SAY there’s this couple who have been dating each other for years, but who have always denied any such relationship despite the fact that they’re always seen in cosy corners, snuggling away and whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears. Then they go ahead and announce their engagement and expect everyone to react with unfeigned surprise and exclamations of ‘oh my God this is so unexpected, so bold, so groundbreaking!’
This is pretty much what the Israel-UAE deal is like, given that both countries have had not-so-secret contacts and cooperation for many years now. This ‘normalisation’ of relations simply formalises the existing ground reality, and comes as no surprise. In the past few years, we have seen unprecedented economic and security cooperation between the UAE and Israel, one aspect of which was the increasing use by the UAE (and also Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) of the cutting-edge Israeli spyware Pegasus, which can only be sold with Israeli governmental approval. More recently, the two countries pledged to collaborate on research and technology to combat Covid-19. These are just two small examples.
Naturally, any such formal announcement had to include a mention of the Palestinians, an issue that still resounds with the semi-mythical ‘Arab street’, and so the UAE has linked this agreement to the ending of annexations by the Israeli government. This is rightly being considered as a fig leaf to retain some degree of decency in what is otherwise a fairly naked power play, and one wonders if the deal would stand cancelled if more annexations do take place or the next time Israel decides to bombard the Palestinians.
Stranger still is the framing of this as a ‘peace’ deal as these countries were never at war. In fact, they share a common adversary in the shape of Iran and it is Iran that is almost certainly the main target of this alliance. That then means that the UAE deal will likely be followed by similar deals being signed between Israel and Bahrain, Oman and then perhaps Saudi Arabia, though there is silence on that front so far and perhaps the UAE has stolen the initiative from its larger partner here.
However, while an eventual formal recognition by Saudi Arabia is not imminent by any means, it is not off the table either as there has been a growing thaw for over a decade between Saudi Arabia and Israel, again spurred by a shared anxiety over Iran’s influence. The kingdom may, in fact, prefer to keep the relationship informal to avoid serious criticism.
In this dynamic, while lip service will certainly be paid to the Palestinian cause, it will be a distant concern when compared to the need by the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia (a goal shared by Israel) to contain and roll back Iranian influence and — though this is a secondary priority — undercut Turkey as well. So it is no surprise that the same countries praising the current deal are the very ones who applauded Donald Trump’s stillborn Israel-Palestine ‘deal of the century’ and the ones who condemned it are also the ones who are raging against the Israel-UAE deal. Turkey, which maintains relations with Israel, has been particularly strident.
Why formalise a de facto alliance at all? One reason is likely increasing concern about America’s growing withdrawal from Middle Eastern affairs and the effects of its disinterest in direct interventions in the region. In that scenario, what becomes of tiny UAE, a country of 10 million in which 9m are foreigners who cannot be naturalised? Addicted to punching far above its weight and keen to flex military muscle, ‘little Sparta’ is nonetheless a victim of demographics and can in no way match its intended rivals (bombing Yemen doesn’t count) without a solid system of alliances if push does eventually come to shove.
In a world where the US may not readily march to the defence of Gulf monarchies, Israel becomes the safest bet, given that close ties with it also allow for a certain protection when it comes to the vagaries of US domestic politics. A similar calculation can be made by Saudi Arabia, especially given how invested they have been in building personal relations with Trump and his family.
If, as seems increasingly likely, Trump loses the elections a deal with Israel would provide considerable insurance even if the Biden administration reverses or moderates Trumps’ ‘maximum pressure’ approach to Iran. With more such announcements in the pipeline, at least if Jared Kushner is to be believed, Israel emerges as the biggest winner here, gaining much-needed legitimacy and regional allies who can help mute criticism of its actions.
As for Trump, he may be hoping that this will gain him some plaudits — and thus votes — in the upcoming elections but it’s debatable as to how much importance the average American voter places on foreign affairs. However, it will likely win him the largely unstinting support of the Israeli lobby and its affiliates.