The recent agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel for establishing full diplomatic relations is a key geopolitical event. First, the agreement marks the confidence of a small Gulf Emirate in shaping the greater game of regional power politics. Second, it puts in sharp relief the long-unfolding narrative turn that regional geopolitics in the wider region of Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is defined by territorial Arab-states pursuing power, influence and security rather than transnational ideological and identity-based narratives of Arab-solidarity or pan-Islamism. Furthermore, as the structuring power of Arab-Israeli conflict has declined over last few decades, the US-brokered normalisation of ties between UAE and Israel will also likely have the effect of entrenching two other key rivalries in the region.
In an indication of how the ‘diplomatic breakthrough’ will advance Arab-Israeli peace and shape the regional order, the joint-statement by the United States (US), UAE and Israel noted that the three countries share ‘common challenges’ and that for now Israel ‘will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace and focus its efforts on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.’[i] The deal therefore not only heralds boosting of cooperation between two countries towards preparing the ground for the implementation of President Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’, but the two countries will likely emerge as major strategic partners given their shared threat perception of Iranian regional influence in the Persian Gulf and Levant as also their convergence on countering the ‘Turkish expansionist strategy’ at a time of fragmentation of the Arab state system.[ii]
Though the Trump administration, in pursuing its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran actively fostered engagement between Israel and its Gulf allies, yet over the last year UAE had to deal with acute insecurity as Washington’s efforts failed to deter the litany of ‘incidents’ in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman rattling region’s shipping and energy sector. Furthermore, the alarming prospects of violent confrontation between Iran and the US playing out in the Gulf, led UAE to soften on its stance on Iran, paving the way for Abu Dhabi’s dispatch of medical assistance to an Iran battling a serious coronavirus situation and direct communication between foreign ministers of Iran and UAE. As the US keeps up its pressure campaign on Iran, Israel concerned about long-term Iranian military build-up in Syria has conducted repeated drone strikes against Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq and a series of damaging cyber-attacks on Iran’s nuclear and civilian facilities. Abu Dhabi’s security partnership with Tel Aviv therefore aims to balance against the Iranian threat in the Persian Gulf.
Though UAE was virtually unaffected by popular uprisings against authoritarian Arab rulers, the rise to power of Muslim Brotherhood, anti-monarchist Islamist group with regional presence and backing from Turkey and Qatar led UAE to get involved in geopolitical rivalries for control of central political authority in Egypt, Libya and also in Syria. UAE along with Saudi Arabia extended massive economic grants and loans to Egypt after General Fattah al-Sisi staged a successful coup against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of Mohammad Morsi in 2013. In Libya, UAE has backed General Khalifa Haftar who leads a rival government based in Tobruk in eastern Libya. Earlier this year, Turkey’s military intervention in support of the UN recognised Tripoli-based Government of National Accord was decisive in resisting Haftar’s putsch from his eastern stronghold. Turkey’s involvement in Libya is also linked with its competition with Israel for influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey, which has long seen itself as the Eastern Mediterranean’s gas exploration and export hub, is alarmed by Israel’s quick development of its giant offshore gas fields and enlisting of Greece and Cyprus in what it sees as an anti-Ankara bloc. As the governments of Greece, Cyprus and Israel were negotiating an agreement to build a pipeline from offshore Israeli and Cypriot waters to Italy via Greece, Tripoli and Ankara, signed an agreement redefining their Exclusive Economic Zones in such a way that gives Turkey more say in gas exploration and pipeline construction in the region.[iii]
With encouragement from Washington, the UAE has been actively fostering strategic relations with Greece and the internationally recognised Greek Cypriot-led government in Nicosia. In April 2019, UAE fighter-planes participated alongside the US and Israel Air Force in Iniohos 2019, Greece’s largest military exercise.[iv] Later in November last year, Foreign Ministers of the UAE, Cyprus and Greece had their first trilateral meeting in Abu-Dhabi, pledging to deepen joint cooperation between them in all aspects.[v] In January 2020, the launch of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in Cairo by seven Mediterranean countries – Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine – was marked by the noticeable absence of Turkey. By seeking to create a common vision for development of Mediterranean gas reserves, EGMF will advance Israel’s economic integration with the region and is widely seen as central to the ‘economic plan’ associated with the US-proposed so-called ‘deal of the century.’[vi] UAE’s active involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean and now establishment of diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv is about furthering this process of normalisation of Israel as an integral part of the region.
UAE is also competing with Turkey for influence in Africa’s Red Sea littoral and the Horn of Africa, cementing its influence by mediating inter-state conflicts and through security assistance and mega investments especially in ports and infrastructure development. UAE’s strategy in this region twins strategic and commercial interests through development of ports and military bases such as Eritrean Red Sea port of Assab – where UAE has built a major naval and air base during the course of its military involvement in Yemen – and Berbera in Somaliland, a breakaway region of Somalia. While UAE trained anti-piracy maritime forces in Puntland, another semi-autonomous region of Somalia, Turkey runs a military training facility in Mogadishu.[vii] At a time when traditional Arab regional powers – Iraq, Syria and Egypt – are struggling to maintain central authority in their own territory, the small Gulf Emirate is playing an outsized role in counter-balancing the rising influence of non-Arab powers, Iran and Turkey in the wider MENA region. Though the Trump administration has backed UAE’s proactive role, but both Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv know better than to link their geopolitical calculus with who occupies the Oval Office in Washington.
*Dr. Deepika Saraswat, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
[i]Joint Statement of the United States, the State of Israel and the United Arab Emirates, August 13, 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/joint-statement-united-states-state-israel-united-arab-emirates/ Accessed on 24 August 2020.
[iii]Turkey Libya Maritime Deal Rattles East Mediterranean, Reuters, 25 December 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-libya-eastmed-tensions-explain/turkey-libya-maritime-deal-rattles-east-mediterranean-idUSKBN1YT0JK Accessed on 25 August 2020.
[iv] Israel Air Force in Greece as part of Iniohos 2019, The Jerusalem Post, April 8, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/israel-news/israel-air-force-in-greece-as-part-of-iniohos-2019-585993 Accessed on 23 August 2020.
[v] UAE, Cyprus, Greece FMs hold first trilateral meeting, In-Cyprus, November 17, 2019, https://in-cyprus.philenews.com/uae-cyprus-greece-fms-hold-first-trilateral-meeting/ Accessed on 23 August 2020
[vi] Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to Promote Regional Energy Cooperation, Al-Monitor, August 5, 2019, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/08/egypt-east-med-gas-forum-founding-members-meeting-israel.html Accessed on 24 August 2020
[vii] 152 Somalians graduate from Turkish Military Camp, Anadolu Agency, July 25, 2019, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/152-somalians-graduate-from-turkish-military-camp/1541637 Accessed on 22 August 2020