The United Arab Emirates and Israel Normalise Ties – And Divide the Middle East

20 August 2020 Lindsay Hughes, Senior Research Analyst, Indo-Pacific Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • The decision of the United Arab Emirates to normalise links with Israel will have a disruptive effect on the geopolitics of the Middle East.
  • It could see the region divided into factions that either support or object to the initiative.
  • That division could extend into the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and pit the current leader, Saudi Arabia, against the challenger for the title, Turkey.
  • There could also be a flow-on effect on China’s relations with the region.


The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel, represented by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu respectively, soon after a telephone conversation with US President Trump, announced that they have agreed to normalise their bilateral relationship. They agreed to exchange ambassadors, enhance security and commercial ties and allow direct flights between their countries. That would make the UAE the first Gulf Arab state and third state in the Middle East – after Egypt and Jordan – that has a diplomatic relationship with the Jewish-majority state of Israel. According to the terms of their agreement, Israel will suspend its plans to annex Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank.

The announcement has evoked mixed reactions from countries in the Middle East. Iran called it a ‘stab in the back’ of all Muslims and Turkey threatened to cut diplomatic ties with the UAE. In a rare show of unanimity, the various Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, also rejected the deal. Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, issued a strong condemnation and recalled the Palestinian ambassador to the UAE. In a statement that he read on Palestinian TV, Mr Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said, ‘The Palestinian leadership rejects and denounces the UAE, Israeli and US trilateral, surprising, announcement’, adding that ‘neither the UAE nor any other party has the right to speak in the name of the Palestinian people’ and denounced it as an act of ‘betrayal’. That sentiment is shared, perhaps unsurprisingly, by angry right-wing Israeli settlers, who want to annex the West Bank. As the leader of one council of settlers remarked, ‘[Netanyahu] has deceived us. He has deceived half a million residents of the area and hundreds of thousands of voters.’

Egypt and Oman, on the other hand, welcomed the initiative. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s largest economy and the de facto leader of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC), Kuwait and Qatar have not issued an official statement on the matter. Many ordinary Saudi citizens, however, have shared pictures of the late King Faisal who, during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, imposed an oil embargo on the US and other countries to punish them for supporting Israel. They also circulated a statement from one of the King’s speeches, ‘If all Arabs agreed to accept the existence of Israel and dividing Palestine, we will never join them’, adding that the ‘Gulf is against normalisation’ [in Arabic]. It is perhaps emblematic of the region’s divisions that the Twitter thread, in addition to a video clip of King Faisal’s statement and a map showing Palestine covered in roses, also has what appears to be an Islamic State propaganda film, with fighters, complete with their weapons and flag, on horseback, gun battles, archers and explosions. White House Presidential Adviser Jared Kushner hinted that other countries would follow the UAE in normalising their relationships with Israel. Bahrain and Oman, both of which commended the initiative, appear to be the likely candidates. Oman hosted Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2018.

The UAE-Israel accord, it would appear, has brought the usual divisions and rifts between regional states, their leaders and citizens, and regional organisations to the surface yet again. To that extent, at least, it is business as usual in the Middle East.


Saudi Arabia was conspicuously silent on the accord. That could be because Riyadh is fully aware that praising it could see its own citizens turn against it, even if only in sentiment if not by action. Many Saudi citizens are opposed to any normalisation of ties with Israel, who they see as an invader and usurper of Arab lands. On the other hand, both Saudi Arabia and Israel see Iran as their major regional threat. Heightened tensions between Tehran and Riyadh – this iteration began with the missile strikes against Aramco’s oil processing plants at Khurais and Abqaiq in Saudi Arabia in September 2019 that more than halved the kingdom’s oil production from over five million barrels per day to two million in the space of one night – have seen at least a thaw in Saudi-Israeli relations. Rumours that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had secretly visited Tel Aviv for talks were confirmed in 2017. In a major interview in 2018, he said, ‘I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.’ That simple statement was remarkable in that no Arab leader had publicly spoken of Israel’s right to exist in such a forthright manner previously, and also because it was a complete reversal of Saudi policy that normalisation of relations was predicated on Israel’s withdrawal from the land that it had captured in the 1967 Middle East war, which territory Palestinians sought for a future state. The Crown Prince went further, saying that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei ‘makes Hitler look good’ and blaming the Iranian revolution of 1979, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, for the hardening of Islamic ideology in Saudi Arabia.

In Saudi Arabia itself, although many citizens are opposed to the normalisation of ties with Israel, there are further signs that the battle for their hearts and minds has begun. Over the course of the Ramadhan period, a drama series called “Umm Haroun” [the Mother of Aaron], was telecast over the Saudi-controlled Middle-East Broadcasting Centre, the largest private broadcasting network in the region. The series begins with a Jewish character saying in Hebrew, ‘We are the Gulf Jews who were born in the Gulf lands.’ Saudi citizens suspect that the drama is being used as a vehicle to more favourably shape their perceptions of Israel. The drama series is emblematic of the societal divisions relating to Israel. Palestinians in Saudi Arabia are critical of the series, claiming that it would lead to the eventual normalisation of Saudi relations with a state that is inherently inimical to Arabs and Muslims. Analysts, on the other hand, see the two states converging on the principle of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. The Middle East Broadcasting Centre also televises a satirical programme, “Makhraj [Exit] 7”, which skewers Arab perceptions of Israel, further strengthening those suspicions. There is some validity to that suspicion. In one scene of Makhraj 7, the Saudi actor Rashid Al-Shamrani’s character, referring to the Palestinians, says:

The real enemy is the one who shows no gratitude for your stance, dismisses your sacrifices and curses you day and night, more than the Israelis. We entered wars for Palestine, we cut oil for Palestine, and the day it became an authority, we paid its salaries even though we have more right to this money. Yet they take every opportunity to attack Saudi Arabia.

As Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, notes:

A revolution is taking place in the Arab world that is quietly moving the Middle East’s tectonic plates in ways no one ever thought possible. The old broadside attacks against Israelis by almost all Arab countries have quietly dissipated and the evidence is as clear as the nightly television entertainment shows that people are watching.

It is unsurprising, then, that one Israeli commentator sees Saudi Arabia as his country’s “dream state”.

There are, however, more reasons why Saudi Arabia may wish to normalise ties with Israel, even if that is a long-drawn process. A previous FDI paper remarked on Pakistan’s growing ties to Turkey. It noted President Erdoğan’s overarching ambition to become the political leader of the Muslim world. His motivation derives from his Islamist roots and his nationalist desire to further Turkey’s standing in the region that, in its essence, constitutes a resurrection of the Ottoman Empire. Were he to succeed, he would displace Saudi Arabia as the de facto leader of the Muslim community, the Ummah, worldwide. Turkey would also replace Saudi Arabia at the apex of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, thereby reducing Saudi Arabia to just another Muslim-majority state.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, travelled to Turkey in January 2019, ostensibly to further ties with a leading country of the Muslim world but, in reality, to drum up financial support for Pakistan’s ailing economy. In order to achieve that objective, he used Pakistan’s longstanding ties with Tukey, their common religion and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s desire to promote himself as the leader of Muslims around the world. That desire and his goal of returning Turkey to the vanguard of world politics, as it was during the Ottoman Empire, Khan calculated, could see Turkey assist Pakistan in attracting foreign investment, funding and support for its foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis India.

Pakistan sought to invoke that support after India abrogated Article 370 of its Constitution, which provided the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir with special privileges, thereby making Kashmir an even more integral state of the Indian republic. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went further, however, dividing Kashmir into the Union Territories of Kashmir and Ladakh, placing the two territories under the direct administration of New Delhi and eliminating the need for a state government, and opening Kashmir up to any Indian citizen who wished to reside in it, which placed it at severe risk of losing its status as India’s sole Muslim-majority region. An influx of Indian Hindus would likely see them opt to remain as part of India in any referendum on Kashmir’s future. If that were to occur, it would upset Pakistan’s plans to constrain India.

Pakistan, therefore, turned to Saudi Arabia, calling on Riyadh to convene a special assembly of the OIC, one that would be attended by the foreign ministers of the organisation’s member states. Saudi Arabia, however, hesitated to comply with that request – being reluctant to risk losing a major market for its oil and a destination for investment (Riyadh planned to invest US$100 billion ($140 billion) in India’s economy) – suggesting instead that the OIC convene a parliamentary forum of speakers from Muslim countries or, alternatively, a joint meeting on the Palestine and Kashmir issues, both of which suggestions Pakistan rejected. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, then took an aggressive stance, saying:

I am once again respectfully telling OIC that a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers is our expectation. If you cannot convene it, then I’ll be compelled to ask Prime Minister Imran Khan to call a meeting of the Islamic countries that are ready to stand with us on the issue of Kashmir and support the oppressed Kashmiris.

Mr Qureshi suggested that Pakistan would pursue the matter with or without Saudi Arabia [in Urdu] and added that if the OIC failed to summon the meeting of foreign ministers that Pakistan demanded, Islamabad would look for support from OIC member countries that disagreed with the Saudi decision. That could potentially divide the OIC, reducing Riyadh’s influence in the remnants of the OIC and potentially raising Turkey’s. Not taking too kindly to being threatened in this manner, Saudi Arabia halted its oil shipments to Pakistan and asked Islamabad to repay the short-term loans Riyadh gave it. That situation has led at least one news outlet to remark that Pakistan may be re-considering its relationship with Saudi Arabia, although Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, visited Saudi Arabia as scheduled in the week beginning 17 August. If Islamabad does reconsider its Saudi relationship, it will surely consider further its ties to the nascent (and possibly evolving) coalition of Turkey, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China. Given Ankara’s antipathy towards the UAE-Israel accord and its decision to back Qatar against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that would split the OIC into opposing factions.

Although the UAE has exhibited an independent foreign policy in recent times, it is unlikely that it did not inform Saudi Arabia beforehand of its intention to normalise its relationship with Israel. That it was able to go ahead with its intention would, if that were true, indicate that Riyadh had no objection to the plan. Saudi Arabia, as the regional and Islamic leader, would have been reluctant to normalise its relationship with Israel but would have worked with the smaller Arab states to enable them to do so and thereby lay the groundwork for it. If, say, Bahrain and Oman were to follow the UAE’s example, it is likely that other Sunni-majority states, possibly all the Gulf Co-operation Council’s member states, would coalesce into an anti-Iran alliance of some kind with Israel, with countries like Turkey and, possibly, Pakistan, aligning themselves with Tehran. It would be sensible for the Arab states to align themselves with Israel since Iran now finds itself in economic and financial difficulties. US sanctions, proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen have drained its treasuries, and Hezbollah, which it supports, faces a backlash after the explosion that took place in Beirut. It was announced at the time of writing, furthermore, that a UN-backed tribunal’s investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri has found a member of Hezbollah, Salim Ayyash, guilty of perpetrating the assassination of Mr Hariri. It is almost inconceivable that Iran, which controls Hezbollah, would not have known of the militant group’s plan to carry out the assassination, making it an accessory in that assassination. Given that situation, Iran would have two options: back down in the face of an Arab alliance with Israel or ask China for a loan and risk falling into the same “debt-diplomacy” trap in which Pakistan now finds itself.

The UAE-Israel accord had a ripple-effect farther afield. In the US, where the two major parties are readying themselves to battle for the office of president and are quick to claim some credit for the accord, Mr Biden, the Democrat nominee, noted:

The coming together of Israel and Arab states builds on the efforts of multiple administrations to foster a broader Arab-Israeli opening, including the efforts of the Obama-Biden Administration to build on the Arab Peace Initiative. I personally spent time with leaders of both Israel and the UAE during our administration building the case for cooperation and broader engagement and the benefits it could deliver to both nations, and I am gratified by today’s announcement.

Mr Biden appears to have forgotten that it was the Obama-Biden decision to attack Israel on many of its policies – in fact, Mr Biden personally attacked Israel’s housing policy in Jerusalem – that saw a growing distance between the two countries. The Obama Administration’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the so-called Iran nuclear deal, saw the Arab states also generally distance themselves from Washington as, in their perception, the US was allowing Iran to threaten them and enabling it, via the nuclear agreement, to become a nuclear power. As US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, stated:

I think the credit that he [Biden] deserves is he was – they were – so bad and so hostile to both Israel and the Emirates that it caused both of them to commiserate a little bit, which was something that we were able to take advantage of when [President Trump] took office. So, to that extent, I think the Obama policy was so terrible that it probably created more of a commonality of interest between Israel and the Emirates.

It must be borne in mind, however, that Ambassador Friedman is a Trump appointee, with all that that signifies.

China may also be affected by the accord. Beijing, which had sought to make Dubai a major hub in its Belt-Road Initiative, could see Dubai shift its focus from developing its economic ties with China to doing so with Israel. Israel, too, could emphasise its relationship with the UAE and, on persuading other Arab countries to normalise their relationships with it, thereby take its focus off developing its own economic ties to China. At a time when China faces increasing international pressure and its economy is still recovering from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, it does not need to be further sidelined. If the OIC is split into the pro- and anti-accord camps, moreover, China would need to work harder to persuade the two factions to partner with it in a revised regional order in the Middle East after the US withdraws from there. That situation would add to the state of flux that exists in China’s ties to the US, to Europe, to the ASEAN countries, to Japan, South Korea, Australia and India. Beijing, which seeks stability at all times, could scarcely wish for that situation.

The issue is further compounded by recent events in Lebanon. In the wake of the explosion in Beirut, the leaders of fifteen countries pledged to provide aid worth around US$300 million ($417 million) to the devastated city. The cost of reconstructing the damage in Beirut, however, is estimated at around US$15 billion ($20.9 billion). That situation would have been ripe for China to exercise its tried-and-proven debt-diplomacy and acquire for itself yet another port in the Mediterranean and a larger footprint in the Middle East. It would have had to contend with Hezbollah and the politics of the region, to be sure, but with Iran, Hezbollah’s patron, increasingly coming under China’s influence (Iran’s Ambassador to Pakistan, Seyyed Mohammad Ali Hosseini, has, in fact, proposed an alliance of five countries – Turkey, Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China), Beijing would likely not be overly concerned with controlling Hezbollah through Tehran. With a split in the OIC, however, Saudi Arabia would seek to assert its influence in Lebanon in order to balance Iran’s influence there. Now that the UN-backed tribunal has found that Hezbollah was connected with the assassination of Rafik Hariri, China’s plans to influence Lebanon would be thwarted if it were perceived as working with Iran to achieve that end.

China, in short, would very soon find itself dragged into the roiling waters of Middle Eastern politics.

To conclude, the Israel-UAE decision to normalise their relationship could see more Arab states follow suit. It could, however, also see a good deal of regional antipathy shown towards that decision at the governmental and grassroots levels. The effects of the accord, which are yet to be fully considered, will extend beyond the immediate region and will likely be felt for some time to come.




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