The Significance of the Israel-UAE Deal

Later today, leaders from Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) will sign an agreement to pursue normalized relations. The Bahraini foreign minister agreed in recent days to sign a similar agreement at the same event, but the Israel-UAE agreement appears much more robust and consequential.

Q1: Why is this agreement being made now?

A1: The Emiratis seem to be the ones in control of the timetable. The Israelis and the Trump administration were always willing to make a deal along these lines, but with the U.S. elections approaching, it seems that the administration felt the need to lock in a diplomatic win. There have not been many in the last four years.

For the Emiratis, this is still the beginning of a process of negotiations with the Israelis and Americans, and I would expect they will continue to seek—and receive—more for their gestures toward Israel.

Q2: Is this the beginning of a new round of peacemaking in the Arab world?

A2: There may be more agreements, but I would expect that, like this one, they will be with countries that were not actually at war with Israel. A senior Emirati official recently told me that if Israel wants peace, the only way that they can get it is through an agreement with the Palestinians, which normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain quite clearly is not. What it is, instead, is a collapse of Arab solidarity on the Palestine question that had been in place for three-quarters of a century.

Q3: How close are the Saudis to following suit?

A3: Probably not so close. The Saud family has had a special relationship with the clerical establishment since 1744, and many of those clerics would be critical of what they see as an abandonment of Palestine. Saudi Arabia is also the site of Islam’s two holiest mosques (the third holiest is in Jerusalem), and it sees a special role for itself leading the Muslim world. Many Muslims continue to feel an emotional and moral connection to the Palestinian cause, even if some governments have tired of it. I would expect them to move slowly.

Q4: Why are these agreements significant?

A4: In contrast to some of the commentary, these agreements are more significant for the Arab world than they are for Israel. Israelis may derive a certain amount of emotional security from feeling less isolated in the region, and they may get some marginal advantages that they could not have obtained otherwise in their struggle with Iran. But this will radically change the way Arab states will deal with each other and their problems. In many ways it represents an Emirati declaration of independence from the Arab world, which they seem to have concluded does not help them meet any of the challenges they face, and which drags them into fights they cannot win. The Emiratis believe they have the strength and self-confidence to deal with any country in the world bilaterally, without 20 other countries standing behind them.

I would expect the Emiratis to act more unilaterally going forward, but I would also expect less capable states, who lack either the resources or the abilities of the Emiratis, to act more unilaterally going forward as well. Whether that leads to more or less stability in the Middle East is not clear. What is clear is that the Emirati vision of regional stability, and the one they will seek to advance, is one with tight political control. It is in contrast to the vision of liberalized politics and vibrant civil societies creating resiliency, which different U.S. administrations have advanced in the Middle East for many years. 

Q5: Who are the big winners and losers?

A5: The Emiratis have created a large number of opportunities for themselves. Not only will the Israelis be eager to make deals on Emirati terms, but the Emiratis also have enhanced their relations with both Democrats and Republicans in the United States at a time of very polarized politics. I would also expect the Emiratis will get some U.S. weapons systems they have long coveted. The Israelis win emotionally, because they'll feel less isolated in the Middle East; they may get something from the Emiratis in terms of investment capital and intelligence.

Arguably the Iranians will feel more surrounded when their adversaries are cooperating more closely, but in point of fact, the Emiratis were not about to start a war with Iran before, and they are not about to now. The biggest losers are probably the Palestinians. They saw their own weak negotiating hand with Israel and were counting on Arab solidarity to strengthen it. It is unclear whether a weaker position will drive Palestinians toward greater conciliation or less conciliation with Israel.

Q6: Is this the beginning of a new era in the Middle East?

A6: It is, but it is not clear that the era will be one of greater peace. In the near term, it may be an era of greater volatility. Less pan-Arab cooperation, combined with a U.S. determination to lighten its footprint in the region, is likely to create different regional dynamics. It is worth pointing out that other regions have found regional cooperative organizations—such as the European Union, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Organization of American States, and African Union—useful ways to deal with problems. The League of Arab States will go through a period of redefinition and refocus, and while some of that is overdue, some may be destabilizing.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program