THE EMIRATES palace in Abu Dhabi.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
While Israel was excited to host the Eurovision competition in May, in the Arab Gulf States, international events are held almost on a daily basis. One of the most prestigious of them is Expo 2020, scheduled for October next year in Dubai. The Expo ranks as the third most important global event after the Olympics and the World Cup (slated for 2022 in neighboring Qatar). While 132 states had signed up for the fair as of August 2018, Dubai’s leadership continued to debate Israel’s participation. On April 2019, Expo organizers issued a festive statement saying all countries “without exception” were welcome to attend. “For more than 170 years, World Expos have been apolitical events focused on furthering humanity for the common good through innovation, cultural exchange, creativity and collaboration. We are proud to continue that tradition,” according to the communique. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the news, writing, “This is another expression of Israel’s rising status in the world and in the region.” Whether Netanyahu’s insight meets reality or not, Israel’s participation provides itself with an unusual diplomatic opportunity, for which it must prepare wisely to fulfill.
The Expo events afford tremendous economic values for the participating countries, as well as the opportunity to shape their national image within the global community. The exposure to millions of visitors and the platform for establishing direct contacts among diplomatic representatives and key figures from around the world generates a unique hub of diplomacy. Indeed, beyond its importance for Israel’s economy and image, Israel’s participation in this event, hosted by an Arab Muslim country it has no current and past diplomatic relations with, is a significant achievement, which reflects the nature of Israel’s current relations with the UAE.
On the one hand, the UAE, as the host of an international event, is expected by the international community to provide access to all countries, including Israel. As a result, the UAE and other Gulf countries have legitimized in recent years the arrival of Israeli nationals to international conferences and tournaments they hosted. In that sense, the UAE’s decision to invite Israel to Expo 2020 does not reflect a change in the status of ties between the two states, nor does it forecast the beginning of direct and formal relations. On the other hand, meeting this international code points to the UAE’s willingness to compromise on anti-normalization measures toward Israel.
Currently, the UAE government distinguishes between bilateral ties with Israel and international cooperation with it, leaving room to maneuver in the case of the latter. In the international realm, an Israeli representative office has been operating for the past three years in Abu Dhabi, the capital, under the auspices of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Israel and the UAE also conduct joint air force exercises and business cooperation in the fields of diamond trade and cyber technology, under international umbrellas. The UAE was a pioneer among the Gulf States in allowing an Israeli sports team to display its national symbols at the October 2018 international judo championship in Abu Dhabi, in which the Emiratis also hosted Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev according to full ceremonial protocol. Additional sports events in the UAE, such as tennis tournaments, a car race and the Special Olympics have also included growing participation of Israeli delegations in recent years.
Conversely, the UAE strictly limits bilateral relations with Israel, conditioning them on a resolution to the Palestinian issue. Accordingly, the country has been outspoken in its criticism of Israel regarding measures it defines as unjust toward the Palestinian people. Therefore, it does not cooperate with Israel in areas such as culture, research, tourism, industry and media despite mutual interests in doing so.
AT THE same time, we are witnessing a new phenomenon in which Gulf citizens express support for Israel and call for the establishment of direct ties with Israel on social media. Khalaf al-Habtoor, a leading Emirati executive, asked on Twitter why the Gulf States are not signing a peace agreement with Israel, the “same as Egypt, Morocco and Jordan have done before.” Such voices do not regard Israel as an enemy, and view cooperation with it as a vital source of regional stability and development. While not reflecting an official government line, they signal a gradual shift from a formerly taboo subject to an increasingly acceptable opinion. These expressions of interest in bilateral relations create a crack in the traditional demand that has placed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the key obstacle to normalization with Israel.
The gap between the official UAE policy toward Israel and the mutual courtship between the two nations demonstrates that Israel is on the cusp of a formative phase in these relations. At this point of time, Israel would do well to leverage the relative openness of the Gulf States toward it by expanding its involvement in the region. Just as Israel sought a formal invitation to Expo 2020, it should continue to identify opportunities, map scheduled international events in the Gulf and ask to participate. Israel should also invite Gulf countries to take part in international events it hosts.
One important issue that arises from increased interactions between Israel and Gulf States is the need to study the culture, values, sensitivities and local laws when preparing Israeli delegations for excursions in the Gulf. Such preparation should be overseen by a government agency, which will formulate a plan for ties with the Gulf States and will be put in charge of these ties through diplomatic, security, economic and civilian channels. By so doing, Israel’s presence in the Gulf could become more acceptable and even be expanded. However, if Israel seeks a more significant opening to the region, it must advance a resolution of the Palestinian issue through a genuine process that would also be of great benefit for its ties with the Gulf States. Above all, Israel must acknowledge these new nexuses of power in the Middle East and draw up a corresponding map of alliances. Its integration into the expanding circle of opportunities emerging around the Gulf countries has the potential to be triplicate beneficial, since it consists of bilateral, regional and international opportunities. The writer is a policy fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a research fellow at the Chaikin Chair in Geostrategy, University of Haifa.
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