Israel and the Emirates Are the Middle East’s New Best Friends
The Abraham Accords didn’t just seal a wary detente. It cemented Israel’s first regional partnership.
The scenes since September 2020 have been scarcely believable. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been thronging the malls and beaches of Abu Dhabi and Dubai; Emiratis have posed for selfies in Jerusalem; Israeli DJs are mixing music for crowds of revelers at Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. In the Middle East, banal tourism of this sort has geopolitical weight. It is just one expression of the deep diplomatic impact of the normalization deal between the United Arab Emirates and Israel signed this past September.
The Abraham Accords were a high-level diplomatic agreement—but they were far more than that. They marked a shift in national allegiances. Israelis and Emiratis are not just wary partners; they are increasingly close allies. Israel has previously found ways to coexist with Arab regimes. This time, it may have found a genuine friend.
The Abraham Accords mark the most holistic agreement Israel has ever inked with an Islamic country. The long-standing deals with Jordan and Egypt, signed in the 1970s and 1990s, were motivated by the need to keep peace on two of the world’s most contentious borders—and to secure a pecuniary relationship with the United States. “That was a very cold peace,” said Sami Nader, a Middle East analyst. “This deal, however, is transformative.” It includes agreements to cooperate on tourism and research and development to combat the pandemic—and it implies deeper cooperation still on other issues.
The transformation has come at a cost to the Palestinians. Previously, most Arab nations subscribed to the principles of the Arab peace initiative first agreed upon in 2002 and last reendorsed in 2017, which stipulated that normalization with Israel would only occur if and when it retreated from the occupied territories and an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital was established.
The UAE reneged on this commitment. By signing the accords, it opened up to Israel merely on the assurance that Israel would stop encroaching any further into Palestinian lands. Israel has subsequently clarified that annexation has just been suspended, not stopped entirely.
The significance of the UAE’s agreement to these terms reached beyond the text itself. It gave an excuse for three other countries—Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco—to mend fences with Israel in the following weeks. Speculation is now rife that the UAE might also be working to convince Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to sign a peace treaty with Israel.
The Syrian regime, which claims to oppose Israel along with Iran, has conspicuously shied from strongly condemning the deal. Instead, a video clip has circulated online of a member of the Baath Party, Mahdi Dakhlallah, advocating for Syria to also sign a peace agreement with its enemy. Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat stationed at Syria’s embassy in the United States in 2011 and currently living there in exile, said Dakhlallah’s video clip was a few years old but it was deliberately recirculated by regime supporters in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords.
There are many reasons fueling the UAE’s rapprochement with Israel. Fatigue with the Palestinian cause had long set in across the region. But the UAE was also pursuing its own regional ambitions. Both Israel and the UAE feel strongly that they face a military threat from Iran. Over the last decade, Iran expanded its influence from Tehran through Iraq and Syria all the way to Lebanon. Iran’s proxy Hezbollah already control south Lebanon and during the Syrian war has also dug its heels in southern Syria. Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, widely perceived as the architect of the deal, may have also been motivated by a belief that a closer relationship with Israel would serve to deepen his country’s future ties with the United States—especially if domestic Islamists ever stage an Arab Spring-style uprising against his monarchy.
By taking the initiative on diplomatic outreach to Israel, the UAE has also improved its international reputation relative to the more hesitant Saudi government, which has still not signed any such peace agreement. “The UAE is now a regional peacemaker. It is standing taller in the world than it did before the deal,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political analyst. “Everyone in the West, Washington, Paris, Berlin, all are happy with the UAE, and we are in the driver’s seat.”
The deal merely formalized an already extensive relationship between UAE and Israel. The two countries had already been cooperating for a decade on foreign-policy initiatives. That cooperation seems to have also included an Emirati effort in Syria.
Former rebels and aid workers in Quneitra in southern Syria, on the border with Israel, attest that the UAE may have acted in support of Israeli interests during one stage of the Syrian civil war. Abu Marya, a rebel fighter from Quneitra, received military training in Jordan at a Military Operations Center run by the United States, the United Kingdom, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. “We had two tasks: push out the jihadists and spread a good word about Israel,” he Foreign Policy. “The UAE used to instruct the leaders of the factions in the south to always praise Israel in front of the civilians.”
Ahmad, an activist with the White Helmets, the volunteer civil defense force in Syria, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, was also trained in Jordan by the Mayday Rescue Foundation as a first-aid worker. His job included transporting the severely injured to the gates at the Israeli border, where he often witnessed injured rebel fighters from groups such as the non-jihadi, Islamist Alwiya al-Furqan cross over to Israel for health treatment. “The members of this group, and of other groups in Quneitra, were supported by Israel and also by the UAE,” he said. “The UAE provided humanitarian aid to the same groups that were supported by Israel from across the border. Nothing happens by coincidence in that region.”
“There were others too who sent aid, but in the villages near the border the aid was overwhelmingly from the UAE,” Ahmad said.
Mesnaya, an aid worker with a local nongovernmental organizations called South Relief and Development, showed videos of aid packages arriving in trucks branded with the Emirati flags and said that field workers were ordered to prioritize the provision of aid to groups such as Alwiya al-Furqan. “We were asked to prioritize distribution of medical and food aid to families of fighters of Alwiya al-Furqan and others who were openly supported by Israel,” she said. “All the aid in our villages was from the UAE.” Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Center for Global Policy in Washington, D.C., said that Alwiya al-Furqan was indeed one of the groups supported by Israel, though she cautioned that it was possible that aid from Israel and the UAE ended up with the same communities because of local factors, rather than government coordination.
Turning Syria into an Israeli ally, if that is indeed UAE’s current undertaking, will be a Sisyphean task. But the UAE’s deal with Israel has already clarified the direction in which the region’s most active foreign-policy actors are heading—and how they are increasingly operating in tandem.
In the meantime, the signs of unprecedented friendship and cultural exchange are everywhere. Fabian Fayoli, a Frenchman from Lyon, the head chef at a high-end Dubai restaurant called Kaf, said he is preparing to host a growing number of Israeli weddings. “The kosher operation will increase dramatically,” he said, “and we must be ready for it.”
Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra