Why Events in the Gulf Still Matter: Implications of Peace Between Israel and the UAE

There’s a joke that goes as follows: ‘…and on the eighth day, God created the Middle East, and said “let there be breaking news”’. In this constant stream of events it can be hard to distinguish between the important and irrelevant – but make no mistake, mutual recognition between Israel and the United Arab Emirates is as important as it gets.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu making a joint statement with Senior US Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner about the Israeli-United Arab Emirates peace accords, Jerusalem, 30 August 2020. (Credit: Reuters)

With the exception of Israel, every Middle Eastern country is Muslim. More importantly, with the exceptions of Iran and Turkey, every country is Arab. In the early years of the 20th century, this relationship wasn’t contentious – indeed, the first Iraqi Minister of Finance was Jewish. However, Zionism and the Arab reaction to it, in concert with the destabilising effects of latter-stage colonialism, fuelled a rise in animosity and Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948 was met by a declaration of war by its Arab neighbours.

The next 25 years saw two more wars and – in the midst of the Cold War – the US formed a strategy to protect what it viewed as an outpost of Western liberalism. American foreign policy united around providing Israel with a qualitative military edge over other Middle Eastern states. Accordingly, Israel won every major Cold War conflict, and territorial gains they made in these wars forced Arab neighbours to coalesce around a new strategy of ‘land for peace’. This saw Israel return the Sinai to Egypt in 1977 in exchange for recognition, and grant limited Palestinian autonomy in exchange for peace with Jordan in 1994. Eight years later, the Arab League declared that its members would collectively recognise the State of Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state.

At the same time, two key events took place. The 1979 revolution in Iran turned a staunch American and Israeli ally into an anti-Western, anti-Arab power and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 created a regional power vacuum. The last two decades have seen an Iran-Arab cold war across the region. Saudi Arabia, along with its Arab allies, is currently waging a war of influence against Iran across the Middle East. Yemen, Syria and Lebanon in particular bear the fingerprints of this struggle.

Now, for the coup de grace. In 2015, the US signed a deal with Iran, trading sanctions relief in exchange for Iran scaling back its nuclear programme. Israel and the Arab World were united in their fear of Iran and animosity towards the deal, which allowed Iran to funnel more money to proxy groups in the region. President Trump upended America’s approach, seeking to unite Israel and the Arab states by opposing Iranian regional influence. This bipolar strategy enabled the US to bring Israel and the UAE closer together and on August 13th, the two nations signed a deal mutually recognising each other’s existence.

So why the UAE, of all Arab states? In one respect, the Emirates are keen to bolster their military position. The US may be more willing to sell technologically-advanced weapons, including the coveted F-35, to seemingly less belligerent Arab powers. Israel is also a regional leader in technology, which the UAE may stand to benefit from.

Yet the UAE also benefits from its demographics. Nearly 60% of its population are South Asian foreign workers, employed in massive construction projects in Dubai; only 11% are Arab Emirati citizens. This corporate state structure makes the Emirati monarchy highly stable in comparison to its Arab neighbours, who are populated by citizenries that are generally hostile towards Israel.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, will likely wait and see if other Gulf States follow the UAE’s lead before making its own peace deal with Israel. The primary objective of all Arab autocracies is domestic stability, and Saudi Arabia’s conservative Muslim population might view public overtures towards Israel as a sell-out by the state’s monarchy. The Arab populations in Africa are generally less conservative but they make up for it with anti-imperialist sentiment, and would be unlikely to recognise Israel whilst the occupation continues.

This brings us to the one Arab entity that will not be making peace in the near future – Palestine. Arab states have largely given up on the Palestinian cause and instead come to fear Palestinian freedom, lest it bring to power a people’s government that undermines their fragile authoritarian legitimacy. Until recently, Palestinians still had one bargaining chip. Previously, the Arab League had almost unanimously withheld recognition of Israel. When it did come, as in the case of Egypt and Jordan, it was in exchange for significant concessions. Now that the UAE has agreed to recognise Israel with no significant conditions, Palestinian leaders will feel as if the rug has been swept out from under their feet. The UAE has given an official seal of approval to the occupation; expect to see it remain for a long time.

Seth Weisz 

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