The recent announcement by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain to normalise relation with Israel did not come as a surprise. It has been expected for a long time by observers of the politics of the Gulf. The UAE has been working behind the scenes at different levels with Israel towards normalising relations. In August 2019, an investigation by Israeli media outlet Haaretz revealed that the UAE acquired planes through Israel for the purpose of spying on Iran.1 This is but one of the examples of the working relations between the two countries. The relations between the two countries have dramatically improved since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.
Many observers believe that the announcement was carefully timed in order to assist Trump’s low ratings as the United States heads towards the presidential elections to be held on 3 November 2020. Trump is widely criticised inside the US for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Worldomeers, an institution monitoring the COVID-19 virus cases around the world, there has been 7,109,920 Coronavirus cases and 205,914 deaths in the US as of 23 September 2020. It is also suggested that the normalisation of relations aims at saving the reputation of both Trump and his son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, from the much criticized US sponsored Middle East Peace Plan dubbed the Deal of the Century.
The Deal of the Century is yet another attempt by the US to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians facilitated by Kushner. Palestinian organisations have rejected the deal and the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Mahmoud Abbas, went as far as announcing that the PA will annul previous agreements reached with Israel.2
Israeli-Palestinian peace initiatives irrespective of their success have often culminated with pomp and fair at the White House towards the end of the tenure of most US presidents. Trump also wants to take advantage of the opportunity as his first term nears an end and an uncertain second term looms. “It is all meant to feed the ego, help his popularity and enhance the political stature of Donald Trump. Particularly as his chances of re-election appears slimmer by day.”3
The same can be said about the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has been facing his own political challenges in Israel. He is accused of corruption, and there has been sustained demonstrations in the streets of Tel Aviv calling for his resignation following his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The normalisation of relations with the UAE is seen as a desperate act done by Netanyahu to keep his political support.
Moreover, the normalisation of relations between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain is likely to have a negative impact on the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Although most of the GCC countries have working relations with Israel, they have not formally normalised relations until the recent deal. The precedence set by the UAE and Bahrain in this regard will henceforth impact the workings of the GCC. A decision of such a critical matter should have been discussed at the GCC level as it could compromise the security of the region.
Furthermore, this decision has come at an extremely crucial time in the history of the organisation. Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain implemented a political and social blockade against the state of Qatar on 5 June 2017. The blockading countries accuse Qatar of harboring and funding terrorists; they also accuse Qatar of creating political instability in the region. The blockade has impacted the work of the GCC causing Qatar to look elsewhere for assistance outside the region.
Consequently, the newly developed political and economic alliances are likely to take precedence in the future over the GCC. This paper will look at the motivating reasons for the UAE’s and Bahrain’s normalisation of relations with Israel and its implications on the future of the GCC.
What Motivated the UAE’s and Bahrain’s decision to normalise relations with Israel?
Israel and the UAE have agreed to establish full diplomatic ties in a historic Washington-brokered deal under which Israel will “suspend” its plans to annex parts of the Palestinian territories.4 There are a number of reasons to motivate the UAE and Bahrain to normalise relations with Israel.
“Bahrain has nothing but prestige to gain from normalization of relations and to please and meet the dictates of its main sponsor the UAE. Bahrain pulled all stops when it hosted the launch of Deal of the Century in its capital, Manama on 25 June 2020. Over the years Bahrain has become totally dependent on UAE and as such many often mocked the country as the province of the UAE.”5 It is therefore expected that Bahrain will do whatever is dictated by the UAE. Bahrain’s foreign policy by and large matches that of the UAE and Saudi Arabia more than that of the GCC, such as joining in on the blockading Qatar and recently following the steps of the UAE in the normalisation of relations with Israel. In early October, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait announced an economic aid package of $10 billion to be sent to Bahrain. The fiscal pledge illustrates how massive capital flows underlie the contentious political and strategic alliances within the GCC and the broader Middle East region.6
Moreover, the UAE has been working very close with one of the powerful political players in Palestine, Mohammed Dahlan. Dahlan is being advocated as the next possible candidate to replace Mahmoud Abbas. Dahlan may use the deal to return to the Palestinian political stage and improve his chances of succeeding the PA President, Mahmoud Abbas.7 The advent of Dahlan as a possible leader to replace Abbas could hugely impact the current role of Qatar in Gaza, particularly given his relationship with Hamas. Dahlan’s leadership, if he does manage to replace Mahmoud Abbas, could shift the balance of power giving the UAE a bigger role in Gaza.
The UAE has grown in stature in the region over the years, from a tiny country with sizeable oil reserves to a country that has become a serious player in regional politics not only within the GCC but the entire Middle East. Dubai is reputed as one of the most visited destinations in the world and a shopper’s paradise. The Emirates Airline has won and continues to win awards as the best airline in the world. The UAE also hosts one of the world’s largest military exhibitions in the world, the International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX). It is ambitious and regards itself as the suitable country to lead Middle East Peace Initiatives and keep them moving forward. As Egypt and Jordan have been in the forefront over the years in the negotiations between Israel and Palestine, their departure from the scene has left a void that is now occupied by the UAE. It will ride on the high after assertions that Israel has agreed to stop the annexation of the West Bank in return for the normalisation of relations with Israel. This will give the UAE important stature and publicity in regional and global politics. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the only political issue that has kept many countries relevant in international politics; the UAE and Bahrain will be next to benefit.
Second, as the UAE prepares itself to become the first nuclear power in the GCC, relations with Israel will surely benefit the country. The UAE announced earlier this month that it has successfully started up its Barakah nuclear energy plant, the first in the Arab world and a significant step toward the country’s goal of emission-free electricity.8 As a result, normalizing relations with Israel will likely benefit the UAE as it invests in its nuclear energy plant. The UAE has also initiated talks with Iran despite the fact that it demanded that Qatar cut ties with Iran. Being on speaking terms with Iran is another way of demonstrating the new power the UAE commands in the region. According to a senior government official in the UAE, the telephone call between the Foreign Minister of the UAE, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed and Mohamad Javad Zarif of Iran, is meant to pave way to future engagements as the country takes hold of the nuclear energy.
Third, the UAE hopes to attain possible tenders to construct ports on the Gaza and Egyptian coast of Rafah through Dubai Ports World (DPW). While DPW maintains that it is a private enterprise and operates independent of the UAE government’s foreign policy. 80% of the company’s equity is owned by Dubai World. The majority stakeholder is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and Prime Minister of the country.9
The Deal of the Century also outlines that it seeks to establish a fragmented Palestinian state with gradually expanding borderlines that shall include a seaport on the Egyptian coast of Rafah in the area adjacent to the besieged Gaza Strip in addition to setting up an airport in the same area.10 The UAE will need Israel’s endorsement if it is awarded tenders to construct and manage the port in Rafa.
What Does Such a Decision Mean for the Rest of the GCC?
The decision made by the UAE and Bahrain to normalise relations with Israel is likely to put pressure on other nations in the Arab world and the GCC to follow suit. Moreover, given what happened at the beginning of the blockade against Qatar, similar solidarity could be repeated as a number of countries joined in support of the blockade. Having said that, protests and criticisms against normalisation could further polarise the Arab world body politic, especially since Israel continues to bomb Gaza and restrict economic activities and people’s movement. Individual actions by member states are likely to determine the future henceforth. The following are possible actions that may be taken by different countries.
Kuwait has strong historical relations with the US which could influence the decision of the country regarding the normalisation of relations with Israel. Since 2003, Kuwait has provided the main platform for the US and coalition operations in Iraq and has played a similar role in the fight against ISIS. The US has continued to support Kuwait’s sovereignty and security, as well as its multilateral diplomatic efforts to build greater cooperation among the GCC countries.12
Kuwait has shown great independence, especially on the blockade of Qatar. It has insisted on solving the conflict through peaceful means. It is likely to continue to insist on the basis of the existence and success of the GCC. The late Emir of Kuwait Sheik Sabah al Ahmed al Sabah has been very active, shuttling across the region at the beginning of the blockade against Qatar trying to break the impasse. It is likely that Kuwait will continue with the trajectory that aims to save the unity of the GCC.
The Speaker of the Kuwaiti National Assembly, Marzouq Al-Ghanim, and 18 deputies have submitted a request for urgent examination to the committees of the National Assembly and assembly meetings to vote on the draft laws that had been submitted regarding the boycott of Israel and the banning of any form of normalisation. These moves came after the advisor of the US president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, criticized Kuwait’s position on normalising relations with Israel and its solidarity with the Palestinians.13
Jared Kushner recently visited the state of Qatar and held talks with the Emir of Qatar, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. His visit to Qatar came days before the signing ceremony at the White House between Israel, the US, Bahrain, and the UAE on 15 September 2020. Qatar has managed to weather the blockading storm and has had minimal impact on its economy as a result of the blockade. While Qatar may have incurred heavy financial losses as a result of the blockade – estimated at $43 billion –it has become significantly independent. The blockade has prepared Qatar well to deal with the supply chain disruptions we have seen globally during the COVID-19 crisis.14 Moreover, the US has done little to assist in easing the blockade imposed on Qatar, making the country less indebted to the US. Therefore, if Qatar is to normalise relations with Israel, it is likely to do so on its own terms.
Moreover, Qatar’s main allies, Turkey and Iran, have condemned the normalisation of relations with Israel. Although Turkey has good economic relations with Israel, it is unlikely that Qatar will want to threaten its relation with Turkey and Iran by formally normalising relations with Israel.
First, Mohammed bin Salman is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia; however, it will be challenging for him to normalise relations with Israel without the endorsement of King Salman. King Salman has categorically stated that he will not normalise relations with Israel before Israel meets certain conditions. Saudi Arabia’s ruler King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud told President Trump there would be no normalisation with Israel without Palestinian statehood as reported by the kingdom’s state news on Monday.15 Moreover, although the role of Saudi Arabia is declining in the Muslim world, many in the Muslim world still regard Saudi Arabia as the representative of Sunni Islam. Therefore, it could be possible that Saudi Arabia used the UAE and Bahrain as the first step in the initiative to normalise relations with Israel in order to measure the reaction of the Muslim world.
Furthermore, if Saudi Arabia were to normalise relations with Israel, it could further strip the country of its credibility. The killing of Jamal Khashoggi added to the deteriorating political image of Saudi Arabia; normalisation of relations with Israel could further negatively impact the image of the country in the Muslim world. However, it seems that the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, is coming to terms with the idea and enjoys good relations with the US and Israel.
The Sultanate of Oman on Sunday hailed the announcement of the normalisation of relations between Bahrain and Israel saying that this development reflects the hope of all countries that want peace in the Middle East. “The Sultanate welcomes the initiative taken by the Kingdom of Bahrain within the framework of its sovereign rights and the Tripartite Joint Declaration on Relations with Israel,” said a statement published by Oman state television.16 However, it seems that Oman will be very careful not to threaten its national cohesion by making a similar move. Sultan Qaboos maintained a sound foreign policy and assisted in the economic development of that country. He has also maintained positive relations with Israel without formally recognizing the country. The country has a new leader, Haitham bin Tariq al Said who took over following the death of Sultan Qaboos, who led the country for 50 years. Haitham bin Tariq al Said will likely continue with that course of action.
Qatar has given a warm reception to the Deal of the Century and the normalisation of relations with Israel; however, it has insisted on respecting the rights of the Palestinians. Qatari Spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Lolwah Rashid al-Khater, said in an exclusive interview with Bloomberg television news network on Monday that “we don’t think that normalization was the core of this conflict and hence it can’t be the answer.” She added, “The core of this conflict is about the drastic conditions that the Palestinians are living under” as “people without a country, living under occupation.”17 Qatar will want to continue its role in Gaza, and that can only be possible if it continues to maintain working relations with Israel. It is, therefore, likely that Qatar will continue, or even improve, its relations further with Israel without formally signing treaties similar to that of the UAE and Bahrain. Saudi Arabia remains stalemate in regards to the normalisation of relations with Israel. King Salman will not support normalisation; however it is anticipated that his son Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, could normalise relations with Israel when he assumes full leadership of the country. Mohamad bin Salman and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner are reportedly very close and often speak and consult on various issues. The heart of the US-Saudi relationship lies in the Kushner-prince friendship.18 Oman has welcomed the normalisation of relations indicating that it could follow suit. Kuwait has taken a rather strong stance regarding normalisation. Kuwait and Qatar will, therefore, be the only dissenting members of the GCC, which is likely to weaken the GCC. The continuing blockade of Qatar has already seen the fragmentation and the weakening of the GCC. Normalisation of relations with Israel will certainly add additional strain to the functioning of the GCC, particularly on political issues and foreign policy positions.
- The New Arab, UAE secretly spending billions to buy Israeli spy planes for use against Iran, 2019, retreived from https://english.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2019/8/20/uae-secretly-spending-billions-to-buy-israeli-spy-planes
- BBC, Abbas: Palestinians to halt agreements with Israel, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49125785 ,
- Interview (off the record) with Senior Arab official, off the record discussion, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2020
- The Guardian, Israel signs historical deal with UAE that will suspend West Bank Annexation, 2020, retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/13/israel-and-uae-to-form-diplomatic-ties-says-donald-trump
- Interview (off the record) with a senior Arab official, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2020
- Robert Mogielnicki, “The politics of AID: GCC support for Bahrain,” Middle East Monitor, 2018, retrieved from https://www.mei.edu/publications/politics-aid-gcc-support-bahrain,
- Khaled Abu Toameh, “Did Mohammed Dahlan Help Orchestrate Israel-UAE deal?” The Jerusalem Post, 2020, https://www.jpost.com/arab-israeli-conflict/did-mohammed-dahlan-help-orchestrate-israel-uae-deal-638832
- Fanack, Qatar’s role in the Gaza Strip, 2020, retrieved from https://fanack.com/palestine/history-past-to-present/qatars-role-gaza-strip/
- BBC, Barakah: UAE starts up Arab world’s first nuclear plant, 2020, retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-53619916
- Ayse Kocak, “Dubai Ports as the UAE Foreign Policy Tool,” Netherlands Institute of International Relations, retrieved from https://www.clingendael.org/publication/dubai-ports-world-uae-foreign-policy-tool
- Middle East Monitor, Deal of the Century: Palestinian Airport, port in Egypt’s Sinai, 2018, retrieved from https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20180309-deal-of-the-century-palestinian-airport-port-in-egypts-sinai/
- US Department of State, US Relations with Kuwait, 2019, retrieved rom https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-kuwait/ ,
- Middle East Monitor, Kuwait parliament urges laws prohibiting normalization, 2020, retrieved from https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20200821-kuwait-parliament-urges-laws-prohibiting-normalization/
- Arwa Ibrahim, “Beating the blockade: How Qatar prevailed over a siege,” Al Jazeera, 2020, retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/06/05/beating-the-blockade-how-qatar-prevailed-over-a-siege/
- CGTN, “Saudi King Tells Trump no Israeli Normalization Without Palestinian Statehood,” 2020, retrieved from https://news.cgtn.com/news/2020-09-07/Saudi-king-says-no-Israeli-normalization-without-Palestinian-statehood-TA9DUMkUjC/index.html
- Toi Staff, “Oman welcomes normalization of ties between Israel and Bahrain,” The Times of Israel, 2020, retrieved from https://www.timesofisrael.com/oman-welcomes-normalization-of-ties-between-israel-and-bahrain/
- Press TV, Qatar rejects possibility of establishing ties with Israel until Palestinian issue is resolved, 2020, retrieved from www.presstv.com/Detail/2020/09/15/634140/Qatar-rejects-possibility-of-establishing-ties-with-Israel-until-Palestinian-issue-resolved
- Mohamad Bazzi, “The Heart of the US-Saudi Relationship Lies In The Kushner-Prince Friendship,” The Guardian, 2019, retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/10/us-saudi-arabia-trump-kushner-mohammed-bin-salman