by Tonio Galea
Amid a resurgence of the Covid-19 virus in many regions around the world and turmoil in Belarus and other countries, the United Arab Emirates decided to normalise relations with Israel.
This makes the UAE only the third Arab country to normalise relations after Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994. It is also the first of the six Arab Gulf states to do so.
It is important to note that Israel and the UAE, as other Gulf states, reportedly already have security ties with Tel Aviv, but the Abraham Accord signed on 13th August, now makes the agreements official.
The development is not a sudden turn of events, and there has been a steady build-up between the two nations over recent years. In 2015, Israel opened a diplomatic office in the Emirati capital of Abu Dhabi tied to the International Renewable Energy Agency; senior Israeli officials have visited Abu Dhabi; Israeli athletes have participated in regional competitions in the UAE; and Israel is set to participate in Dubai’s World Expo 2020, which is now scheduled to open in October 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The normalisation of relations has broader implications on international policy: the UAE and Israel are the United States’ two biggest regional allies. They possess cutting-edge economies and share certain values with the West such as religious tolerance, intelligence-sharing in the global fight against terrorism, and rigorous protections of private property.
The new accord now paves the way for the normalisation of business and commercial relations too, including tourism, direct flights, scientific cooperation, and, in time, full diplomatic ties at the ambassadorial level. The Emiratis are unlikely, however, to locate their embassy in Jerusalem.
The agreement, however, is not cost-free for the Israelis. According to the Emirati government, the accord “immediately stops” Israeli plans to annex parts of the West Bank and provides an opportunity for Israel and the Palestinians to renew negotiations to end the longstanding conflict.
But despite the apparent Israeli promise of halting annexation, the Palestinian leadership rejected the accord and recalled its ambassador from Abu Dhabi. The Palestinians called it “a stab in the back” since they have yet to come close to getting a state of their own or ending Israeli occupation.
Iran, Qatar, and Turkey have also criticised the accord.
Nevertheless, the Abraham Accord opens the door for other Gulf states to follow in the footsteps of the UAE. Saudi Arabia was conspicuously silent in the aftermath, though this must not be interpreted as sign of disagreement and one must keep in mind Saudi’s standing in the Muslim world and the implications of such a move.
Among countries in the Gulf, Bahrain is most likely to follow the UAE with Oman another possible candidate for normalisation of relations.
The UAE decision reflects the changing geopolitics of the region and it buys the UAE a lot of goodwill in the US. The accord also gives the UAE strategic advantage and technology over its heavily-armed neighbour across the water, Iran: a common concern with Israel especially when it comes to Iran’s secretive nuclear programme.
The accord most probably has implications in ongoing regional wars amongst them Libya where the UAE is heavily involved in supporting the Eastern Libyan forces, although this does not necessarily translate into an advantage for Khalifa Haftar.
The UAE will likely continue to block oil production in Libya and continue to support the ongoing military intervention by Egypt or Russia and most probably lead to a diminishing role in the conflict for the United States.
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