On August 13, the governments of Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that they had agreed to bilateral relations – including investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications, technology, energy, healthcare, culture, the environment, and, in time, full diplomatic ties at the ambassadorial level - in exchange for Israel suspending announced plans to annex large areas of the Palestinian territories in the West Bank. The timeline for this process is not yet clear, with UAE officials stating that “talks will start” in the coming weeks to implement normalisation.
Dubbed the “Abraham Accords,” the US-sponsored agreement, which carries some historical significance, as the UAE is only the third Arab country to normalise relations with Israel since its founding over 70 years ago, stands to prevent, at least temporarily, Israeli-Palestinian and even broader regional deterioration that could have ensued in the wake of Israeli unilateral annexation. The Trump administration has trumpeted the economic and security benefits of the agreement, and it hopes that the expected accords will be a step toward further normalisation and regional peace.
WHAT LED TO THE AGREEMENT?
Israel and Gulf monarchies – the UAE and Bahrain in particular - have been increasing their bilateral relations for years. Despite focusing mostly on intelligence sharing, they have extended their cooperation into a number of other areas, participating in joint military exercises, diplomatic initiatives, research and development, and investment.
A breakthrough came in 2015 when Israel opened a diplomatic office in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi tied to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), its first openly established representative office in the United Arab Emirates. At the time, Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said that this would be the first Israeli mission located in a country with which Israel has no diplomatic ties, and the first time current Israeli citizens live in the UAE. Israeli government ministers previously attended IRENA conferences in Abu Dhabi in 2010 and 2014, and the idea of establishing a permanent Israeli mission at IRENA was announced following the 2014 visit.
Since then, senior Israeli officials have visited Abu Dhabi. In 2018, Miri Regev, who was serving as Israel's minister of culture and sport, became the first Israeli to visit the Gulf country in an unprecedented official state visit to the capital and where she witnessed for the first time the Israeli national anthem being played at a judo tournament which Israeli athletes participated in, and went on a public tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.
The following year Israeli Communications Minister, Ayoub Kara travelled to the UAE, as well as Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz who made an unannounced visit to Abu Dhabi, where he discussed the Iranian threat with high-level Emirati officials. "I will continue to work with the prime minister to push for the policy of normalisation that we're leading based on Israel's capabilities in the issues of security, intelligence and different civil opportunities," Katz said at the time of his visit in July 2019.
Israel is also set to participate in Dubai’s World Expo 2020, which is now scheduled to open in October 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The coronavirus pandemic has opened further opportunities for UAE-Israeli cooperation. In June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel will join forces with the UAE on medical projects, including the fight against the pandemic. Addressing a military ceremony in southern Israel, Netanyahu said the effort stemmed from intensive contacts with the UAE in recent months. Under the agreement, two state-owned Israeli defence contractors partnered with Abu Dhabi-based technology company Group 42 to develop technologies that will accelerate knowledge of the virus with high precision.
There is also scope for further technological and scientific cooperation. Israel is the most technologically advanced country in the Middle East, and the UAE has ambitions globally, and beyond, having just become the first Arab country to send a mission to Mars.
Significant momentum for an agreement began when Israel did not begin the process of annexing West Bank territory on July 1 as Netanyahu had indicated. The Emiratis reportedly took the opportunity to promise full normalisation of relations if annexation was taken off the table. This was the subtext of an op-ed that the Emirati ambassador to the United Sates published in Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, in June.
The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, said the UAE's recognition of Israel was "a very bold step" to stop the "ticking time bomb" of Israel's annexation of the West Bank. He said the UAE saw this as "a stoppage of the annexation, not a suspension".
The UAE and Israel will also join the US to launch a "Strategic Agenda for the Middle East", with the three leaders noting that they "share a similar outlook regarding the threats and opportunities in the region, as well as a shared commitment to promoting stability through diplomatic engagement, increased economic integration, and closer security co-ordination".
The city hall in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv is lit up in the colours of the United Arab Emirates national flag on August 13, 2020. (Getty)
THE IRAN FACTOR
Gargash said that United Arab Emirates' agreement to normalise ties with Israel is a "sovereign decision" that was not directed at Iran, but common regional concerns about their heavily-armed neighbour across the water have certainly helped to overcome one of the most stubborn diplomatic divisions.
Shared antipathy towards Iran and the JCPOA nuclear agreement between world powers and Tehran which has caused disquiet in Israel and Sunni Arab states alike, has been a major driver bringing the Israelis and Emiratis together has been their shared distrust of Iran, which they view as a major destabilising force in the region. The Gulf nations are concerned about its growing military capabilities and rapidly advancing presence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, despite crippling sanctions. Israel shares this concern, especially when it comes to Iran's nuclear programme.
Tehran has already responded predictably to the announcement to normalise relations, a decision it considers to be a provocation, with scalding rhetoric. The Islamic Republic issued an explicit threat on Saturday to launch an attack against the UAE over the agreement. President Hassan Rouhani said the Gulf state had made a “huge mistake” and condemned what he called a betrayal. The Iranian hard-line daily Kayhan, whose editor in chief is appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, went further. “The UAE’s great betrayal of the Palestinian people … will turn this small, rich country, which is heavily dependent on security, into a legitimate and easy target,” it said in a front-page editorial.
Deeper cooperation between the Jewish state, with its formidable intelligence capabilities, and Gulf states is seen by many in Tehran as a threat to Iran's interests and regional ambitions. Tehran is already under heightened pressure due to crippling U.S. economic sanctions and one of the worst outbreaks of the coronavirus in the Middle East, which has killed nearly 20,000 Iranians and infected more than 340,000, according to official figures. The Islamic republic is also in the throes of popular unrest over the country’s economic grievance which prompted widespread protests since late 2017.
But so far, the bark appears to be worse than the bite. Clerical rulers decided to refrain from taking an aggressive approach to the region’s changing geopolitics. With business ties to Iran stretching back over a century, the emirate of Dubai, 150 km (100 miles) across the Gulf, has long been one of Iran’s main links to the outside world. Analysts said Tehran cannot afford to lose Dubai as a trade route, particularly since heavy U.S. sanctions have drastically reduced its oil exports and made doing international business increasingly complicated. Mobilising proxies also will impose huge financial and political costs on Iran, where many Iranians already resent the establishment’s regional ambitions.
Iran also fears that the move could increase region pressure amid suggestions by U.S. and Israeli officials that other Persian Gulf states could follow suit.
ISRAEL’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE ARAB WORLD
The deal between Israel and the UAE may now open the door for other Gulf monarchies to follow suit, with Bahrain, which congratulated the U.A.E. for "taking steps to enhance the chances for Middle East peace," being the most likely to normalise ties. King Hamad has overseen steps toward normalisation, including allowing Israeli officials to attend a regional security meeting in the country in 2019 as well as a U.S-led conference on boosting the Palestinian economy as part U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace initiative during which Bahrain's foreign minister gave an unprecedented interview to an Israeli television channel calling for "peace" with Israel and urging "better relations" with the country. Additionally, the Israeli foreign minister has met with his Bahraini counterpart and that official’s predecessor.
Oman is another possible candidate for normalisation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, visited Oman's late Sultan Qaboos bin Said in a very public meeting that was broadcast across the country in 2018. However, some experts say that Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, who came to power in January 2020 following Qaboos' death, could act more cautiously regarding relations with Israel.
As for Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that Israel is preparing for direct flights, over Saudi Arabia, to the United Arab Emirates as part of its normalisation deal with the UAE. Saudi Arabia does not recognise Israel and its air space is closed to Israeli airliners. But in what was seen in Israel as an indication of warmer relations with Riyadh, Air India was allowed in 2018 to begin flying over Saudi territory on its New Delhi-Tel Aviv route.
Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen, said on Sunday that Muslim countries in Africa could also be on the agenda for additional agreements. “I think that Bahrain and Oman are definitely on the agenda. In addition, in my assessment, there is a chance that already in the coming year there will be a peace deal with additional countries in Africa, chief among them, Sudan,” he told Army Radio.
In February 2000, Netanyahu met in Uganda with Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council. Since then, other senior Sudanese officials have made positive statements on Israel.