While Israel was excited to host the Eurovision competition in May, in the Arab Gulf States, international events are held almost on a daily basis. One of the most prestigious of them is Expo 2020, scheduled for October next year in Dubai to showcase participating countries’ technological achievements. The Expo ranks as the third most important global event after the Olympics and the World Cup (slated for 2022 in neighboring Qatar). While 132 states had signed up for the fair as of August 2018, Dubai’s leadership continued to debate Israel’s participation. On April 25, 2019, Expo organizers issued a festive statement saying all countries “without exception” were welcome to attend. “For more than 170 years, World Expos have been apolitical events focused on furthering humanity for the common good through innovation, cultural exchange, creativity and collaboration. We are proud to continue that tradition,” according to the communique. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the news, writing on his Twitter account, “This is another expression of Israel’s rising status in the world and in the region”. Whether Netanyahu’s insight meets reality or not, Israel’s participation provides Israel an unusual diplomatic opportunity, for which it must prepare wisely in order to fulfill.
Among other outcomes, the Arab Spring led to the strengthening of the Gulf States’ standing in the Middle East, given the stability they displayed in the face of events that affected almost every country in the region. Consequently, the Gulf States leveraged the new balance of power to expand their international and regional influence, as was evident in Emirati-funded infrastructure in the Horn of Africa, Saudi-led high-level diplomatic moves, Oman’s call for regional mediation, the race for hosting international events in these countries, and many more soft-power displays. Kuwait has been the one exception, remaining virtually isolated. Thus, Israel must acknowledge these new nexuses of power in the Middle East, and draw up a corresponding map of alliances. Its integration into the expanding circle of opportunities emerging around the Gulf countries has the potential to be dually beneficial, since it does not only consist of bilateral or regional cooperation, but also of international opportunities.
The Expo events afford tremendous economic values for the participating countries, as well as the opportunity to shape their national image within the global community. The exposure to millions of visitors and the platform for establishing direct contacts among diplomatic representatives and key figures from around the world, generates a unique hub of diplomacy. Indeed, beyond its importance for Israel’s economy and image, Israel’s participation in this event, hosted by an Arab Muslim country it has no current and past diplomatic relations with, is a significant achievement, which reflects the nature of Israel’s current relations with the UAE.
On the one hand, the UAE, as the host of an international event, is expected by the international community to provide access to all countries, including Israel. As a result, the UAE and other Gulf countries have legitimized in recent years the arrival of Israeli nationals to international conferences and tournaments they hosted. In that sense, the UAE’s decision to invite Israel to Expo 2020 does not reflect a change in the status of ties between the two states, nor does it forecast the beginning of direct and formal relations. On the other hand, meeting this international code points to the UAE’s willingness to compromise on anti-normalization measures towards Israel.
Currently, the UAE government distinguishes between bilateral ties with Israel and international cooperation with it, leaving room to maneuver in the case of the latter. In the international realm, an Israeli representative office has been operating for the past three years in Abu Dhabi, the capital, under the auspices of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Israel and the UAE also conduct Air Force exercises and business cooperation in the fields of diamond trade and cyber technology, under international umbrellas. This demonstrates the warming relations between the countries mainly within multilateral frameworks, and is making headlines in the Israeli media mostly due to its public and symbolic nature. The UAE was a pioneer among the Gulf States in allowing an Israeli sports team to display its national symbols at the October 2018 international judo championship in Abu Dhabi. As part of the latter event, the Emiratis also hosted Israel’s Minister of Culture and Sports Miri Regev according to full ceremonial protocol. Additional sports events in the UAE, such as tennis tournaments, a car race and the Special Olympics have also included growing participation of Israeli delegations in recent years.
Conversely, the UAE strictly limits bilateral relations with Israel, conditioning them on a resolution to the Palestinian issue. Accordingly, the country has been outspoken in its criticism of Israel regarding measures it defines as unjust toward the Palestinian people. Therefore, it does not cooperate with Israel in areas such as culture, research, tourism, industry and media despite mutual interests in doing so. In the diplomatic arena, there are occasional reports of meetings between senior officials of both states, such as the September 2012 meeting between Netanyahu and the UAE Foreign Minister, and the recent January 2019 visit to the UAE by Labor Party leader Avi Gabbay who met with senior ministers. Nonetheless, such meetings are not intended for public knowledge (despite the occasional leaks) and are not considered official breakthroughs in official relations.
At the same time, we are witnessing a new phenomenon in which Gulf citizens express support for Israel on social media, and a growing number of senior Emiratis call for the establishment of direct ties with Israel. For example, Khalaf al-Habtoor, a leading Emirati executive, asked on twitter why the Gulf States are not signing a peace agreement with Israel “same as Egypt, Morocco and Jordan have done before”. Such voices do not regard Israel as an enemy, and view cooperation with it as a vital source of regional stability and development. While not reflecting an official government line, they signal a gradual shift from a formerly taboo subject to an increasingly acceptable opinion. These expressions of interest in bilateral relations create a crack in the traditional demand that has placed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the key obstacle to normalization with Israel.
The gap between the official UAE policy toward Israel and the mutual courtship between the two nations demonstrates that Israel is on the cusp of a formative phase in these relations. At this point of time, Israel would do well to leverage the relative openness of the Gulf States towards it by expanding its involvement in the region. Just as Israel sought a formal invitation to Expo 2020, it should continue to identify opportunities, map scheduled international events in the Gulf and ask to participate. Israel should also invite Gulf countries to take part in international events it hosts.
One important issue that arises from increased interactions between Israel and Gulf States is the need to study the culture, values, sensitivities and local laws when preparing Israeli delegations for excursions in the Gulf. Such preparation should be overseen by a government agency, which will formulate a plan for ties with the Gulf States and will be put in charge of these ties through diplomatic, security, economic and civilian channels. By so doing, Israel’s presence in the Gulf could become more acceptable and even be expanded. However, if Israel seeks a more significant opening to the region, it must advance a resolution of the Palestinian issue through a genuine process that would also be of great benefit for its ties with the Gulf States.
Dr. Moran Zaga is a Policy Fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a Research Fellow at the Chaikin Chair in Geostrategy, University of Haifa.