Israel and the United Arab Emirates: Pending Opportunities

Dr. Moran Zaga December 2018

In a sensational statement, Anwar Gargash shed a light on the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) foreign policy of the last decade. The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the UAE said this past summer that ” we are ready to take up more of the burden of security in our own neighborhood”. The economic and political status of the UAE provides it with a significant added value in its foreign relations. In recent years, the UAE has expanded its influence in the Middle East and North Africa through a more active diplomacy and an extensive infrastructure of military bases and ports, in various countries in the region. During the last three years, the UAE has also been active in Yemen’s war and in local conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. This demonstrates a calculated policy aimed at transforming the UAE into a regional power alongside its ally, Saudi Arabia.

This increasingly activist foreign policy approach also explains the growing interest of the UAE in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In its repeated declarations, the UAE has expressed its support for a two-state solution, but mostly stayed a passive supporter for international peace initiatives. Now, it appears that the UAE is striving to adopt an independent and proactive policy on the issue, with a greater involvement in internal Palestinian politics and in multilateral talks that include Israel.

The UAE is of much importance to Israel. The two countries share common interests and sometimes even similar worldviews, in parallel to the political and ideological gap that separates them. One of the prominent characteristics of the UAE is its moderate Islamic approach and its opposition to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist organizations (Sunnis and Shiites). This worldview is at the center of the UAE’s dispute with Iran and Qatar, and this is where its values and interests converge with those of Israel. The moderate and liberal nature of the two countries, relative to other countries of the region, enables a pragmatic dialogue between them. Furthermore, the UAE enjoys strong political stability, which provides it with obvious economic advantages as well as with unique capabilities to shape long-term processes in the Middle East.

At the international level, the UAE invests considerable efforts and resources in expanding its diplomatic ties and in branding itself as an important global hub. As such, it hosts international institutions, conferences, competitions and events. However, this is a source for dilemma relating to its ties with Israel. On the one hand, the UAE faces domestic and regional criticism for hosting Israelis, and is accused of normalization with Israel. On the other hand, there is international pressure against boycotting Israel at international events, and an understanding in the UAE that such a boycott might lead to a loss of legitimacy. This often forces the UAE to accept Israeli participation in a variety of international events.

It is not far-fetched to imagine direct official contacts between the two countries in the future, but such relations seem unrealistic at this point. The UAE seems to currently prefer to avoid or limit any cooperation with Israel. For example, its official news agencies refrained from reporting on the opening of the Israeli representation to the UN’s International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi in early 2016. However, since there was significant coverage in Israeli and international media outlets about the topic, Maryam al-Falasi, the media officer at the UAE Foreign Ministry, issued an official statement clarifying that IRENA is an independent international agency with its own norms and laws, and that the opening of the Israeli representation does not indicate any change in the UAE’s position towards Israel or in the relations between the two countries.

Business cooperation between the two countries is no longer a secret. Nevertheless, the fact that they have to be covert and the scope of technical obstacles involved in carrying them out, make it difficult for Israel to compete with other countries in entering the desirable UAE markets. The potential for closer business, security, diplomatic and civilian ties is great. An example, is the international EXPO2020 exhibition, which will be held in Dubai in two years, and will be a hub for high level meetings between governments and private sector companies. Israel has not yet received an invitation for this exhibition and might miss out on this great opportunity.

The UAE is a partner in the waiting for Israel. Both Israel and the UAE are essentially pragmatic, and have leverage in the Middle East. The UAE has never participated in any war against Israel and there is no deep hostility between the two countries. The Gulf states, and the UAE among them, regard Israel as a regional player that must be dealt with. They all consider a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a source of regional stability and as a means to confront extremism in their own territories. The UAE Foreign Ministry’s website is full of references calling on Israel and the Palestinians to advance the peace process based on the two-state solution and the Arab peace initiative (2002).

In general, the UAE receives Jews of various nationalities in its territory and does not regard religious differences as the source of its conflict with Israel. Rather, it is Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. The regional influence that the UAE can exert, and its growing importance in the Middle East, position it as a country that can potentially play a significant role in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Whenever Israel will want to normalize relations with its neighbours and promote regional peace, it is likely to find a very willing partner in the UAE.

Dr. Moran Zaga researches social and geopolitical processes in the Gulf states. She is a Policy fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policy, and a Research Fellow at the Ezri Center at the University of Haifa and at the Forum for Regional Thinking. This article is based on her study on Israel-UAE relations, which is part of the “Israel-Arab Relations: The Unfulfilled Potential” project of the Mitvim Institute.

(originally published in the Jerusalem Post)

Mailing ListContact UsSupport Mitvim