordination between Bin Zayed and Bennett, a ministerial meeting convened in Israel on 28 March that brought the foreign ministers of Israel and the US together with their counterparts from four Arab states, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Egypt.
“The fact that Egypt did not immediately announce its participation in the meeting — it took a couple of days to announce the attendance of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri — explains Cairo’s parameters on the call for regional security cooperation,” said one government official.
According to a Gulf-based political source, Egypt’s invitation was extended at the same time other foreign ministers were invited to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “Egypt hesitated, and the understanding is that it did not want to come across as fully subscribing to a new security architecture that includes Israel and is anti-Iran.”
He added that Egypt only announced its participation “after having settled a date for the visit of the Qatari foreign minister to Cairo”.
The Egyptian government source, while declining to confirm or deny this account, said: “I think what the foreign minister made clear in the joint press conference with his Qatari counterpart is that Egypt is not joining any alliances against anyone.”
On 26 March, Shoukri met with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdel-Rahman Al-Thani, and both men spoke positively of relations between their countries. Following the meeting Qatar announced an investment package in Egypt of $5 billion. In the same week Saudi Arabia put a new deposit of $5 billion in the Central Bank of Egypt and the UAE pledged $2 billion of investments in Egypt.
The same Gulf-based source argued that “Qatar is carefully watching the UAE push to integrate Israel and isolate Iran.”
“Qatar does not necessarily object to the integration of Israel — the countries have had good relations for decades, after all. What it does oppose is the isolation of Iran, which Doha has found a credible ally.”
He added that Egypt “remains cautious about pushing forward the integration of Israel in the absence of any development on the Palestinian front, and while cautious about Iran, is not interested in being party to a scheme to isolate Tehran.”
All of which means, he concluded, that Egypt’s foreign-policy interests are not fully compatible with those of any of its past, present or potentially future allies.
Egyptian officials argue that Egypt still shares some solid objectives with the UAE even if the two countries can disagree on the management of regional power dynamics and conflicts.
“Things are more nuanced,” says one. “We have some things in common with the UAE, especially when it comes to radical political Islam, and things in common with Qatar, not least declining a firm alliance against Iran. And let’s remember, a deal between Iran and Western countries over Iran’s nuclear programme looks to be round the corner.”
What the Egyptian government official and the Gulf-based political source do agree is that it is hard to really synchronise the agendas of Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE, and harder to overlook the differences between Qatar and its traditional regional rivals. Moreover, they agree that the other players, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, also have their own visions for the future of the region security and cooperation mechanism.
“The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt have their issues with the US administration which is not the case with Iraq or Jordan,” said the Gulf-based source. He added that the timing of the UAE push for a new security architecture comes at a moment of scepticism in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh over the commitment of the US to the security of their countries.
“We have already seen Iranian-supported Houthi drones hit targets in the UAE,” he said, “and there are very real concerns that Tehran will seek to intervene via Shia communities in Iraq and other Gulf countries.”
Another regional diplomatic source spoke of the possibility “of maritime conflicts over potential gas fields in the region”.
In his meeting with Arab foreign ministers in Israel, and in a subsequent meeting with Bin Zayed in Morocco, Blinken attempted to placate his Gulf interlocutors, say Cairo- and Washington-based diplomatic sources. They argue that the immediate goal of the UAE and Israel, shared with Saudi Arabia, is to convince the Biden administration to maintain the sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Egypt’s goal in joining the meetings, according to Egyptian officials, was for it not to be excluded from any new political or security dynamic, though “we cannot become involved in any large-scale regional military or intelligence cooperation, and we certainly do not see eye to eye,” on the parameters of conflict-resolution mechanism in the region.
According to Cairo-based foreign diplomatic sources, the UAE’s push has a number of long-term objectives. According to one, “it is aiming to rework not just the security architecture of the region but its political make-up.”
The diplomatic sources believe that “a conflict-free Middle East is the only way that would allow for a new regional order.”
Despite an awareness that such ambitions will raise eyebrows, informed diplomatic sources expect the UAE to continue to show its strength when it comes to regional, and maybe even international, security.
Earlier this week, the UAE hosted a meeting of the ministers of interior of 11 states, including Israel, Arab, Asian, European, and African countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.