THE foreign ministers of Israel and the UAE openly exchanged phone calls this week. It was more a case of ‘hear my ring’ than ‘wear my ring’, but the engagement has nonetheless publicly been formalised, and a marriage made in Washington is on the cards.
Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise. It was an open secret that the two parties had been flirting for decades. Intelligence links reportedly stretch back as far as the 1970s, but the relationship blossomed into a more meaningful romance more recently, when the old ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’ dynamic acquired greater potency during the Obama administration’s overtures to Iran.
Then Donald Trump appeared on the American electoral landscape, and their Israeli links helped both the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and his regional mentor Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, gain access to the inner circles. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, was an obvious conduit.
All of the Gulf states have long been loyal allies of the US. And for much of that period their overt hostility to Israel has been tempered by a covert envy relating not only to the nation’s technological prowess and its nuclear capability, but to its privileged status as Uncle Sam’s golden child in the Middle East. Apart from being by far the most favoured recipient of American largesse in the region, in the eyes of successive US administrations it could also do no wrong. Particularly egregious excesses earned, at best, a mild and meaningless reprimand.
MBS and MBZ wanted a piece of that, and under Trump — a fellow worshipper of Mammon — they have largely succeeded. It doesn’t hurt, from the American point of view, that the UAE, alongside Saudi Arabia, is among the keenest clients for US military hardware — and both nations’ propensity to deploy it against much weaker foes has been amply demonstrated in Yemen for more than half a decade.
Reaching a peace deal in Yemen might indeed have been an achievement for the UAE, five years after it collaborated with the Saudis in an intervention that both naively thought would achieve its objectives within months, if not weeks. Instead, it finds cause for pride in making peace with a nation with which it has never been at war.
Unlike Egypt in 1979 and Jordan 15 years later, the UAE’s accommodation with Israel isn’t a shift from hostilities to frivolities and fraternisation. Abu Dhabi and Washington have sought to frame Israel’s suspension of its declared intent to annex more of the occupied West Bank as a key aspect of the deal. That is sheer nonsense, given that Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral promise has already been on hold pending a green light from the White House, with the Trump administration getting cold feet over the idea of endorsing such an outrageous violation of international law by its pet state.
The song sheets were not coordinated, though. Trump says annexation is off the table. Netanyahu says it definitely is not, but the settlers who live on occupied Palestinian territory aren’t convinced. David Friedman, the US ambassador to Israel, says the word ‘suspend’ was chosen carefully, and it means a ‘temporary halt’. It’s unlikely the UAE will have any say in if and when that ‘halt’ slides to ‘go’ — but then, the Emirates habitually thrive on fantasies.
When I worked for a newspaper in Dubai from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, it was forbidden to mention Israel. Every reference had to be changed to ‘the Zionist entity’. It went beyond the news media. The word ‘Israel’ and its derivatives were blacked out in dictionaries, the shape of the nation was obliterated in atlases, and so on.
The absurdity of the rule was plain as day. So was the hypocrisy of it all. Like most other Arab states, the UAE back then paid lip service to the cause of Palestinian self-determination. In that context, perhaps not much has changed. Nor would it be entirely surprising if it turned out that Mohammed Dahlan, a brutal foe of both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas and now a ‘security adviser’ to MBZ, played a leading role in both the new deal and the 2010 assassination in Dubai of a senior Hamas leader.
On the brighter side, one must acknowledge the diminution of that hypocrisy. For states such as the UAE — with Oman and Bahrain likely to follow, and perhaps even the Saudis if MBS gets his way — it makes far more sense to collaborate with the kindred semi-fascist authoritarian state that Israel has become under Netanyahu than to fake a moral superiority that can fool only imbeciles.
There’s no denying, though, that the Middle East dynamic has shifted in the past few days — towards a coalescence of authoritarian impulses, and away from the long-standing pretence of empathy with the eternally dispossessed Palestinians.