Analysis: Israel and the UAE take it to the next level

Bennett in the UAE > WAM via Reuters, via NBC News.

Naftali Bennett this week became the first Israeli prime minister to pay an official visit to the United Arab Emirates. The prime minister’s trip came just over a year after the signing of the historic Abraham Accords and highlights the increasingly close ties between Israel and the Gulf states.

What happened

  • Bennett arrived in the UAE on Sunday and was met by foreign minister Abdullah bin Zayed and a guard of honour.
  • The prime minister spent four hours on Monday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the UAE’s de facto ruler, at his palace in Abu Dhabi. The crown prince accepted an invitation from Bennett to visit Israel. The two men reportedly spent more than half of the meeting alone together.
  • According to Israeli statements, the talks between Bennett and Crown Prince Mohammed were focused on economic issues, with the two agreeing to speed-up the drive to establish a free trade agreement between Israel and the UAE. They also agreed to promote joint projects in the field of renewable energy.
  • A joint statement released as Bennett left the UAE on his return flight to Israel said the two countries had clocked up “another milestone in the development of warm relations” and reaffirmed their commitment to cooperate on a range of issues, notably climate change, health and trade.
  • The UAE and Israel also agreed to establish a joint research and development fund which will “harness the leading economic and technological minds in the UAE and Israel, tasking them with finding solutions to challenges such as climate change, desertification and clean energy”.
  • The crown prince talked up the need for “stability in the Middle East” and said he hoped Bennett’s visit would “advance the relationship of cooperation towards more positive steps in the interests of the people of the two nations and of the region”.
  • Bennett also met on Monday with the UAE’s industry and advanced technology minister, Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, and culture minister Noura bint Mohammed Al Kaabi.

New reality

In an interview with the Emirates News Agency, Bennett said the Abraham Accords had established a “new, deep and solid structure for diplomatic, economic and cultural relations”. The prime minister continued: “This is what the peace and the new reality this region is witnessing, and we are working together to ensure a better future for our children … the relations between the two countries have strengthened in all fields, and I am very satisfied with that, as many cooperation agreements were concluded in the fields of trade, research and development, and cyber security, health, education, aviation and more, and I look forward to the continued development and consolidation of relations.” He added that the “the values of tolerance, peace and dialogue are common, and that is why the friendship that unites us developed at such a high speed”.

Don’t mention Iran

  • Like Israel, the UAE has long regarded the Iranian regime as the principal threat to the region. The challenges posed by Tehran’s new hardline government were discussed by Bennett and Crown Prince Mohammed.
  • However, neither Iran – nor the Palestinians – were mentioned in any of the statements issued by the two sides. Israel reportedly chose not to speak publicly of Bennett and the crown prince’s discussions on Iran in order to respect the UAE’s diplomatic sensitivities.
  • While Israel and the UAE share concerns about Iran – and are worried that a renewed nuclear deal between Tehran and the US could entrench the Islamic republic’s power in the region –  analysts note that the two countries’ views and responses are not totally aligned. Israel, for instance, sees Iran’s nuclear programme as the primary challenge, whereas the UAE is more focused on its ballistic missile programme and support for proxy militias and terror groups.
  • In an effort to ease tensions, the UAE’s national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan last week visited Tehran, where he met with Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi.

Bibi’s wobble

Axios reporter Barak Ravid’s new book, Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East, claims that former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to pull out of the Abraham Accords the day before the agreement between his country and the UAE was signed. Keen to stop Netanyahu’s plans to annex parts of the West Bank, the US brokered negotiations between the UAE and Israel to normalise relations. A deal was reached – with Netanyahu kicking annexation into the long grass – and an announcement scheduled for 13 August. The day before, however, Netanyahu, who was toying with holding new elections and ending his recently formed coalition with the centrist Blue and White party, told Washington he could no longer sign the agreement. The furious Trump administration responded by telling the prime minister the deal was done and he couldn’t now back out.

Progress report

The Abraham Accords – which initially included the UAE and Bahrain, but subsequently expanded to include Morocco and Sudan – are barely one year old but have already seen a string of concrete achievements:

  • Israel has exchanged ambassadors with the UAE and Bahrain. In June, foreign minister Yair Lapid opened Israel’s new embassy in Abu Dhabi and consulate in Dubai. Lapid’s visit was the first official visit by an Israeli minister to the UAE. The UAE formally opened its embassy in Tel Aviv in July, while Bahrain’s first ambassador to Israel arrived in the country in August.
  • As of September, more than 55 agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain were in progress – half of which have already been signed and implemented. They include plans for cooperation across a wide spectrum of areas including finance, communications, the economy, culture, tourism, taxation, investment protection, freedom of movement, water, agriculture and energy. Earlier this year, the Israeli and Moroccan ambassadors co-chaired a virtual meeting on food security, while Israel and the UAE are working together to combat climate change.
  • Israeli-UAE trade between January and July 2021 rose to $613.9m, with the Emirates saying it wants to boost this figure to $1tn over the next decade.
  • Direct flights have now been established from Tel Aviv to Dubai, Marrakesh and Manama. Despite the pandemic, nearly 230,000 Israelis visited the UAE during the accords’ first year. Israel and the UAE have signed a visa waiver agreement, while Israel and Bahrain established the world’s first bilateral agreement for covid-19 vaccine passports.
  • Israel and the UAE have concluded agreements on intelligence-sharing and defence production and the two countries participated alongside the US, Cyprus and a number of other nations in the Iniochos military air exercises in April. The exercise “sent an unmistakable message to Iran that it has failed to isolate Israel,” Defense News reported.

What happens next

The ties between Israel and the UAE are likely to strengthen, but – beyond those who concluded agreements last year – none of the other states which refuse to recognise the Jewish state have yet joined the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia – strategically, the biggest outstanding prize for Israel – has adopted a warmer stance but relations between the two countries are largely conducted below the radar and are likely to remain so pending substantial progress towards a two-state solution.