Three years ago, the United States brokered an agreement between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel, promising to normalize relations between these Gulf Arab states and Israel.
Since the formalization of the Abraham Accords in September 2020, the UAE and Israel have deepened their relations in a number of economic areas, as well as in the field of defense. A few months after the two Arab countries signed, two more countries joined the agreements, Morocco and Sudan, and it seemed that the United States may be on track to sign even more Arab countries.
But with Israel’s current far-right government, some believe the expansion of the deals is on hold, at least for now. And three years later, the UAE faces difficulties in working with the most extremist Israeli government ever.
Facing the Israeli political landscape
The UAE sees itself as a pioneer in the region, with an independent foreign policy aimed at promoting its national interests.
And they benefited from the agreements, as 450,000 Israelis visited the UAE between January 2021 and January 2023 and Israeli companies also did business in the Gulf country.
“For a significant number of (Israeli) tourists… (normalization) has been positive because it (allowed) non-dual citizens to explore new countries and shorten air travel when countries have opened their airspace,” Mira al-Hussein, an Emirati sociologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, told Al Jazeera.
“For Israeli businessmen too, the Gulf is a new market… For many Israelis unhappy with their country’s economic woes, the UAE has become a destination for job seekers,” she said. added.
But facing an Israeli government of Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and other far-right hardliners who came to power last year is difficult for Abu Dhabi.
“The coalition with which the UAE signed the agreements does not correspond to the people or the system with which the UAE is currently dealing. This… disrupts all continuity and familiarity,” al-Hussein said.
Against the backdrop of increased Israeli violence against Palestinians under this government, the UAE has condemned Israel’s violations of the fundamental rights of Palestinians.
For example, in April 2022, the UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation, Reem bint Ibrahim al-Hashemy, summoned the Israeli ambassador to Abu Dhabi to protest violent Israeli incursions into Jerusalem and at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while emphasizing “the need to foster an appropriate environment that would allow the return to serious negotiations aimed at achieving a just and comprehensive peace and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state… in accordance with the resolutions legitimate international institutions and the Arab Peace Initiative.
And then, earlier this year, Abu Dhabi “called on Israeli authorities to take responsibility for reducing escalation and instability in the region” following the Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp.
“Recently, the UAE has shown a greater willingness to criticize aspects of Israeli policies that it opposes, including Israeli attacks on the city of Jenin, its plans to approve the construction of 10,000 new homes in settlements and inflammatory statements made by extremist figures like Ben-Gvir,” Elham Fakhro, a researcher at the Center for Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter, told Al Jazeera.
UAE critics have expressed doubts about whether this discontent extends beyond statements and concerns only domestic consumption rather than Palestinian concern. However, Fakhro said the UAE’s willingness to criticize Israel reflects “the UAE’s growing confidence in its relations with Israel, and perhaps its aim to begin using those relations to try to shape the direction of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians.
The basic calculation made by Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv in 2020 has not changed, and it appears to be linked to their questioning Washington’s long-term commitment to the Middle East.
“The strategic imperative for greater regionalization remains as America’s leading security role becomes more ambiguous,” Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior fellow at the Arab States Institute, told Al Jazeera. from the Gulf to Washington, DC.
“Both (the UAE and Israel) benefit as pioneers in creating more open ties that strengthen their position through technology, defense and economic cooperation. »
Ilan Zalayat, a political and defense risk analyst based in Tel Aviv, also believes that Abu Dhabi does not regret normalization thanks to billions of dollars in bilateral trade, the boost given to its tourism sector and defense systems strategic air transport from which it benefited thanks to the agreements. .
“The UAE knew what it was getting into, fully aware in 2020 that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was going nowhere, but it assumed that some status quo would be maintained,” Zalayat said.
“However, discussions by ministers of the far-right Israeli government…on the ‘obliteration’ of a Palestinian city or on…massive construction in the West Bank, as well as the visit of ministers to the Al-Aqsa complex in Jerusalem, C “This is something that Abu Dhabi cannot neglect,” he said, adding that Abu Dhabi’s “honeymoon” phase with Israel is effectively over, Zalayat believes.
Abu Dhabi’s condemnation of Israel’s behavior is understandable given the domestic environment in the UAE and public opinion in the broader Arab-Islamic world.
“The minority (Emiratis) who applauded normalization probably do so out of patriotic duty. The overwhelming majority of those who silently oppose it simply choose not to legitimize it with a commitment. Rapid and exaggerated accommodations made in the name of tolerance are seen as distasteful by a largely conservative population,” al-Hussein said.
Although Israelis visit Dubai and Israeli businesses have set up shop in the UAE, the number of Emiratis vacationing in Israel or Emirati businesses setting up shop there is tiny in comparison.
“There don’t seem to be many Emiratis willing to… engage too much with Israel. But I think Abu Dhabi leaders are still trying to sell this as something pragmatic and financially interesting for the Emirates,” said Courtney Freer, a researcher at Emory University.
The Saudi variable
Going forward, Israel’s position in the Middle East will remain precarious if it cannot build on the agreements and expand cooperation with more countries in the region.
The biggest prize is Saudi Arabia, which has significant influence over the future of the Abraham Accords.
Since 2020, Riyadh has been able to monitor the progress of the agreements. If it joins, which seems unlikely in the near future, it would probably facilitate the influence of other Arab-Islamic countries.
The UAE itself now appears to be looking to Saudi Arabia to take on the task of holding Israel to account.
On Wednesday, UAE Ambassador to the United States Yusuf al-Otaiba said it was now up to other countries considering normalizing relations with Israel to prevent the latter from de facto annexing the occupied West Bank.
“Our agreement was based on a certain period, and that period is almost one, and so we have no ability to take advantage of decisions that are made outside of the period on which…the Abraham Accords were based,” al-Otaiba said. . “I think it’s up to future countries to take that particular approach, but there’s not much the UAE can do right now to shape what happens in Israel.”
While some may dispute this characterization of the UAE’s ability – or desire – to influence Israeli policy, negotiations are reportedly underway between Saudi Arabia and Israel, mediated by the United States.
The question now is whether the Saudis will agree to a deal – and if they do, what concessions will they get?
“The UAE’s normalization with Israel has allowed Saudi Arabia to avoid many pitfalls and mistakes,” according to al-Hussein.
“Saudi Arabia is essential, and that gives the kingdom considerable influence,” Diwan said.