Israel-UAE peace deal: Flipping the regional order of the Middle East

The Israel-UAE peace deal provides multiple wins for both countries, and for the US. But it could yet deepen the region’s political fault lines. 

picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Oded Balilty ©

The announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have agreed to normalise relations was broken in the most Trumpian way possible – via the American president’s Twitter account. The move is the culmination of a geopolitical alignment that has been covertly but steadily redrawing the map of Middle Eastern alliances. From the Gulf to the eastern Mediterranean, Israel and the UAE have found themselves on the same side as they work to contain the growing influence of Iran and increasingly that of Turkey. Perhaps just as significantly, the deal brings with it significant political wins for the leaders of all three countries, including the US.

The significance of yesterday’s news should not be downplayed. In their own right, all peace agreements should be warmly received, especially between two important allies of the United States and European Union. However, while this deal is designed to usher in a new phase in Israeli relations with Gulf monarchies, it may not be the key to unlocking wider Arab-Israeli peace. And it once again leaves the Palestinians feeling that they are paying the price for other countries’ geopolitical ambitions.

The timing of the announcement undoubtedly left many diplomats and pundits flatfooted. But, in many ways, it came as no surprise. Israel and Gulf monarchies – the UAE and Bahrain in particular, but Saudi Arabia as well – have been increasing their bilateral relations for years. Despite focusing mostly on intelligence sharing, they have extended their cooperation into a number of other areas, participating in joint military exercises, diplomatic initiatives, research and development, and investment. Shared antipathy towards Iran and the JCPOA nuclear agreement has been an important catalyst for this nascent alignment. The Trump administration has encouraged this, keen to contain Iran as much as to back Israel’s regional posture and secure some kind of regional legacy. 

Like any good deal, it provides wins for all the parties.                                             

This is especially true for Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu – both of whom face difficult domestic political scenes. It hands both leaders a momentous foreign policy accomplishment at a politically expedient time: Trump is badly trailing his Democratic challenger three months out from national elections, while Netanyahu is flirting with the idea of collapsing his unhappy coalition government and calling a fresh election (Israel’s fourth in under two years). The deal also allows them to pivot away from Trump’s vaunted Peace to Prosperity plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – endorsed by the UAE – which both leaders have grown lukewarm towards despite having publicly committed to it.

Trump can now swap a pretty big flop for a significant foreign policy win – perhaps his one and only. Netanyahu has, meanwhile, pulled off a political escape worthy of Houdini, trading the plan’s proposal for Israel to de jure annex the West Bank – which he has been less than enthusiastic about and which has caused him only political headaches – for a historic breakthrough that he had long promised the Israeli public. 

Despite some risks, it also brings initial political gains for the UAE’s de facto ruler Mohammed Bin Zayed. UAE officials have of late been increasingly explicit that their regional ambitions cannot be forever tied to Israel’s unresolved conflict with the Palestinians. First and foremost, this deal adds to the tremendous amount of political capital that the Emirati leader already enjoys in Washington. He will be able to cash in this goodwill regardless of who wins the US presidency – for some time the UAE has been pursuing a strategy of hedging its bets between a new Trump term and a Democratic presidency.

The Emiratis have long tried to position their country as a regional leader and model. As part of these efforts, they have espoused a rhetoric of religious tolerance in opposition to what they frame as the extremism of political Islam promoted by Iran and Turkey – its two main regional adversaries. From Abu Dhabi’s perspective, the deal may formally widen the UAE’s diplomatic and military alliance against these countries. In addition, it may be able to purchase more advanced US weaponry previously off limits to it, including drones. Finally, formal normalisation with Israel will provide an important boost for the UAE in a difficult global climate, creating further opportunities for economic diversification and cooperation in scientific research and, crucially, cyber security. 

However, there are risks, too.

In soon becoming only the third Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel – after Egypt and Jordan – the UAE has made a major concession and in doing so is breaking one of the biggest political and social taboos in the Arab world. Arab countries have collectively vowed to only normalise their relations with Israel in exchange for a full Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. In flipping the order by putting regional peace before Palestinian peace, the UAE is removing a key incentive Israel may have had to end its occupation. Unsurprisingly, replacing Palestinian statehood with regional normalisation has long been one of Netanyahu’s main ambitions and he now emerges as the main winner of Trump’s announcement.  

It is unclear how Arab and Muslim public opinion will respond, especially in the Gulf region. In the UAE, a mixture of strict controls on public discourse in traditional and social media and a growing coldness towards Palestinians among the youth – the majority in the population – may mean that there is little backlash. Emirati officials have consistently underlined that the deal has been signed in return for Israel’s pledge to suspend any move towards annexing the West Bank. But while the UAE aims to present itself as the only Arab player able to block Israeli annexation, to many Palestinians its words are at odds with their daily reality. 

Full normalisation with the UAE may indeed have dissuaded Israel from a formal declaration of sovereignty over West Bank territory for now – or at least provided Netanyahu with convenient cover not to do so immediately. But Israel has had to make no concession. If anything, its maximalist behaviour has been rewarded. Its de facto annexation and settlement of Palestinian territory will continue unobstructed, entrenching a system of control that favours Jewish Israelis over their Palestinian neighbours and increasingly looks like South Africa’s past system of apartheid. Netanyahu has already come out saying that this agreement only suspends annexation and that it will still happen, an outcome which risks exposing the UAE position.

Trump can now swap a pretty big flop for a significant foreign policy win – perhaps his one and only

The deal may now open the door for other Gulf monarchies to follow suit. The limited cooperation that exists between Israel and Saudi Arabia is unlikely to turn into normalisation any time soon – after all, King Salman dedicated decades of his life to the Palestinian cause and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is currently too enmeshed in handling the sensitive domestic political situation as he prepare to succeed his father. However, Saudi Arabia may encourage Bahrain to embrace normalisation: Riyadh has long viewed its junior partner in Manama as a way of interacting informally with Jerusalem and it may do so more freely under the framework of a normalisation.

However, these bilateral agreements remain unlikely to bring in an era of regional peace. Closer UAE-Israel ties could in fact deepen rather than seal the region’s deepest fault lines. More muscular action by the UAE and Israel (and the US) against Iran and its regional allies, or against Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, could lead to further destabilisation and encourage the mistaken belief that the region’s many conflicts can be resolved though zero-sum policies when all evidence points to the contrary. Partners and allies of Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi, in the US, but also in Europe, must therefore work hard to ensure that this deal does not translate into heightened geopolitical competition. Instead, they should take advantage of the current diplomatic activity to revive the Middle East’s many stalled diplomatic initiatives and de-escalation efforts.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Authors