Israeli President Isaac Herzog made a “historic” visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week and celebrated Israel’s National Day at the country’s pavilion at the Expo Dubai 2020.
Though the presidency in Israel has no significant weight in running the country, the visit was seen as a reinforcement of Israel’s normalisation of relations with the Gulf countries.
The visit was overshadowed by a missile attack launched from Yemen on Abu Dhabi on Sunday. The Emirati military announced that it had intercepted the missile bombardment and destroyed the Houthi militia launch site in Yemen.
While not the first, this week’s attacks on the UAE have led observers to suggest that they are designed as a message to the UAE from Iran and its proxy militia in Yemen.
Herzog’s trip comes weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited the UAE in December. Both visits are firsts of their kind to the Gulf country. On both visits, Israeli journalists accompanied the delegations to the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi, meaning that all coverage came from official statements.
Though the visits might have been planned beforehand, observers have not ignored the fact that they come at a time when the UAE is being targeted by attacks from Yemen. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched a number of drone and missile attacks on Abu Dhabi, one of them killing three people and injuring others last month.
A statement from Herzog’s office expressed Israel’s support for the UAE’s security.
“We are here together to find ways and means to bring full security to people who seek peace in our region,” the statement said. It cited the so-called “Abraham Accords” signed between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain in 2020 to normalise relations as the type of agreement Tel Aviv seeks to establish with other countries in the region.
In addition to reinforcing the normalisation of relations between Israel and the Gulf countries, the economy and business were central to Israel’s high-level visits to Abu Dhabi. According to Emirati officials, non-oil trade between the UAE and Israel accounted for $1.3 billion during the period between August 2020 and January 2022.
The heads of the Manufacturers Association of Israel and of the Israel Export Institute accompanied Herzog on his visit. The business groups discussed a $10 billion fund set up under the Abraham Accords and “how the UAE might help Israel find new Middle Eastern and Asian markets,” according to Reuters.
According to the official Emirati news agency WAM, the two countries have signed over 60 agreements and memoranda of understanding (MOUs) since the establishment of diplomatic relations.
The agreements cover areas including the promotion and protection of investments, healthcare, cooperation, Covid-19-related research and development collaboration, agriculture, food security, water, the environment, and climate change.
A $100 million joint technology and research fund has been launched in addition to a student exchange programme between Emirati and Israeli universities.
In addition to advances on the business front, the Israeli visits carry a political significance in the region. It is no coincidence that they come at a time when Iran’s negotiations with the world powers in Vienna to revive a 2015 nuclear deal are about to bear fruit.
Israel opposes the US plan to rejoin the deal, after former US president Donald Trump withdrew from it in 2018. The Gulf countries are also concerned about Iran’s support for its proxy militias in the region, like the Houthis in Yemen and Hizbullah in Lebanon.
The UAE has been keen to portray the visits in the light of an established policy of peace and prosperity, not conflict and confrontation. According to an informed Emirati source, the country is following a course enshrined in the union laid out by the late founder of the state, sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, for tolerance, security, and stability.
“The UAE is not sparing any effort to bring peace and prosperity to its people and the whole region. If you are not threatening stability, you are welcome to the cooperation of the UAE for mutual benefit. The Abraham Accords are here to stay and to build on. It is not a political manoeuvre but a principled approach,” the source told Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity.
Western analysts have focused on a shared concern between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv over Iranian meddling in the region. But the Emiratis insist that their role is to ease tensions and push for a “peaceful political settlement” rather than aggression.
“If you are focusing on the welfare of your people and sustainable development in your country and the region, you cannot be seeking conflict. You need a peaceful environment to achieve your goals,” the Emirati source said.
Talking to ordinary Emiratis shows that normalisation with Israel is generally supported. “We are not abandoning our Palestinian brothers,” some Emiratis say. “They [the Palestinians] already have relations with Israel, and our relations with it can help bolster the Palestinian side in any coming negotiations for a political settlement.”
The UAE plays host to almost 200 nationalities of expatriates working and living in the country. “It won’t make a big difference to have Israelis as well,” one Emirati citizen said.
Some compare the “cold peace” between Israel and other countries in the region like Jordan and Egypt with the “warm peace” between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE.
Veteran UAE diplomat Anwar Gergash wrote on Twitter of the Israeli president’s visit that it was “within the context of the Emirati approach seeking to build and reinforce bridges with all countries in the region to develop regional stability and prosperity.”
He said in another tweet that the “main factor in our bilateral relations with different countries around the world is based on our economic, scientific and technological priorities… seeking a better future for the region through cooperation not confrontation that has only led to the deterioration of regional development.”
There is no doubt that regional issues were discussed between the Israeli president and the Emirati leaders on the recent visit, as earlier happened during Bennett’s visit, as well as hotspots such as Ethiopia and Ukraine.
Only time will tell if the two sides have identical stances on these issues.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.