The unexpected cost of Israel’s integration into the Middle East - opinion

Decision-makers in Jerusalem are learning that integration into the Middle East comes at a cost

 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 historic visit by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to the Emirates went relatively smoothly. It did not lead the news – peace, it would seem, does not produce ratings. Threats and danger sell much better. Nonetheless, the story of Israel’s relationship with the Emirates is interesting and important because it illustrates the complexity of the Middle Eastern arena. Those seeking to divide the region between the good guys and the bad, between those supportive of Israel and its opponents, find themselves amazed time and again at the political and diplomatic sophistication of the regional players, especially in the Gulf.

Israel’s relationship with the UAE has developed at a dizzying pace over the past year. A report published by the Emirati Embassy in the US listed no fewer than 70 meetings, joint activities and agreements. In the field of diplomacy, relations were formally established and official meetings were held, including by visiting Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. In the economic and trade field, many deals were signed between banks and enterprises.

In the field of technology, environmental protection and energy, deals were signed between government-owned and private firms, and the same goes for the fields of healthcare, tourism and aviation. Some 20 agreements were also inked between civil society organizations. Various estimates put the value of bilateral trade in the first year of relations at close to a billion dollars, with far greater future potential. The Emirates, we have learned, have an interest in advancing security and intelligence cooperation vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile threats, as well as in Israel’s innovative technology. Bennett’s visit was therefore an expression of the wide cooperation forged between the two states.

While enhancing its cooperation with Israel, the UAE took several significant steps to strengthen its ties with Turkey and Iran. Anwar Gargash, an adviser to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed and until recently the country’s foreign minister, said in October that the UAE must handle its rivalry with Iran and Turkey through dialogue, given the uncertain US commitment to the region and the “cold war” developing between Washington and Beijing.

He was quickly proven right. Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) met with Turkish President Erdogan last month, following a nearly decade-long rupture in relations between the two states. The Emirates and Turkey found themselves on opposite sides of the divide in all the regional conflicts: Syria, Yemen, Libya and the Horn of Africa.

 IRAN’S PRESIDENT Ebrahim Raisi meets earlier this month in Tehran with the UAE’s top national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan.  (credit: WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS) IRAN’S PRESIDENT Ebrahim Raisi meets earlier this month in Tehran with the UAE’s top national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan. (credit: WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY/REUTERS)

Furthermore, Turkish support of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas turned Erdogan into an enemy of sorts, especially given the alliance he forged with Qatar, which itself was until recently boycotted by the Gulf States. However, the decline and/or freeze of Emirati activity in Yemen and Libya, its desire to become a global economic hub, along with the weakening of the Turkish lira and its economy created an economic opportunity for the UAE to invest in Turkey.

Moreover, the sides are discussing an idea for goods from Asia to be transported from the Emirates to Iran and from there to Turkey, thus shortening the current trade route through the Suez Canal. Indeed, the idea seems to have been discussed at a meeting of the Iranian and Turkish foreign ministers in Tehran held several days prior to the Emirati visit to Turkey. All in all, 10 economic, trade, energy and environmental agreements worth billions of dollars were signed during bin Zayed’s visit to Turkey.

The Emirati-Iranian axis was also active. Following a diplomatic rupture of five years, Emirati national security adviser and brother of the Crown Prince, Tahnoun bin Zayed, arrived in Tehran on December 6 for a meeting with his counterpart and with President Raisi. He might have also met with the Syrian foreign minister, who was visiting Tehran at the same time.

The Emirates and Iran conduct trade activity worth several billion dollars, with thousands of Iranian companies operating in the UAE and a few hundred thousand Iranian citizens residing there. The geographic proximity between the two countries undoubtedly created economic opportunities for a rainy day, just as trade between Israel and Turkey has survived all the diplomatic crises between them. In any case, Erdogan’s expected visit to Tehran is likely to result not only in bilateral agreements, but also in enhanced trilateral ties with the UAE.

The developments of the past month illustrate the extent to which the binary division between the “moderate” coalition and the Iranian-Qatari-Turkish “axis of evil” is simplistic for two main reasons. First, the UAE is conducting a sophisticated policy trying to protect all its flanks vis-à-vis regional and global challenges. Secondly, Turkey and Qatar are both conducting diplomatic dialogues with Israel.

With the signing of the normalization agreement, Israel saw the Emirates as an ally in the fight against a nuclear Iran, which could manifest itself in quiet support if circumstances require an Israeli attack. However, the latest developments in Emirati ties with Iran and Turkey could signal a certain cooling or moderation of the Emirates’ stand on the Iranian nuclear program. Should that be the case, the normalization agreement could hamper an independent Israeli operation if it risked significant damage to Emirati-Israeli relations. Thus decision-makers in Jerusalem are learning that integration into the Middle East comes at a cost, one of them being the need to look at the region not only the way it appears from Jerusalem, but also from Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Amman and Rabat.

The writer teaches at Hebrew University’s Department of Islamic and Middle East Studies, and is a Board Member of Mitvim, the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.