Bennett in UAE: trade is at the fore, but Iran is always lurking – analysis

The prime minister couldn’t take full advantage of the visit to make a big public deal promoting Israeli business interests.

 United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett upon his arrival in Abu Dhabi (photo credit: REUTERS)
United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett upon his arrival in Abu Dhabi
(photo credit: REUTERS)

The first visit to the United Arab Emirates by an Israeli prime minister was a much more staid affair than one may have expected, due to the corona pandemic.

The Emiratis know how to be good hosts: they rolled out the red carpet for Bennett’s arrival, when he was greeted by Foreign Minister and brother of the crown prince Abdallah bin Zayed. Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan hosted him for lunch at his private residence.

But Bennett could not take full advantage of the visit to make a big public deal promoting for example Israeli business interests, because he was trying to avoid crowds that may have Omicron variant carriers in them. In the end, ironically, someone on his plane – not his staff, which means it was security or an El Al crew member – tested positive for COVID.

Still, sources close to Bennett called the trip a runaway success, praising his ability to create good relations with foreign leaders in one-on-one settings.

Bennett and his aides met with MBZ, as the Emirati leader is known, and his advisers, before the two leaders held a one-on-one meeting, a lunch, and then another meeting for just the two of them, for a total of four hours together.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and United Arab Emirates’ leader Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, December 13, 2021. (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and United Arab Emirates’ leader Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, December 13, 2021. (credit: CHAIM TZACH/GPO)

The public focus was on economic matters. Bennett and MBZ agreed to push forward an Israel-UAE free trade agreement – negotiations started last month – as quickly as possible. Bennett also met with the UAE’s Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology Dr. Sultan Al Jaber and Culture Minister Noura Al Kaabi.

The joint statement released by MBZ and Bennett’s offices also left out security and military cooperation, focusing on “economic and civic issues in which there has been significant progress in the past year, including private and public sector cooperation in R&D, technology, food security, climate, water, energy, environment, health, and tourism.” Other topics in the statement were joint efforts to combat the corona pandemic and interfaith tolerance.

Bennett’s spokesman Matan Sidi focused almost entirely on economic matters as well, saying for example that Bennett and Al Jaber agreed that the countries would work together to lead the world in renewable energy.

Knowing the history of Israel-UAE relations, and how their shared concerns about the Iranian threat drew the countries together until they eventually declared open diplomatic relations last year, it goes without saying that Iran was an important topic on the agenda.

But it really did go without saying anything, quite literally: Israel’s new allies in the Gulf tend to speak subtly about the threats coming from their large neighbor, and Israel chose to be sensitive to that preference. There was not one statement or briefing from Bennett’s office that mentioned Iran, though a senior diplomatic source confirmed that the topic came up.

“We don’t like what’s happening in Vienna,” where world powers are negotiating with Iran, the source said. “So we are working on this axis as well, to proactively try to explain why it’s bad.”

The UAE has taken a different tack in reaction to the talks in Vienna going nowhere – one that is not available to Israel – which is to improve its relations with Iran.

That made the timing of this visit, as Vienna talks continue and the UAE hedges its bets, especially important for Israel, which is why the visit was not postponed despite corona concerns.

While the public statements were all about economic ties, Iran was an important part of the historic meeting.