On June 29, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid arrived in the United Arab Emirates, marking the first official trip by any chief Israeli diplomat to the Gulf country. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had wanted to visit Abu Dhabi while in office, so the timing of the visit so soon after the new Netanyahu-less government was sworn in was notable.
While Lapid was in the UAE, Israel inaugurated an embassy in Abu Dhabi and a consulate in Dubai, representing an important milestone in Emirati-Israeli relations nine months after the Abraham Accords were signed in Washington last September.
Lapid’s trip highlighted how the bilateral relationship has overcome challenges posed by the recent 11-day Gaza-Israel war. Although Emirati officialdom publicly condemned Israel’s conduct in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and called on both Hamas and Israel to halt attacks (which notably did not single out Israel) in May, the UAE is not cooling its relations with Israel. To the contrary, Abu Dhabi is keen to find ways to build on the Abraham Accords and enhance its ties with the Israelis notwithstanding the unresolved question of Palestine.
While with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Lapid signed an economic and commercial cooperation agreement. The two also co-authored a highly optimistic article in Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper where they outlined their outlook for the Emirati-Israeli relationship as well as for “peace” across the greater region: “Peace isn’t an agreement you sign – it’s a way of life. The ceremonies we held this week aren’t the end of the road. They are just the beginning.” (Technically, the UAE-Israel accord is not a “peace” agreement because the UAE, which gained its independence in 1971, has never been at war with Israel.)
Beyond the rhetoric and the symbolism, what are this relationship’s substantive elements and what does this partnership truly mean in practice nine months after the accord’s signing?
Bilateral trade since September 2020 has reached around $675 million. The two countries have signed a long list of trade and cooperation agreements. Media, education, and tourism are all promising sectors that are starting to take off. It is significant that amid the global pandemic, which greatly harmed the UAE and all other Gulf Cooperation Council states’ tourism sectors, 200,000 Israeli tourists visited the UAE with most flying to Dubai.
Technology may be the area where the Emiratis have the highest hopes for this relationship. The potential benefits of formalized ties with the region’s most technologically innovative and advanced country are clear to the UAE. This is particularly true with respect to cybersecurity and to the potential acquisition of offensive cyber-capabilities by the UAE. As Sheikh Abdullah stated, the Emiratis are pleased that the Israelis will participate in Expo2020, an event to be held later this year in Dubai that will bring 192 countries together through technology, innovation, science, and art.
Nonetheless, the Emirati-Israeli trade relationship has thus far not lived up to its expectations. There has also been a degree of disappointment among those who were expecting the partnership to take off much faster following then-President Donald Trump’s announcement of the Abraham Accords.
Some anticipated deals have not taken place. For example, there was the suspension of the 50 percent sale of Beitar Jerusalem (a Jerusalem-based professional football club with an anti-Arab image) to a member of Abu Dhabi’s royal family in Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Nahyan. In addition, an Israeli energy firm that planned to sell its share of a gas field to Mubadala Petroleum (a subsidiary of the UAE’s sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala Investment Company) missed a deadline for completing the agreement, although, according to the UAE’s side, the deal remains set to proceed. Time will tell how many and how soon major government-to-government and private sector transactions will indeed take place.
Abraham Accords, the Gulf, and Africa
Despite the political risks for any Arab state that normalizes relations with Israel, the UAE has vocally stood by the Abraham Accords, which, in the words of its ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, “move the region beyond a troubled legacy of hostility and strife to a more hopeful destiny of peace and prosperity.” But Abu Dhabi at this point does not appear to be leading any trend within the Gulf region toward the formalization of relations with Israel.
In Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative remains popular and the only viable means of reaching a fair and lasting settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. This is true at the highest levels of government and among these countries’ general publics. But Tel Aviv almost certainly will not under any foreseeable circumstances agree to the API’s terms, which require Israel to return to the 1949-1967 borders and permit the Palestinians to have an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital in exchange for opening diplomatic relations. Therefore, among GCC states, the UAE, along with Bahrain, will probably stand alone on the normalization question for some time.
As the GCC state with the most pro-Palestinian stance, Kuwait is most strongly opposed to normalization and unlikely to change its position. Oman maintains pragmatic, albeit unofficial, relations with Israel as highlighted by Lapid’s phone call with Oman’s foreign minister Badr al Busaidi on June 24, plus Netanyahu and other Israeli prime ministers’ visits to Muscat since the 1990s. But Oman remains committed to the API, as affirmed by Muscat’s chief diplomat at an Atlantic Council event held on February 11.
Qatar has a special role to play in Gaza that would be jeopardized by “abandoning” the Palestinians in exchange for normalization with Israel. Through Al Jazeera, which focuses heavily on the plight of Palestinians, and the tendency of Qatari diplomats to advocate on behalf of Palestinians in international forums, Doha’s regional and global image has much to do with its ability to take firm positions on certain international issues that contribute to the image of a pro-human rights foreign policy.
Finally, Saudi Arabia, due to its special role across the wider Islamic world, its authorship of the API, and its own internal dynamics that are fundamentally different than the smaller GCC states, will likely continue seeing normalization of relations with Israel as too risky, at least so long as King Salman remains on the throne.
Within this context, Israel will likely have its next diplomatic openings in the Islamic world not in the Persian Gulf, but instead in impoverished parts of sub-Saharan Africa where countries such as Niger, Mali, and Mauritania could have their economic interests advanced by joining the Abraham Accords. It will be important to see what actions Abu Dhabi might take to incentivize these African countries, many of which are major recipients of Emirati aid, to formalize ties with Israel. Enhanced Emirati assistance in exchange for normalization with Israel was already evident in Sudan’s decision to normalize ties with Israel, and the UAE may take a similar approach with these and other predominantly Muslim and poor African states.