By Hamdullah Baycar for Anadolu Agency
As the relationship between the Persian Gulf riparian Arab countries and Israel grew closer by the day, this momentum, led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), first developed into a reality of normalization, with the parties involved gradually coming to anticipate the establishment of an alliance between them. The UAE became the first Arab country to switch to a visa-free travel regime with Israel. Acting on the maxim “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, Israel and the UAE have positioned themselves in the same ranks in the new regional order, establishing Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood as common enemies.
So, how did we get from the UAE of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who did not hesitate to suspend oil sales to countries supporting Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War on the principle that “Arab oil is not more valuable than Arab blood”, to a UAE that can allocate $10 billion in funds for direct investments in Israel even though it has only been a year since the normalization began? This normalization, on top of the bilateral ties between these countries, would undoubtedly have significant consequences for Palestine. It will almost certainly cost Palestinians very dearly by further dividing Palestine at home and isolating it internationally.
Although the death of Sheikh Zayed in 2004 is considered as the beginning of the shift in the UAE’s Israeli policy, the drastic change in the regional climate brought about by the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the ideological and military weakening of strong regional countries, has pushed the Gulf countries to the forefront. Correspondingly, the UAE, which has reinforced its position and gained recognition in the region, has overcome the fragility that marked its early years and repositioned its peaceful, diplomatic and agreeable foreign policy into a more interventionist and aggressive context. This shift has made it easier for the UAE to abandon its hesitant stance in its dealings with Israel. The UAE, which had secretly established economic, technological, and even intelligence cooperation with Israel, breathed a sigh of relief with the normalization deal, which former US President Donald Trump served as a guarantor for. The UAE’s explicit support for the agreement, which Trump dubbed the “Deal of the Century”, which only symbolically included the Palestinians, imposed normalization with Israel on countries like Bahrain, further cementing the UAE-Israel relationship.
From closed doors to open diplomacy
It is difficult to provide a precise figure for the pre-normalization trade volume between the two countries since relations between them, which were focused on technology and security, were carried out with extreme secrecy as a “well-known secret”. However, according to leaked data, the annual trade volume between the two countries had exceeded $300 million by 2011. Due to the reciprocal flight restrictions in place between the two countries until normalization; exports, imports and investments were routed through third countries. An $800 million deal (which appears to be a sham) officially made with AGT, a Swiss security company, but is widely believed to have been made with Israel, is just one example of this hidden partnership.
The fact that Israel is regarded as a national security concern in the US, as well as the influence of Jewish lobbies (especially in the US Congress), lobbies powerful enough to punish countries that do not side with them, has accelerated the normalization of UAE-Israeli relations. When we recall events like the Emirate of Dubai’s official port company, Dubai Ports World, being barred from participating in a tender for six major US ports in 2006 on the grounds that it posed a risk to US national interests, we can conclude that the UAE has laid the groundwork for this normalization by establishing ties with Jewish lobbies as well as conducting serious public and lobbying campaigns to improve its image in the US.
Thus, UAE-Israel relations started to flourish in a variety of areas, including diplomacy and sports, in addition to the economy. In fact, Israel named a representative for the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi in 2015. Although the UAE argued during the initial selection process that this diplomatic mission was exclusively focused on the affairs of the organization, it was clear that this would not be the case in the long run. It was also revealed that Israel supported the UAE instead of Germany in 2009 meetings on where the headquarters of this organization should be located. Likewise, the participation of the Israeli cycling team in the Dubai cycling championship and the invitation sent to Israel for the Dubai Expo, which was originally scheduled for 2020 but was postponed to 2021 due to the new type of coronavirus (COVID-19), are only some of the examples of how the relations between the two countries have now come out in the open.
The first achievement of the UAE’s normalization with Israel is the disclosure of the UAE’s previously secret trade activities. As a result, Dubai’s economic relationship with Israel — being just one of the seven emirates — has surpassed $270 million in only five months. Other accomplishments include pledges of mutual support in the transportation, tourism, and construction sectors, with the parties setting a goal of $5 billion in annual trade and investment volume in the short term. The fact that 40 thousand Israelis traveled to the UAE in December 2020 alone despite the pandemic indicates an upward curve in the tourism volume between them. The future of their commercial relations looks bright, considering that the two countries, both of which are strong players in the port management sector, have launched an initiative to jointly participate in the privatization tender for Israel’s Haifa port. Another important achievement of the UAE is that Israel has promised to support, rather than oppose, its procurement of F-35 fighter jets from the US.
Aside from the economy and politics, the public relations activities that the UAE has been carrying out for years may also be included in its list of achievements in that they have also paved the way for this normalization. These activities are just as important to the UAE as its economic, political, and diplomatic interests, as well as identity building. A pope visiting the Arabian Peninsula for the first time (i.e., Pope Francis’ visit to the UAE in 2019), normalization with Israel — a Jewish country –, and its image as “a country where over 200 nationalities live together in peace” are all used as advertising material in the international space. The UAE has been making concerted efforts to divert foreign attention away from its domestic human rights violations by portraying itself as a country where “tolerance and interfaith dialogue triumph over extremism” and declaring itself the region’s “peace center.”
What about Palestine?
The issue of Palestine was once the hottest issue of Arab nationalism and topped the agenda of all Arab countries. However, with the nation-states gaining relative significance, the changing global and regional conjuncture, the deaths of charismatic Arab leaders and their ideologies losing popularity, the Palestinian issue gradually evolved into a story of brotherhood based merely on rhetoric, rather than action. Indeed, Palestine was taken into account neither in the Deal of the Century nor the normalization steps in question. The UAE, in particular, not only ignored Palestine while initiating these agreements but also exacerbated Palestine’s political fragmentation. As a matter of fact, it is well-known that the UAE views Palestinian Mohammed Dahlan, whom it gave substantial support in order for him to play an active role in both the normalization process and the Deal of the Century, as a viable alternative to Mahmoud Abbas. Dahlan, a former member of Fatah who is currently in exile in the UAE, is the brains behind the UAE’s Palestinian policies. The UAE is happy that Dahlan, by leading the way in the implementation of certain measures, has been endeavoring to undermine Abbas’ authority. We may recall that the UAE sent two COVID-19 relief packages to Palestine in two separate air deliveries to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, ignoring Palestinian authorities. Abbas had no choice but to reject the relief packages because they were sent through Israeli authorities. The UAE thereby attempted to destroy the image of Abbas in the eyes of Palestinians.
The UAE’s ostensibly pro-Palestinian moves in the context of normalizing relations with Israel with regard to the annexation of the West Bank, which is considered Palestinian territory but which Israel intends to annex, are not genuine. Although the UAE claims that the annexation plans have been abandoned, Tel Aviv states that they have only been postponed and that annexation is going to take place in the future. The UAE’s attempts to cover up this truth by using different statements in the Arabic and English texts on the normalization reveal its insincerity. While the English text states that the West Bank plan “… led to the suspension of Israel’s plans to expand its sovereignty”, the Arabic text reads “… led to the halting of Israel’s plans to annex Palestinian territory”, demonstrating the UAE’s ambivalent attitude.
Palestine’s suffering is not limited to its internal divisions and Israel’s insincerity in its commitment to stopping the annexation of the West Bank. With the normalization with Israel initiated by the UAE, shortly followed by countries such as Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, the Palestinians’ final trump card of Arab states refusing to recognize Israel and isolating it in the region has vanished into the dusty pages of history. This wave of normalization could encourage other countries with secret relationships with Israel to follow suit. In this sense, the recognition of Israel, even by “the once arch-enemies of Israel”, will exacerbate the impossibility of restoring the 1967 borders, i.e., establishing a fair, two-state solution, and further weaken the Palestinian position.
Hamdullah Baycar is a Ph.D. candidate at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies of the University of Exeter, with his research focusing on Gulf studies.
* Translated from Turkish by Can Atalay