The GITEX technology week in Dubai in early December 2020 was a unique event as it came amid a global pandemic and aimed to show that a large tech confab could be held as countries are just beginning to receive vaccines. With some 1,200 exhibitors from sixty countries, the large event in the center of Dubai included unprecedented Israeli participation this year. It also had an inaugural UAE-Israel Future Digital Economy Summit.
In some ways the event was entirely normal, a reminder of a world before the coronavirus brought air travel to a halt in March of this year. I toured the events halls of GITEX and the Israeli presence, observing that the first time that Israel had participated appeared to fit well with the rest of the exhibitors.
The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs logo next to Israel’s Bank Hapoalim symbol looked like any other major country’s involvement. However, the participation came only four months since the United Arab Emirates (UAE) said it would normalize ties with Israel. This is now one of several new peace deals that appear to have upended the status quo of the Middle East. Israel is rapidly moving towards a new era of ties with Bahrain and the UAE, as well as apparently normalizing relations with Sudan and Morocco.
Each country will bring something different for Israel and the Middle East. The UAE is unique because Israel and the UAE increasingly share a regional outlook and common partners such as Greece and India. Moreover, Dubai as a regional economic hub looks to be plugging in quickly with Tel Aviv. On a flight to the UAE from Tel Aviv on December 6 there were no empty seats. This was one of several flights a day, part of a rapidly expanding air corridor that began to open on November 26 with Fly Dubai flights. Estimates forecast between sixty and 100 flights a week from several companies and further expansion of the air bridge in 2021.
The relations between Israel and the UAE are a kind of multi-layered cake. What is most clear from the first weeks of the ability of passengers to fly back and forth is that business and trade are at a premium. Israeli companies had some contact to the UAE prior to relations because international trade means many companies have complex global connections that are not rooted in any one country.
However, since official relations began there have been new agreements between Bank Hapoalim and Dubai International Financial Center (DFIC) as well as an agreement between Dubai’s Multi-Commodities Centre (DMCC) and the Israel Diamond Exchange. Israel’s El Al also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Etihad Airways in the UAE. Israeli defense companies have been invited to present at the International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in the UAE in 2021.
While business and trade is one layer of the cake, there are defense ties that could grow between Israel, the UAE, the United States, Greece and other countries, building on Israel’s strategic partnership with India, for instance. In the wake of the normalization announcement, in August it was revealed that the United States will also sell Abu Dhabi F-35 stealth fighters and a variety of other defense systems, including drones. This is important because the U.S. F-35 squadron at the UAE’s Al-Dhafra airbase has been practicing with Israeli F-35s this year at an unprecedented rate.
In addition, Israeli defense companies Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries have teamed with Group 42 in the UAE to fight the coronavirus. This appears to be a multi-sided triangle now, with the UAE seeking the most advanced defense technology from Washington, as the U.S. trains with Israel using F-35s based in the UAE and Israeli defense companies begin taking the first public steps toward Abu Dhabi. This has ramifications because Israeli defense companies have been rolling out a variety of new technologies in the last year, from new surveillance systems on drones based on the latest in artificial intelligence and electro-optics, to systems that can confront drone swarms.
Over a week of meetings in the UAE, the depth of this new relationship becomes clear. The UAE pursued peace with Israel officially to prevent Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, which Abu Dhabi judged would end hopes for a Palestinian state. There were other issues at work as well; while the UAE wants to see progress on discussions between Israel and the Palestinians, the concept of normalization is designed to change the narrative in the Middle East region that has used the Palestinian issue to push anti-Israel radicalization, which has not led to progress towards peace. Saudi Arabia proposed normalization with Israel in exchange for a peace deal with the Palestinians back in 2002. Abu Dhabi’s choice was to test this concept and switch around the process that normalization can only come after an increasingly difficult deal between Israel and the Palestinians is finalized. Normalize first, then push for progress on peace. Riyadh has supported its neighbors moving forward.
Recent moves in the region, such as a visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia in November, and Riyadh’s support for Morocco normalizing ties, shows that a larger regional change in the status quo of the last decades has taken place. Many factors underpin this, such as the Gulf crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey’s support of Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups such as Hamas; as well as Iran’s role in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. A kind of tectonic shift in the region is bringing Israel, Egypt, Jordan, the UAE and Bahrain closer together with partners such as Greece and Cyprus and Saudi Arabia and India. These countries don’t all agree on everything, but the UAE and Greece both have shared views of Ankara’s recent aggressive moves, while Israel and Saudi Arabia appear to share concerns about Iran’s role and threats.
The U.S. decision to drawdown troops and concerns that the U.S. posture in the region is shifting from two decades of the Global War on Terror to instead confront near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia, lead to U.S. partners seeking closer ties if Washington moves forces from the region. For instance, America announcing a decision to dial back its campaign in Somalia is one manifestation of this change in posture. Proposals to move Israel from being under America’s European Command to Central Command’s area of responsibility is also being increasingly discussed. This would knit Israel into the region even more and increase clear ties with Abu Dhabi and U.S. CENTCOM commanders in the Middle East, who already work closely with Israel.
On display in Dubai over the second week of December were a plethora of other signs of the new era. At the Crossroad of Civilizations Museum an event was held on December 6 to celebrate a memorandum of understanding with Israel’s Heritage Center for Middle East and North Africa Jewry. Days later a large Hanukkah celebration took place below the giant Burk Khalifa skyscraper in the center of Dubai. An Israeli delegation of mayors visited, and thousands of Israeli tourists poured in to see the sites and sounds of Dubai.
Israel and the UAE are moving rapidly forward, even as bureaucratic issues like visa-free travel will take time to finalize, the overall context is that a new corridor exists from Tel Aviv to Dubai in commerce and a new regional relationship between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi. As this relationship develops the key question and defense ties and the triangular relationship between Israel, the United States and the UAE will be central to some of the next steps. Already religious coexistence issues, such as the UAE’s support for interfaith initiatives, is moving forward parallel with the business ties. The political and security ties are the next layers of the cake in this new Israel-UAE embrace.
Seth J. Frantzman is a Jerusalem-based journalist who holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a writing fellow at Middle East Forum. He is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (forthcoming Gefen Publishing). Follow him on Twitter at @sfrantzman. This article first appeared in October 2020.