The UAE and Israel: A dangerous liaison

Why are the UAE and Israel in such a hurry to normalise relations?

In this file photo Israeli and United Arab Emirates flags line a road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, on August 16, 2020.
Israeli and United Arab Emirates flags line a road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya on August 16, 2020 [AFP/Jack Guez]

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has been so enamoured with Israel that even before formalising their new bilateral agreement, they had started normalising relations on many levels, including communications, transportation, and security among others.

What appeared to be a “marriage of convenience” has been in fact a full-fledged love affair. Unlike traditional marriages, the two fell in love and secretly consummated their relationship well before officially announcing the wedding date.

Indeed, the announcement had been a long time coming, considering the many hints and winks from both sides, but it was the Trump administration that was eager to break the news with much fanfare ahead of the US elections.

The Emirati attempt to spin its appeasement as a strategic calculation to stop Israel’s illegal annexation of Palestinian lands and promote Middle East peace was laughed at in Palestine and throughout the region.

As I wrote the morning after the announcement, the record shows the UAE has harboured more hostility than sympathy towards the Palestinians. If anything, the deal will further empower Israel and weaken the Palestinian struggle for freedom.

Moreover, the UAE was never at war, let alone a religious war, with Israel, to have to conclude a “peace agreement” dubbed rather dubiously the “Abraham Agreement”.

If anything, this is more of an alliance than an agreement – an alliance directed at the regional powers, Iran and Turkey; an alliance that threatens to further destabilise the region if US President Donald Trump is re-elected for four more years.

But what if the Democratic nominee Joe Biden is elected president? Surely, the Emirati leaders are reading the US press and know all too well the former vice president is ahead in the polls and remains committed to the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Geopolitical partners

Since its birth out of sin – colonial sin – Israel has been all too eager for recognition and acceptance by its Arab and Muslim hinterland. To break out of its regional isolation, it is happy to normalise relations with any nation, regardless of size, rule, or geography.

And when a rich country like the UAE volunteers to normalise relations without any real conditions, it is normal that Israel would jump at the opportunity and try to speed up the process as much as possible.

Indeed, Israel considers Abu Dhabi and Dubai the gateway to Saudi Arabia, the way Hong Kong was the gateway to China.

But why has Abu Dhabi been so eager and in a rush to dash forward with the new relationship in these uncertain times?

Well, perhaps because it reckons the new relationship with Israel is particularly instrumental in times of uncertainty, no less if Biden wins.

After all, it believes Israel’s political clout in Washington will protect it, come what may.

Indeed, the UAE and Israel began their secret contacts in Washington in the chaotic years following the 2003 invasion of Iraq and elevated them to strategic coordination during the turbulent years of the Obama administration. (For full disclosure, I was senior political analyst for Abu Dhabi TV for three years during and after the Gulf war, where I was received graciously and was able to comment freely.)

Their leaders, along with those of Saudi Arabia, felt betrayed by then-President Barack Obama’s initial support for the Arab Spring and his pressure on Arab autocrats to embrace democratic reforms, i.e. step aside or step down.

All three regimes went into a state of panic during the Arab upheavals, railing against Obama for his recognition of the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2012 Egyptian elections.

These regimes consider democracy and Arab freedom of expression to be their number one enemy.

Obama did a full U-turn on Egypt, refusing to condemn or even acknowledge the 2013 military coup d’etat engineered by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, but Emirati, Israeli and Saudi leaders decided that Washington is no longer dependable, and instead had to rely on each other to keep democracy out of the region.

This perception was reinforced two years later when, in 2015, the Obama administration reached a nuclear deal with Iran (the JCPOA), against the wishes of all three parties.

It did not help much that the Obama administration was committed to their military superiority and security and armed them, despite their war crimes in Palestine and Yemen.

Instead, the UAE took the relationship with Israel to a new strategic, security and intelligence level, later encouraged and supported by the Trump administration.

The first fruits of their covert intelligence cooperation allowed Abu Dhabi to use Israeli software to spy on its neighbours and on political and human rights activists throughout the region.

Neo-liberal bedfellows

Israel and the UAE may be two different countries, the former a “colonial ethnocracy” and the latter a repressive autocracy, but their close alliance with the West in general, and the US in particular, has allowed them to successfully liberalise, privatise and globalise their economies, albeit to different degrees.

Both have successfully transformed into security states and market states, becoming models for neoliberal development in the developing world.

Both created efficient bureaucracies dictated by business and commercial needs and effective security apparatuses dictated by unstable regional conditions.

Their capacity to integrate newcomers into their economies – Israel mainly from Jewish immigration and the UAE mainly from expat labour – has allowed them to expand and diversify their economies like no other.

Moreover, their cooperation in security and intelligence-gathering has solidified their clientelism as bedrocks of American influence in the region, regardless of who resides at the White House.

Their capacity to launch wars and project commercial and strategic power beyond their borders renders them important Western assets in a turbulent region.

Reckless ambition

An attraction has developed between the extroverted and rather articulate Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the introverted and inarticulate Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ), the de facto leader of the UAE.

Bibi is envious of the Emirati wealth and its projection of power throughout the region from Tunisia to Syria through Libya and Sudan, and MBZ is envious of Israel’s advanced economy and technology and its influence in Washington.

Netanyahu is also envious of MBZ’s authoritarian rule; he would never have to face trial for corruption, the way the Israeli prime minister is now.

Both are exploiting their status as American strategic assets in order to advance their national interests, regardless of the consequences to their neighbours.

In that way, the US sale of advanced fighter jets F-35 to the UAE will most certainly go through once Israel gets something in return from Washington. And it will be the people of the region who will suffer from Emirati aerial superiority, as they do from Israel’s.

The new bedfellows will try to expand their alliance with the likes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia in order to mount a united front against any new initiative from the US, the European Union or the region that is not to their liking.

They may be able to defeat the Palestinians and Yemenis militarily, and may weaken the Lebanese and the Libyans politically. But Iran and Turkey will prove hard, indeed dangerous, to contain or confront through strategic leverage.

And the same goes for their attempts at stifling democratisation anywhere in the region, which will lead to greater instability and violence.

In short, betting on the new “peace agreement” to advance the cause of peace and stability in the region will prove wishful if not outright cynical.