Capping years of covert security coordination, Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced their agreement to establish diplomatic relations. They presented this agreement as situated on Israel’s pledge to the UAE not to annex the occupied West Bank. This argument fell apart within hours, leaving many to figure out how to explain these developments. Many scholars and reporters, describing the agreement as a “peace deal,” naturally reached for a oft-repeated explanation for rapprochement between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Israel, being that they are enemies brought together by the great threat of Iran.
The Wall Street Journal stated that “Over the last two years, the two countries found common cause with the Trump administration in the fight to contain Iran’s regional ambitions, and their joint effort to block Iran from developing nuclear weapons deepened their trust in each other, according to U.S. and Gulf officials.” The BBC declared that “But shared worries over Iran have led to unofficial contacts between them.” Israeli reporter Barak Ravid wrote in Axios that “This is a major breakthrough for Israel, which lacks diplomatic recognition in many Middle Eastern countries but has been steadily improving relations in the Gulf, largely due to mutual antipathy toward Iran.” MSNBC’s Aymen Mohyeldin said “This really is more about Iran than it is about any other part of the Middle East ... Israel and the UAE view Iran as a threat".
Even many of the more anti-interventionist voices in Washington seem to worry that this was a prelude to more threats against Iranian interests leading to a ratcheting up of tensions. This explanation has been cited repeatedly over the years by the United States, Israel and the GCC officials to explain the emerging pattern of GCC-Israel alignment. Tensions with Iran are likely one factor as many of the inaugural security arrangements between the UAE and Israel were born at a time when Emirati foreign policy was far more centered on Iran and its regional allies.
The UAE and Iran
But the argument that the UAE established diplomatic ties with Israel because its foreign policy is centered on countering Iran ignores the fact that, over the last year, Abu Dhabi has fundamentally restructured its foreign policy away from the anti-Iran antagonism favored by Washington and Riyadh. The UAE began reevaluating its entanglement in Middle East conflicts following a spade of kinetic episodes in the context of renewed security competition between Iran and the United States. Before last summer, a twin set of myths obscured certain realities from decision makers in Abu Dhabi. The first myth being that Iran’s missiles are comically imprecise and can only be used for nuclear weapons, and the second that American-made air defense systems are adequate to handle any challenge from above the Persian Gulf. But in 2019, a certain set of engagements in the Persian Gulf region made Iranian missile capacity seem far more capable and American air defenses look like a Maginot line in the sky.
The UAE effectively decided it is unwilling to bear the cost of direct military exchange with Iran. The UAE is an economic zone with a small indigenous population. Its economy is built on a foundation of expatriates, especially from Europe, living and working there. These foreigners have little real connection to the country and will not hunker down in Dubai as the Emirates fall into the crosshairs of Iran’s missile fleet. As so, any direct military confrontation with Iran would have extraordinary consequences regardless of the ultimate outcome.
So the UAE chose a new strategy of engagement with Iran. By the end of that summer, the UAE was calling for deescalation with Iran and even sent a military delegation to Tehran to develop a standing security coordination arrangement with Iran pertaining to the Persian Gulf. It was also reported that the UAE sent the brother of its crown prince and de facto ruler Mohammad bin Zayed, Tahnoon bin Zayed, to Tehran for consultations and is working to resolve issues pertaining to the visas Iranian citizens and Iranian funds frozen in the UAE.
The two countries have yet to reestablish diplomatic relations but this level of rapprochement would have been difficult to imagine at the beginning of 2019 and has been received very well in Tehran. It's worth noting here that the actual formal announcement of diplomatic ties between Israel and the UAE did not even mention Iran. This was surely done at the request of the UAE since America and Israel rarely miss a chance for a verbal assault on Iran. The UAE still harbors outsized ambitions of ruling a thalassocratic empire but it has realized that it can only tolerate enemies that do not have Dubai in their missile range.
Regional Security and “Bandwidth” for the Palestinian Cause
The popular notion that the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council are a homogenous anti-Iran block is out of step with realities of the region’s security. As I discussed in a previous piece about the prospects of an Arab NATO, the threat matrix of GCC countries are complex and often divergent: Qatar values its relationship with Iran, especially since the embargo lead by Saudi Arabia, and has even floated an alliance with Iran, Iraq, and Turkey as a counterbalance to an Arab NATO. Kuwait is primarily concerned with stability in Iraq, has a large Shia population, and insists on calm relations with Iran. Oman, the only other GCC country to have taken a major step towards normalization of ties with Israel, likely has the warmest relations with Iran among the Council’s membership and played a key role in the initial talks that culminated in the Iran nuclear deal.
Arab government’s are changing their policies towards Israel for many reasons that have little to do with Iran. Brooking’s Omar Rahman, writing on this matter last year, cited as well as Iran-related issues, the desire to coordinate with the Israel lobby in Washington and “the Gulf states’ growing need for sophisticated security and surveillance platforms to police their own populations in the wake of the regional uprisings.” He added that “Israel’s expertise in this regard, honed during its 51-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, is as sophisticated as it comes.” Some have argued that the domestic security focus born from the Arab Spring has also narrowed the “bandwidth” of Arab governments at the expense of the Palestinian cause.
The key issue that underpins GCC-Israeli rapprochement is that the elites of many Arab states do not have the affinity for the Palestinian cause they once did. When Aaron David Miller wrote on the matter of GCC-Israel rapprochement last year, he emphasized the Iran issue but also said that GCC leaders view the Palestinian issue as “intractable” and that they are “increasing exhaustion and frustration with the never-ending Palestinian cause [and that] has opened up more space for Arab states to follow their own interests.”
This is particularly the case with the younger generation of GCC princes. This was most apparent when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman visited the United States in 2018 to court America’s most influential. MbS met with pro-Israel figures during his time in New York and delivered a message that, according to Israeli media, “staggered” even that audience. He said the Palestinians should accept to negotiate under the circumstances offered by Netanyahu or “they should shut up and stop complaining.” Commenting on the issue at the time, Mahjoob Zweiri, the director of the Gulf Studies Programme at Qatar University, told Al-Jazeera that the crown prince is eager to show that the Saudi government is abandoning the Palestinian issue as a means of consripting influential pro-Israel elements to deepen Riyadh’s influence in Washington.
Back when there were multiple power centers in the Arab world, countries like Saudi Arabia had to demonstrate care for Arabs as a soft power tool. With traditional Arab nationalist powers like Syria and Egypt weakened, there is less pressure on ambitious GCC countries to prove their worth to Arab populations. There is no competitor vying for leadership in the Sunni Arab world. Saudi Arabia and the UAE wish for influence and power in the Islamic world but have certainly not positioned themselves as an advocate for Muslim people.
In truth, the UAE-Israel agreement is not a “peace deal” as it's been called primarily because countries like the UAE were never engaged in enmity or military confrontation with Israel. Out of anguish for the Palestinian cause, they positioned themseveles as a party to the conflict by siding diplomatically and rhetorically with the Palestinians and rejecting Israel in public.
Once the Palestinian issue is set aside, there is very little in the way of rapproachment. Israeli and GCC elites simply have much in common, in terms of values and political disposition, to align. Both are parts of a American alliance network and see their security in the context of Western relationships. They both understand their security and projection ambitions as being firmly grounded in lobbying Western governments to develop some of their deepest military and strategic relationships not just despite the human rights violations but sometimes in active support of them. Both lean heavily on political influence to accomplish this as well as making their territory available as platforms for Western projection ambitions. Both are also deeply intimidated by Arab populist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood that have strong anti-monarchial tendencies and are more in touch with the pro-Palestine dispositions on the Arab streets.