Israel-UAE deal doesn’t herald a geopolitical formation

Libya’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (C) met with Turkish Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar (R) and Qatar Defence Minister Khalid bin Mohamed Al Attiyah (L), Tripoli, Libya, August 17, 2020 

Sweeping geopolitical assumptions are being made regarding the Israel-UAE agreement to establish diplomatic relations. Basically, the deal legitimises a previously existing two-decades old relationship. See my article Israel, UAE legitimise their relationship.

The key issue is, what motivated the two protagonists to bring to the limelight this two-decades old relationship? This is how the well-known expert on Middle East, author and professor at the Johns Hopkins University Vali Nasr estimated in an interview with Christiane Amanpour of the CNN: “the Israeli-UAE, Israeli-Saudi relationship has been there for some time. It has been an open secret that there are intelligence, military and diplomatic ties between them. Now it’s been formalised. And, largely, this has been formalised… not because of the region, but because it benefits all the parties at this moment in time. 

“President Trump desperately needs a foreign policy victory… and it’s a victory that will be popular with evangelical voters in the United States… Prime Minister Netanyahu is a big winner. He’s facing corruption charges…And, for him, this is a wonderful victory… he’s now historically important, in having established diplomatic ties with a third Arab country … We know that UAE … got very close to the Trump administration, that they are worried about a Democratic backlash… And a good news of peace buildings with Israel in the Middle East will help cushion some of the blow… after the election.”  

Things couldn’t be summed up more cogently. Indeed, the fault lines testify to this. For a start, the UAE has made a tall claim on the Arab street that it extracted out of Israel a commitment not to proceed further with its annexation policy. But Israel promptly pushed back that Netanyahu’s plan had been only “temporarily halted” at the request of Trump, but that he remained “committed” to implementing it. 

Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior advisor to Trump, also says, “for the time being, they’ve (Israel) suspended any efforts to apply Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank… You know, President Trump is a deal maker, he’s a pragmatist, he’s somebody who is quite flexible.” Netanyahu will only do what suits him politically and the leaders of the settlement movement in Israel are already up in arms. 

But the UAE has to pay lip service to the Arab Street, mindful of the majority opinion of Arabs which resists Israeli territorial expansion and subjugation of Palestinians. Clearly, diplomatic recognition cannot lead to a full-bodied relationship so long as Israel continues to occupy and colonise Arab land and the Emirati regime continues to be scared of their own people. 

The surveys routinely show that large majorities (around 75 percent of Arabs) would approve of normalisation of ties with Israel only after a Palestinian state came into being and the Palestinian refugees’ claims were resolved. And we are in a decade of nonstop mass protests to remove the rulers across the Arab region. Sudan, Algeria, Lebanon, and Iraq are the latest examples. 

Israel cannot be unaware that after a century of erratic development, unequal distribution of wealth, warfare, and authoritarianism, the Arab region is a powder keg ruled by leaders who focus primarily on assuring their own incumbency, security, and wealth at the expense of their own people’s political, economic, and civil rights.

Thus, unsurprisingly, Netanyahu’s office has scrambled to clarify that Israel continues to remain staunchly opposed to any Trump administration plan for a “giant” F-35 deal with the UAE. “In the talks (on the UAE normalisation deal), Israel did not change its consistent positions against the sale to any country in the Middle East of weapons and defence technologies that could tip the (military) balance,” Netanyahu’s office said.

Indeed, Israel cannot stake its national security on the deal with the Emirati sheikhs. The Middle East, after all, has a history of cataclysmic bolts out of the blue. In a prescient analysis, the well-known British journalist and author on the Middle East Patrick Cockburn wrote this week that “there is a real historic change going on in the Middle East and north Africa, though it has nothing to do with the relationship between Israel and the Arabs. It is a transformation that has been speeded up by the coronavirus cataclysm and will radically change the politics of the Middle East. The era characterised by the power of the oil states is ending… 

“The determining factor is that between 2012 and 2020 the oil revenues of the Arab producers fell from $1 trillion to $300bn, down by over two-thirds… Ironically, a petrostate like the UAE just is flexing its political muscles by normalising relations with Israel just as the economic world of which it was part is breaking up… As populations rise and young people flood into the labour market, more and more money is required to keep society running as before, but such resources are no longer there. This change has revolutionary implications as the unspoken social contract between rulers and ruled breaks down…Beset by wars and dysfunctional social and economic systems, the Middle East is too fragile to cope with the coming earthquake.” (See Saudi Arabia’s economic crisis, explained in 10 graphics, Paul Cochrane, Middle East Eye, 19 August 2020) 

It is highly unlikely that Israel will wade into the war in Yemen to rescue the Emirati military’s reputation or try to dissuade a Biden presidency to give up plans to pull the US out of that “endless war”. Equally, Israel will not want to get entangled in the nasty confrontation building up in the region between the UAE and Saudi Arabia on one side and Turkey and Qatar on the other. 

In a swift reaction to the UAE’s deal with Israel, Turkish and Qatari defence ministers flew into Tripoli on Monday for the signing of a military pact that provides for the deployment of Turkish and Qatari military personnel to Libya. Will Israel jump into the upcoming showdown between Turkey and Qatar on one side and Egypt and UAE on the other side for the control of Libya’s famous Oil Crescent on the Mediterranean? 

Above all, what happens if Trump doesn’t get re-elected and the US intelligence establishment finally has its way to unseat the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)? All signs are that the crunch time is coming. The law suit in the US federal court by the former Saudi spy chief Saad al-Jabri, a top CIA asset, and Washington’s demarche to Riyadh regarding his complaint against MBS underscore that if Trump is not around for long to protect MBS, the US security establishment will go for his jugular veins. 

Indeed, it is a well-known secret that the Saudi and Emirati crown princes are joined at the hips. Will Israel allow itself to be sucked into a salvage operation to arrange an orderly succession in a savage medieval power struggle unfolding in Saudi Arabia that may not leave the Emirati sheikhs unscathed? 

Clearly, the geopolitical downstream of the UAE-Israel deal needs to be watched with great circumspection. The jury is still out. All we know so far is that the deal has split the GCC; the Sunni Muslim opinion in the Persian Gulf has been rendered rudderless; the Arab world is left in confusion; the Arab League is in deafening silence; and the Saudi regime cannot yet muster courage to take a public stance. 

To quote from a FT report titled Saudi Arabia the big target in US efforts to smooth Israel relations, “Despite Kushner’s close ties, Riyadh is unlikely to follow UAE in normalising relations with Jewish state… “Saudi Arabia is the game,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer who specialises in the Gulf kingdom. But with King Salman “a true believer in the Palestinian cause”, it is unlikely to happen any time soon.” 

A consistent trait of Israeli regional policies is that country’s single-minded focus on its self-interests and the scrupulous care it takes not to get entangled in the Muslim Middle East’s internal politics, a pre-requisite of which is of course that its relationships remain transactional in its tough neighbourhood.

The UAE-Israel deal remains quintessentially a relationship with teflon coating — an affordable option providing glossy sheen to the paint surface — and not a ceramic coating that bonds at the molecular level.