Could Iran come between Israel and its new Gulf ally?

23 November 2021

7:02 AM

23 November 2021

7:02 AM

When Israel and the United Arab Emirates first started speaking in 1994, the meetings were kept secret. The Emiratis, like the rest of the Muslim majority world, publicly supported the Palestinian cause. Israel was supposed to be the enemy. But last year, with the signing of the Abraham Accords that re-established official diplomatic ties between the two countries, that changed.

In Dubai this week, the strength of this now open relationship was clear. Israel and Jordan have signed a deal to trade water for solar energy. It’s the biggest agreement ever struck between Israel and one of its Arab neighbours, and it was brokered by the Emiratis. It wouldn’t have been possible without the Accords.

In the last year, the UAE has become Israel’s closest partner in the Middle East. More than 200,000 Israelis have visited the emirates. Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the state-owned defence manufacturer, recently said it will open a branch there. And the UAE has said it wants trade with Israel to hit $1 trillion – more than the UK’s trade with the European Union – in the next decade. The two countries’ foreign ministers even talk on WhatsApp. ‘More than most diplomats would like,’ one Israeli official jokes. Amir Hayek, Israel’s ambassador to the UAE, describes the relationship as ‘a baby that’s one year old, can speak three languages and run a marathon’.

Israel also trades with the rest of the Gulf through the UAE. Israeli investors can now get an Abu Dhabi Global Market license, meaning they can do business with companies from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait – countries that officially don’t have peace with Israel. Drones and planes leaving the hangar at the new IAI branch will be stamped ‘Made in the UAE’, so they too could be sold to the Saudis or Kuwaitis. A friend of Mohammed bin Zayed, de facto ruler of the UAE since his brother had a stroke in 2014, says the leader thinks the new relationship is ‘an absolute game changer’. ‘He’s very pleased about what he’s pulled off’, they add.

Israel wants its relationship with the UAE to be a model for re-establishing ties with other Gulf states. The Israeli official I spoke to says they want Arab nations to ask themselves: why not us too? A defence source agrees: ‘They want to be inside this. They don’t want to be outside.’

But there are limits to how friendly the region can get. Getting other Gulf states to join the Abraham Accords will be more difficult: Kuwait says it will be the last in the Middle East to normalise relations with Israel; Saudi Arabia’s King cannot forget the Palestinian conflict; Qatar has close ties to Iran; and although Israeli officials have hinted that Oman could join the Accords, the sultanate has a historic relationship with the regime in Tehran.

If more Gulf countries did join, there would be symbolic benefits for Israel (it looks good for Arab countries to recognise the country), and long-term benefits for the region (it’s nice to have friends you can speak to publicly). But the remaining economies – aside from Saudi Arabia’s – are relatively small. While the UAE’s economy is only 25 per cent bigger than Kuwait’s, Dubai is the trading capital of the Middle East, and where most multinationals have their regional headquarters.

There’s little expectation that the Gulf countries that are yet to normalise relations with Israel would help with Iran either. They have a more complicated relationship with the regime than Israel does.

Qatar is Iran’s closest ally on the Arabian Peninsula, and refused to cut military and diplomatic ties with them when it was threatened with a blockade by a group of other Gulf states four years ago. Oman and Kuwait have ties to Iran too, and during the blockade of Qatar and the nuclear talks in 2015 acted as mediators between the regime and the rest of the Gulf and the United States.

Saudi Arabia, a long-term adversary of Iran, held talks with regime officials last month in Baghdad, and Tehran asked the country to reopen consulates and re-establish diplomatic ties in exchange for ending the proxy war in Yemen. If Iran could get the Houthis to back down, the Saudis would probably take the deal. Private channels between the two already exist. The UAE, despite its normalisation with Israel, still does plenty of trade with Iran. Many of the wealthiest families in Dubai lived there just a few generations ago.

The Gulf states are also less concerned than Israel about Iran wanting nuclear weapons. Missile strikes and proxies, after all, are more realistic threats to them. Iran is widely thought to be behind drone attacks that hit the Abqaiq oil plant and the Khurais oil field in Saudi Arabia in September 2019. Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company, had to suspend 60 per cent of its production – six per cent of the global oil supply. Iranian proxies in Iraq, meanwhile, have been battling US troops, showing off drones that can hit Iraq’s neighbours, and trying to assassinate the Prime Minister. These are far more pressing threats to Gulf states than the prospect of nuclear war.

War with Iran would put Israel’s ties with the UAE to the test. The friend of bin Zayed says the ruler ‘hates Iran with a vengeance’, but in a conflict between them and Israel he will make a hard-headed decision. ‘His instinct will be to back Israel if he can, but he’s got to take the bazaar with him’. If even he stood by, what were the Abraham Accords for?

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