Within days of the United Arab Emirates and Israel signing a deal to normalise relations, the UAE indefinitely postponed a ceremonial signing eventthat was to be held with the USA and Israel because of Israeli opposition to Abu Dhabi purchasing F-35 fighters from the USA. The UAE cancelled the trilateral meeting that was supposed to take place on 31 August. It is clear that the F-35 sale was an integral part of the agreement, and the Emiratis claim that the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, had agreed to it. No wonder that Netanyahu’s rejection of the possibility of such a sale outraged the UAE. These developments also suggest, as some Palestinians have pointed out, that the deal had nothing to do with Israel agreeing to halt plans to annex Palestinian territory, as Abu Dhabi had claimed.
The normalisation agreement between the UAE and Israel, concluded on 13 August, is far from being the historical deal the protagonists make it out to be. Instead, it exposed an existing affair the two states have cultivated from the mid-2000s. Although the UAE has just joined Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab countries with peace agreements with Israel, UAE-Israel secret relations for more than a decade have included commerce, cyber technology, security and military hardware and energy; these will strengthen and become overt under the new agreement. Israel had, in fact, secretly established and strengthened relations with a number of Gulf States in recent years, and some of these have reached maturity under US president Donald Trump.
Even before this agreement was concluded, Emirati-Israeli cooperation had strengthened with the assistance of the Trump administration. The UAE was one of three Arab countries to attend the unveiling of Trump’s farcical ‘deal of the century’ in January, and was a critical part of the June 2019 economic package for Palestinians designed by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and announced in a conference for this purpose in Bahrain. Following the conference, Israeli ministers undertook several visits to the UAE, signalling progress towards normalisation. A series of cooperation agreements between the UAE and Israel to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and an Emirati plane landing in Tel Aviv in July signalled increasing relations between the two countries, and the normalisation agreement was the logical next step. In July, in a move now seen as preparing the ground for the normalisation deal, the Emirati ambassador to the USA, Yousef Al-Otaiba, published an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper after Netanyahu had announced plans to annex parts of the West Bank, calling for these plans to be halted. Two other Gulf countries, Bahrain and Oman, as well Sudan could follow soon with normalisation plans.
Tracing UAE-Israel relations
Current relations between the UAE and Israel may be traced back to 2009, after the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president. The relationship blossomed via secret meetings held to pressure Washington into taking a stronger stance against Iran. However, UAE purchases of military intelligence software and arms deals suggest the relations started in the early 2000s. The two countries had already been communicating via intermediaries, mostly discussing their common opposition to Iran.
Mossad’s assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, Hamas leader and co-founder of the movement’s armed wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, in January 2010 threatened carefully-nurtured and ongoing secret links between the two states. Contact stalled over Mabhouh’s murder until 2012 when Netanyahu secretly met the Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah Bin Zayed, in New York during the UN General Assembly. Talks on Iranian activities in the region resumed, establishing mutual geopolitical concerns. Emirati cooperation with Israel accelerated as a response to the 2010/11 Arab uprisings and Iranian involvement in the Syrian conflict. In January 2014, then Israeli energy minister, Silvan Shalom, attended a renewable energy conference in Abu Dhabi, spurring on relations. In the following year, the UAE granted Israel permission to establish an office in Abu Dhabi for the International Renewable Energy Agency, which has served as platform for regular communication between the two countries.
To showcase the relationship and test responses, the UAE, in a break with a decades-old practice among Arab states, allowed the Israeli national anthem to be played for Israeli athletes at a judo tournament held in Abu Dhabi in October 2018. This was followed by visits to Abu Dhabi by Israel’s communications and culture ministers, Ayoub Kara and Miri Regev respectively, in the same week that Netanyahu made an unprecedented visit to Oman in which he met the country’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos. Gulf leaders reciprocated. For example, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was reported secretly to have visited Israel and met with Israeli officials; his visit was preceded by a July 2016 delegation led by former Saudi general, Anwar Eshki, who also met with Israeli officials.
In July 2019, the Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, attended the UN climate conference in Abu Dhabi, and, on the sidelines of the conference, discussed Iran with senior UAE officials as well as the Israeli ‘Tracks for Regional Peace’ initiative meant to open up travel and trade between Israel and Gulf countries. Katz’s visit came on the heels of the US economic conference in Bahrain. While such official visits between Israeli and certain Gulf states did not represent diplomatic relationships, they showed that Israel was making headway towards normalisation with Gulf countries – especially key players such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This was cemented in December 2019 when USA hosted Israel and the UAE in an anti-Iran meeting that discussed a non-aggression pact between the two states as a step towards full diplomatic ties.
Normalisation, weapons and strategic alliances
Until recently, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had shied away from overt relations with Israel for fear of backlash from their citizens. This changed with Trump’s attempts to build an anti-Iran coalition with Gulf states.
Emirati-Israeli relations have grown significantly in the fields of cyber-espionage and big data analysis since 2009. Acquiring Israeli technology and cybersecurity expertise has boosted the UAE’s domestic and regional surveillance capabilities – even against its own citizens. The UAE uses Israeli companies such as DarkMatter and NSO Group, staffed by Israeli cyber experts, to hack phones, gather intelligence and monitor Islamists, other dissidents and other Gulf leaders. Many Israeli military and security specialists also work for Emirati companies, and have often been hired as mercenaries since the Arab uprisings of 2010/2011.
Although the 13 August normalisation deal is a victory for Israel, which seeks legitimacy among Arab states in order to make the Palestinians irrelevant in international affairs, the Emiratis also scored big in the deal, or so they initially thought. The package included a US agreement to sell F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi in a multi-million-dollar-sale. The UAE had been looking for ways to acquire F-35s as it seeks to present itself militarily as the region’s emerging hegemon. Netanyahu, however, quickly denied these Emirati claims that F-35 acquisition had been secured, emphasising that Israel remained opposed to the sale of advanced weapons to Arab countries. Israel’s opposition to the sale of the jets to the UAE created tensions in the new alliance. Abu Dhabi cancelled the meeting that was to mark the official and ceremonial signing of the normalisation agreement in protest against Netanyahu’s opposition to the F-35 sale. Meanwhile, conflicting sentiments have emerged from the White House.
Differences also quickly emerged about Emirati claims that the normalisation agreement included an end to Israeli plans for the annexation of the West Bank. Within hours of the deal’s announcement, Netanyahu confirmed his commitment to annexation, saying it only been delayed, not cancelled. Kushner supported the Israeli prime minister, clarifying that the annexation was only temporarily halted to allow Israel to focus on strengthening its relations with Gulf countries. Clearly, the Emiratis failed in their attempts to win Arab support by packaging normalisation with Israel as a move to support Palestinians.
The attendance of Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the USA, at the unveiling of Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ in January had already indicated the increasing Emirati disregard for Palestinians. In drafting Trump’s plan, Kushner had consulted widely with Gulf countries – especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia. These countries had formed part of the process despite the fact that no Palestinians had been consulted. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and other Palestinian groups had slammed Emirati support for the heavily pro-Israel plan as the ultimate betrayal. The same sense of betrayal was expressed when the UAE-Israel deal was announced this month.
The Dahlan effect
The Emirati attitude to and interference in Palestinian affairs can be seen in the role of exiled former Fatah strongman, Mohammed Dahlan, arch enemy of PA and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas. After being expelled by Fatah, Dahlan found refuge and massive financial support in the UAE. Some of those financial resources have been dedicated to undermining Abbas to set the stage for Dahlan to capture the PA and PLO. Many Palestinians credit him for being behind the UAE-Israel deal. Dahlan, who used to be close to the CIA and the Israeli security establishment, was convicted for corruption by a Palestinian court in 2014. Since then, from exile, he has tried to to re-enter Palestinian politics and return to Palestine. The UAE, Egypt and Israel prefer him as a replacement or replacement for or successor to Abbas. He has built a support base among sections of Fatah youth in Gaza, some of the refugee camps in Lebanon, and in a few Palestinian diplomatic missions abroad.
The UAE also has a difficult relationship with Gaza-based Hamas, which it treats with hostility because of the group’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the UAE has not officially designated Hamas a terrorist group, Emirati officials refer to it as such in private, especially after the 2017 blockade on Qatar, imposed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. UAE ally Saudi Arabia has detained dozens of Hamas activists since February 2019, allegedly at Israel’s bidding.
Through Dahlan, the UAE has sponsored aid projects in Gaza. In May and June this year, the UAE also sent two planeloads of COVID-19 aid to Israel for Palestinians in the West Bank. The first plane landed in Tel Aviv in May, unmarked, while the second plane bore the Etihad airline logo and the UAE flag, marking significant strides in UAE-Israel relations. Despite being cash strapped and battling the pandemic, the PA rejected both planeloads, viewing Emirati coordination with Israel (and the lack of consultation with Palestinians) as a betrayal. The recent normalisation deal emphasised this sense of betrayal; protests against it erupted in both the West Bank and Gaza, with protesters burning pictures of the UAE crown prince, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Dahlan, Trump and Netanyahu.
Other Gulf states may follow
Oman and Bahrain, both of which immediately praised the UAE-Israel agreement, are expected to follow the Emiratis, allowing Israel to realise its long-time dream of normalisation with regional states while isolating the Palestinians. Israel’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, and his Omani counterpart, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, have already discussed strengthening bilateral ties. The USA hoped that plans to normalise might be announced soon, and the recent regional tour of Kushner and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was aimed to finalise these plans. Pompeo’s trip to Bahrain on 26 August did not yield the hoped-for results, however, as the Bahraini king emphasised the creation of a Palestinian state. Sudan’s transitional government also backtracked. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco have reiterated their stance not to normalise relations with Israel until a peace deal with Palestinians is reached. However, this does not preclude relations taking place secretly.
Secret relations persist between Israel and certain Gulf countries, as well as some Arab states in Africa. Before Bahrain, Pompeo visited Khartoum and met the Sudanese prime minister, Abdullah Hamdok, who disputed claims that his country will normalise relations with Israel, despite Sudanese officials having secretly met Netanyahu in February to discuss normalisation. Despite Sudan’s transitional government issuing conflicting statements on the matter, an 18 August meeting between Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and member of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemeti), in Abu Dhabi suggests that that closed door relations will take place despite Hamdok’s statement.
By Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
Crashing oil prices and further economic woes from the coronavirus outbreak are hitting the Middle East region hard, with many countries already in need of external support, and even long-standing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) heavyweight Saudi Arabia, facing a backlash.
Yet this pandemic could tell a different story for the United Arab Emirates, as Abu Dhabi’s cunning and power-hungry Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) has presented his country as a key protagonist in the fight against coronavirus, with humanitarian gestures and communication established with powerful regional actors and international bodies. Ultimately, these stronger ties and a further polished international image could help MbZ’s bid to establish the UAE as a dominant powerhouse in the region. As the UAE has traditionally used aid to justify its interventions in Libya, Yemen, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, it has now adapted this strategy to the coronavirus pandemic.
By March, Iran had the worst coronavirus outbreak in the region, and the UAE moved by offering Tehran assistance by sending several rounds of aid, building on their already warmer ties from the second half of last year. Abu Dhabi claimed to forge ‘a roadmap to boost stability in the region’, suggesting that political differences would be forgotten during the coronavirus outbreak. On 26 April, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Emirati counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nayhan discussed the coronavirus outbreak and other regional ‘issues of mutual interest’, showing an increased forging of their alliance.
This ties in with the UAE’s interests in Syria, where it increasingly supports Bashar al Asad’s regime as a bulwark against its ongoing regional rival Turkey – a supporter of Syria’s opposition. Bin Zayed called Asad on 27 March, declaring that the UAE ‘stands’ with the Syrian people amid the Covid-19 outbreak. In reality, this helps the UAE bolster its ties with the Syrian government, which it perceives as a vital strategic partner. Abu Dhabi’s coordination with Tehran becomes helpful here, given the latter’s strong influence in Syria since 2013, and its support for Asad during the civil war.
Following a bolstering of ties with Tehran and Damascus, Abu Dhabi has turned to China, another regional actor whose strong ties it depends upon. Having strengthened regional cooperation with Beijing last year, the UAE in February sent China medical supplies as the virus spread there, prompting Lin Yaduo, a diplomat at the Chinese Embassy in Abu Dhabi to praise the UAE’s efforts of solidarity. Their ties subsequently grew, and UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, and State and Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi, discussed how both states’ cooperation was effective in countering the coronavirus, offering a mutual ‘exchange of expertise’ and anti-virus equipment. For the UAE, riding on Beijing’s growing influence in the Middle East and Africa helps solidify its own geopolitical clout. Winning favour with another global power aside from the United States could also grant the UAE further international impunity for its controversial involvement in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere regionally.
Such cooperation could also help ease any differences between the two countries over their operations in the Horn of Africa, where the UAE also seeks to secure control over Red Sea shipping lines for its international maritime trade, while Beijing built rival ports there. After all, the UAE had delivered tonnes of medical aid to Somaliland by 8 April, showing its ambitions to consolidate control over the autonomous region in the Somali Peninsula are still alive, despite recent setbacks such as President Muse Bihi Abdi’s decision last September to turn Abu Dhabi’s military airport in Berbera into a civilian airport.
It also delivered medical equipment to Somalia’s central government, a surprise move considering it had fallen out with Mogadishu in 2018, following opposition to Abu Dhabi’s port development projects in Somaliland and Somalia’s refusal to sever ties with Qatar and Turkey. The UAE is likely being more pragmatic in reviving ties with Mogadishu, seeking to gain influence with Somalia to secure its port influence, and shifting away from its previous ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy.
Yet as the UAE continues its covert support to rogue Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar’s ongoing military campaign to capture Libya’s capital Tripoli and the entire country, it is clear the UAE’s foreign policy is not being driven by a humanitarian agenda. A continuation of Libya’s war, which looks increasingly likely by the day, risks exacerbating the country’s Covid-19 crisis.
Despite Abu Dhabi’s ulterior motives, it is already gaining international approval for its anti-coronavirus initiatives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) praised the UAE’s efforts to help Iran, while Abu Dhabi’s aid deliveries have largely been in cooperation with the WHO. MbZ recently tweeted of the UAE’s growing communications with David Beardsley, Director of the World Food Program, concerning ways to cooperate over helping people affected by the virus. Bin Zayed also communicated with Bill Gates, a prominent advocate for a Covid-19 vaccination, to discuss ways in which Emirati humanitarian organisations could cooperate with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Such efforts not only bolster Abu Dhabi’s international credentials, but would also thicken the smokescreen of international impunity under which its zealous foreign policy operates.
Though the UAE faces economic losses, like much of the world and its close ally Saudi Arabia, the traditionally divided nature of the Emirates means Abu Dhabi and bin Zayed’s own interests would be relatively better off. The loss of international investment and travel could leave tourist hotspot Dubai more vulnerable, creating the prospect of another financial bailout and more purchasing of its stakes from Abu Dhabi, as occurred following the 2007-2008 global financial crisis and subsequent recession. Such an outcome would further shift the power balance towards Abu Dhabi, bolstering MbZ’s position as the UAE’s figurehead.
As Saudi Arabia faces economic uncertainty, along with a failing foreign policy and a deteriorating international image, the UAE’s increasingly pragmatic foreign policy has the potential to drive it into a stronger position than Riyadh in a post-coronavirus world.
* Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist