- Israel and the UAE agreed to normalize diplomatic and trade ties.
- MBZ’s daring move could upend the balance of power in the region.
- The deal is a sign that Sunni countries see Iran as the preeminent threat in the Middle East.
Why is there camaraderie between MBZ and Netanyahu?
Answer: MBZ and Netanyahu opened diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE.
On the 12th of August, UAE leader Mohamed bin-Zayed and Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu signed a peace deal, pledging to establish formal diplomatic and trade ties between the two countries. In exchange, Netanyahu has pledged to suspend Israeli plans to annex the occupied territories in the West Bank. The UAE-Israel peace deal marks the first time a Gulf nation has normalized relations with Israel, making the UAE the third Islamic nation to engage with Israel diplomatically after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. Islamic states have been unwilling to recognize Israel amidst the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and support for the Palestinian cause. MBZ’s daring foreign policy move with Israel is set to upend the status quo between Islamic states and Israel, as other Gulf countries are slated to follow the UAE in normalizing relations with Israel, notably Bahrein, Oman and Sudan.
Although MBZ has been engaging behind the scenes for years in building trust with Israel through common geopolitical and business interests, the peace deal seems to have come as a surprise to many, especially in the Islamic world. Palestinian President Abbas called the deal treason, sentiments echoed by Iran’s Rouhani and Turkey’s Erdogan, the former even threatening to suspend diplomatic relations with the UAE in retaliation. The deal was otherwise widely praised as an important step in providing stability to the Middle East, raising hopes for a new peaceful regional dynamic through diplomacy.
The US’s Donald Trump helped broker the peace deal, calling it a “historic breakthrough toward peace.” Most notably, Saudi Arabia has not issued an official statement on the establishment of Emirati-Israel diplomatic ties. MBS, regent of Islam’s holiest sites and protector of the Sunni Palestinian cause, cannot officially support foreign policy dealing directly with Israel, a state Saudi Arabia does not recognize. Unofficially, MBS’s silence on the Israel-UAE peace deal indicates he is in favour of the building alliance, which directly serves Saudi ambitions in Yemen. Indeed, the warming of relations between Sunni Arab countries and Israel officially reveals a deep Sunni geopolitical realignment in the Middle East.
MBZ’s break from the status quo of Israeli-Arab relations officially signals that Sunni Arab countries now see Iran as a bigger threat than Israel. This geopolitical trend has been developing for some years, with Iran encroaching in Sunni zones of influence such as Syria and Iraq. The conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Iraq have exacerbated these tensions, as Sunni Islamic countries are now engaged in a number of proxy wars against Shia Iranian backed groups, all competing for territorial and energetical influence. MBZ hopes that relations with Israel will further isolate Iran geopolitically, backed by other Sunni Gulf states. Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince has jumpstarted regional dynamics which will affect the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape for the decades to come.
What does MBZ want?
Answer: MBZ wants to isolate Iran, benefit from Israeli technology, reinforce ties with the US.
Mohamed bin-Zayed’s decision to normalize relations is directly tied to the Crown Prince’s geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East. Throughout the 2010s, MBZ has overseen a surge in the UAE’s diplomatic and military power throughout the Arab World, consolidating the Emirates’ status as a leading geopolitical regional power alongside Saudi Arabia. However, bin-Zayed’s mounting regional power has been stalled by Iran, notably in Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels have taken the upper hand against the UAE and Saudi Arabia backed groups.
MBZ can count on Bin-Salman’s support with the Israel deal because MBS desperately needs to turn the tide in Yemen. The prospect of Yemen becoming an Iranian allied state on Saudi Arabia’s southern border would be highly damaging to Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical position in the Middle East and to MBS’ standing. Iran backed Houthis also present a significant threat to the UAE, as they have targeted the Barakah nuclear power plant with cruise missiles, and the fall of Yemen to the Houthis would also be a major security blow for bin-Zayed. Bin-Zayed hopes that the new ties with Israel will put increased military pressure on Iranian backed groups in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, forcing Iran to divert resources from the Yemeni conflict.
Another strong motivator for MBZ’s deal with Israel from a security standpoint is gaining access to Israeli military technology and weapons. Israel is the leading power in cyberspace, both in cyber-defence and cyberattacks. MBZ is eager to develop his military capabilities in cyberspace and will be a major purchaser of Israeli technology in this field. Israel’s NSO Group is also a large producer of government surveillance technology, which bin-Zayed will continue to use in his autocratic political system. Indeed, the UAE had been unofficially buying certain technologies from Israel for a number of years (such as NSO spyware), which became a major part of the trust-building process which the peace deal is based on. Finally, the UAE will want to purchase Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence technology, which MBZ considers crucial to defend the nuclear power plant, large cities and oil fields from potential missile attacks by Iran-affiliated groups, notably in Yemen. The UAE spends up to $23 billion on armaments every year, a sum which is set to rise with access to Israeli military technology.
Bin-Zayed’s leadership on the UAE-Israel peace deal is not only motivated by security challenges. Breaking the status quo reinforces MBZ’s position as a leading figure in Middle Eastern politics, making him a key power broker. This status is strengthened by other Islamic countries’ decision to begin normalizing relations with Israel and the apparent Saudi support of the deal. The Crown Prince’s Israeli foreign policy has been strongly supported by UAE public opinion (beware of propaganda though) and paints him as a peacemaker in the Middle East, raising his profile on the international stage. As such, UAE-US relations have further been strengthened, and MBZ is now a key American ally in terms of security in the Middle East, but also from a political and economic standpoint. Opposition to the deal has come from UAE enemies Iran and Turkey, which does nothing to alter MBZ’s positions. As such, Bin-Zayed’s unexpected comradery with Israel seems to have bolstered the Crown Prince’s geopolitical standing in the Middle East and on the global stage.
What does Netanyahu want?
Answer: Save his political career with a crowning foreign policy success while isolating Iran.
Benyamin Netanyahu is in the midst of the most difficult phase of his political career. The longest serving Israeli Prime Minister was only able to keep his position due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as he and Benny Gantz formed an emergency coalition with the role of Prime Minister rotating between the two men. Netanyahu is under fire from a number of corruption charges, notably legislation he passed aiming to weaken an opposition news media in order to obtain more positive coverage from the Yedioth Ahronot newspaper group. The Israeli Prime Minister’s trial was postponed due to Covid-19. In 2019, Netanyahu allied with far-right Otzma Yehudit party to retain a majority in the Knesset. Subsequently, he announced that Israel would be annexing occupied territories in the West Bank neighbouring Jordan, a move that enraged regional and international public opinion.
Faced with mounting opposition at home and international hostility, Netanyahu knew he needed a major win to keep his political career alive. Strong from the links built with the UAE throughout the 21st century, and with the threat to annex the West Bank, the Israeli PM managed to secure a peace deal with MBZ. This major foreign policy victory will have a direct impact on Israelis, enhancing their business and tourism opportunities, while strengthening their sense of regional security. As such, the UAE-Israel peace deal could embody the political relief Netanyahu so desperately needs.
More than his own political career, Netanyahu was eager to cement his political legacy with the UAE peace deal. The Israeli PM is confident that the first recognition of Israel by a Gulf country under his leadership places him amongst legendary Israeli leaders, alongside Menachem Begin (peace with Egypt 1979) and Yitzhak Rabin (peace with Jordan 1994). Netanyahu intends to make the normalization of relations with the UAE as the crowning achievement of his 14 years as Israel’s Prime Minister.
What is Netanyahu doing?
Answer: Personally negotiating with MBZ to claim the credit for the deal.
In the Israeli PM’s typical style of political manipulation, he secured the normalization of UAE-Israel ties with MBZ individually, leaving his rival Gantz out of the proceedings. As such, Netanyahu can claim responsibility for the coming development of trade, tourism, security ties and common geopolitical goals between Israel and the UAE, significantly raising his profile amongst Israeli public opinion and international opinion.
Through these new regional ties, Netanyahu knows MBZ can be a strong potential ally in the fight against Iran, strengthening Israel’s security in the Middle East. Thus, Netanyahu is set to enjoy the electoral benefits of this historic peace deal when the next Israeli elections roll around.
What does this mean for you?
Answer: Change in the balance of power in the Middle East along with uncertainty about the future of Palestine.
The normalization of UAE-Israel relations has enormous consequences for the Middle East, so let’s break it down:
- From a geopolitical standpoint, Sunni Gulf countries (except Qatar and Yemen) now seem to be in favour of Israel, wary of Iranian hard power in the Middle East. This reinforces Israel and threatens Iranian influence in the region.
- From a security standpoint, a potential alliance between the UAE and Israel (perhaps with other Gulf countries in the future) means Israel is no longer surrounded by hostile states, and an alliance could challenge Iranian backed armed groups in the Middle East’s conflicts.
- From a humanitarian standpoint, the future of the Palestinian people has been put on hold: plans to annex occupied territories on the West Bank suspended, a two-state solution frozen, and Palestine’s main supports now becoming friendly to Israel.
- From a diplomacy standpoint, the peace deal could be a breakthrough: normalized diplomatic relations accelerating dialogue around the Palestinian question and other regional challenges (Syria, Lebanon, Yemen…), potentially fostering peace in the region.
- From an international relations standpoint, the profiles of Netanyahu and MBZ have been raised, as their diplomacy is seen as an attempt to pacify the Middle East and find common ground. Alliances with the US have been strengthened, while rivalries with Iran and Turkey were exacerbated.
- From a personal level, if you’re Israeli, you can now travel to the United Arab Emirates, and vice-versa if you’re Emirati. As a tourist, you would now be able to fly from Dubai to Tel Aviv or from Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi. Israeli-UAE relationships will create new, more open touristic dynamics in the Middle East.