Israel-UAE ties: Never stronger or falling apart?
Strong opinions and competing worldviews often color discussions around Middle Eastern geopolitics. But over the past month or so, the headlines coming out on the Israeli-Emirati relationship have appeared as if their authors hailed from totally different realities. One report would have you believe that ties between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi are at risk, while the next trumpets smooth sailing – things have never been better.
The natural question is: which is it? Is Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government “threatening the close cooperation between” Israel and the UAE, as Yedioth Aharonoth alleged back in March? That story followed the settler-led pogrom in the Palestinian town of Huwara and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s comments egging on the violence. Or would the relationship be better framed as “warm and friendly,” as the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office characterized a recent call between Netanyahu and Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed?
The latter description is closer to the actual state of affairs. Emirati officials may have shrunk from some public appearances alongside their Israeli counterparts and issued a handful of condemnations of Israeli conduct since the government was sworn in at the end of December. Yet diplomatic theater should not be mistaken for practical steps to curtail the scope of the relationship.
It’s critical to look back at what has actually happened in recent weeks and months between Israel and the UAE. First there was drama at the United Nations: At the start of the year, the Emirates, which currently holds one of the nine rotating seats at the UN Security Council, called a session on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and Jordan to address National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Then, in February, Netanyahu’s cabinet announced the legalization of nine West Bank outposts hitherto illegal under Israeli law. Abu Dhabi responded by introducing a Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement building, which was ultimately withdrawn in favor of a non-binding statement under American pressure.
Then, with the settler attack on Huwara and Smotrich’s cheerleading, Abu Dhabi joined other capitals in condemning the pogromists and their boosters in the government. More recently, the Gulf monarchy chided Israel over police actions at al-Aqsa. With these public embarrassments, there has also been some effort on the Emirati side to take some aspects of the relationship out of the spotlight over a range of concerns. A planned January visit by Netanyahu to the UAE was canceled, allegedly over Emirati concerns that the prime minister would use the trip as an opportunity for saber rattling with Iran (the UAE welcomed Naftali Bennett as prime minister last year). Private messaging between senior officials has sought to keep a lid on tensions. Ultimately, Emirati statements have targeted specific actions or offending ministers like Smotrich and Ben Gvir while steering clear of commenting on Netanyahu himself.
This brings us to the forward momentum between Israel and the UAE. At the end of March, the two countries inked a customs agreement at a ceremony in Jerusalem, which brings a free trade deal struck last year into force. The initial free trade agreement is the most expansive such accord between Israel and any Arab state. Following the signing, Mohammed bin Zayed and Netanyahu shared a phone call. The UAE president’s office called ties with Israel “promising” while the Israeli readout claimed a future visit is in the works, though the Emirati side did not mention this.
So the Emiratis are, at a maximum, keeping pace with the rest of the world’s mood on the current Israeli government. No country, including Israel’s closest allies, accepts Jerusalem’s claims over the Green Line, so statements on settlements are par for the course. Smotrich and Ben Gvir have no fans in foreign capitals, except perhaps in Budapest. As far as canceled visits go, even Joe Biden currently has no plans to host Netanyahu, so this makes the Emiratis only as extreme as the president of the United States. And unlike the US and many of Israel’s European partners, the UAE (which does not have an independent judiciary) has not been especially vocal about the Netanyahu government’s planned overhaul of the court system. If anything, the domestic turmoil created by the massive backlash against the “judicial coup” is more concerning to Abu Dhabi than the proposed policy itself.
Indeed, the UAE’s reaction so far to the Israeli government can help us filter out what the Emiratis’ priorities are in their relationship with Jerusalem. Al-Aqsa and Jerusalem will be sensitive points for any Arab government, including the UAE – Israelis already know this from the experience of the 2021 crisis in Jerusalem and brief conflict over Gaza. The worst racist antics from figures like Smotrich and Ben Gvir will earn a rebuke, and perhaps make public appearances awkward – but this is not unique to the UAE. While a recent report in the Wall Street Journal outlined that other Arab fence-sitters on normalization with Israel – most notably Saudi Arabia – might hold back in light of the far-right coalition’s behavior, the Saudis did not open up relations with Israel under the Bennett-Lapid government even with American prodding and Riyadh has different sensitivities when it comes to the Palestinians than the UAE. Moreover, they have reasons for waiting that have more to do with their ties to Washington than anything else.
In the end, Israel and the UAE still share security interests. Abu Dhabi has invested too much in business and trade and undertaken too significant a reputational risk to suddenly blow its ties with Jerusalem. Because of that, the Emiratis seem willing – even with some uneasiness – to stay the course, and articles detailing a crisis in relations between the UAE and Israel are more aspirational than analytical.
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