Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
United Arab Emirate officials made a point last week of playing down the forthcoming opening of an Israeli office in Abu Dhabi within the framework of the International Renewable Energy Agency.
“Any agreement between IRENA and Israel does not represent any change in the position of the UAE or its relations with Israel,” said Maryam al-Falasi, director of communications at the UAE Foreign Affairs Ministry, according to Gulf News.
“IRENA is an international, independent agency that works according to the laws, regulations and norms that govern the work of such organizations.”
Al-Falasi added that missions accredited to the organization are “limited to affairs related to their communications and dealings with the agency. They do not, under any circumstances, cover any other activities and do not involve any obligation upon the host country with regard to its diplomatic relations or any other relations.”
Despite all the throat-clearing accompanying the move, which is par for the course due to internal Arab politics, the opening of any type of Israeli mission in an Arab country has significance, especially at a time when a unique confluence of interests exists between Israel and moderate Arab states.
Behind-the-scenes cooperation between Israel and the UAE, which Dr. Yoel Guzansky of the Institute for National Security Studies refers to as “a tacit alliance,” is nothing new. And it has to remain quiet if it is to continue.
Opposition to Iran is one of the foundations of this alliance. Like Israel, all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council – which includes, in addition to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Oman – are concerned about Iran’s rush toward nuclear weapons capability, not so much because they believe Iran would actually use nuclear weapons, but because it would dramatically increase Iranian influence.
Not unlike Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981, the Gulf States would be more than pleased if Iran’s nuclear capability were destroyed. Memories of Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait are still fresh. If Iraq had a nuclear capability at the time, even the US might have failed to extricate Saddam Hussein. Israel and the Gulf States also share common enemies in Iran’s proxies fighting in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.
But the UAE has other things to gain from ties with Israel, including in the field of renewable energy, which is the official reason for Israel’s presence in Abu Dhabi.
Although it has some of the largest oil reserves on the globe, the UAE is intent on diversifying its mix of energy sources, which are currently almost entirely based on fossil fuels.
Energy consumption in the UAE has skyrocketed in recent years due to the need for additional desalination plants (which can benefit from Israeli know-how), transportation development, and greater investments in infrastructure.
Part of the answer to the UAE’s burgeoning energy needs will be its civilian nuclear energy project, which has received added emphasis folllowing Iran’s nuclear deal with the P5+1.
But renewable energy – such as wind and solar power – can supply only about seven percent of the nation’s electricity needs. And Israel can play an important part in aiding the UAE in developing its renewable energy infrastructure.
Both nuclear and renewable energy sources are important for the UAE, because the nation has one of the highest per capita-to-pollution rations in the world.
Falling oil prices have pushed the UAE to search for alternative energy sources for domestic use while the nation’s natural resources can be used for exports. The Gulf states have only a limited ability to raise taxes or cut subsidies on cheap domestic oil consumption. At the beginning of the year, when Kuwait tried to cut subsidies on diesel fuel, public outrage and rioting forced the regime to backtrack.
Relations between Israel and the UAE have had their ups and downs over the years. They hit a low in January, 2010 after the assassination of Hamas operative Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai, which was purportedly carried out by Israel, according to foreign news sources. Ties have improved since, though it would be an exaggeration to refer to the IRENA deal as a “diplomatic breakthrough.”
Nevertheless, the UAE and other Arab states have much to gain from cooperation with Israel. Indeed, as a columnist for The Kuwait Times declared in the title to a piece he wrote about the time the IRENA agreement between the UAE and Israel was announced, “Israel is not our enemy.”