Israel-UAE bonhomie and the changing dynamics in the Middle East

November 22, 2021 3:26 PM

One might be surprised to note the back to back meetings between the air chiefs of the UAE and Israel, especially since the two countries have only recently normalized bilateral relations.

The most important factor in the changing dynamics is the focus on post-COVID economic recovery. (Image: Twitter)

By Md. Muddassir Quamar

Within a span of just over a year since the announcement of the Abraham Accords, between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in August 2020 (others including Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco joined later), the relations between these two small but important countries in the Middle East has strengthened with unprecedented pace. The relations are not confined to a few areas rather encompass a wide spectrum of affairs including business, trade, healthcare, entertainment, sports, tourism, culture and arts, security, military, defense, artificial intelligence, information technology and so on.

Significantly, in the early stages the Abraham Accords were largely seen from the prism of regional geopolitics and security threats vis-à-vis Iran. The threat perception emanating from Iran due to its nuclear ambitions and regional military expansionism, it was argued, were the primary reasons for both Israel and the UAE to come closer and normalize relations. Accurate as it may be, the developments since the formal signing of the Accords in September 2020 underline that the geopolitics might be the factor that drove the two toward normalization, it is the changing regional dynamics with an underlying geo-economic compulsion that is shaping the bilateral relations.

The most important factor in the changing dynamics is the focus on post-COVID economic recovery. The COVID-19 though did not devastate the economy, it certainly disrupted economic activities. Although countries such as the UAE and Israel were able to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic quicker than others, the business as usual approach with regard to business and economy has changed significantly. It’s not just about fighting disruptions caused by black swan events but preparing the regional economy to become more integrated and bringing prosperity to the people.

The youthful population of the Middle East has been up in arms since 2010 and although most of the Arab Spring uprisings have now been reversed, the root of the regional anger – economic deprivation and youth aspiration – remains intact. This means that without bringing a wider economic prosperity within and at the regional level, the threat of uprisings and upheavals will remain. This has moved the regional countries, especially the rich Arab Gulf countries to focus on the regional geo-economics and develop partnerships with all regional countries that can help revive regional economic activities through use of technology, building connectivity and becoming a hub for global business and trade activities.

It is within this context that Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Israel, Egypt, Turkey Jordan and Kuwait are focusing on building infrastructure, investing in futuristic technologies and partnering with regional and global countries that can help in this respect. For example, there is a significant enthusiasm in the region with respect to the China’s Belt and Road (BRI) project which is now one of the foremost connectivity and infrastructure development projects in the region. The growing Chinese economic inroads has activated the United States, which recently organized a meeting among foreign ministers of four countries – United States, India, Israel and UAE – dubbed the ‘Middle East Quad’ with an emphasis on exploring the geo-economic potentials of the four of them coming together.

The focus on geo-economics, however, does not mean that the UAE and Israel are no longer concerned about geopolitics or the security threats from Iran that brought them together in the first place. It is within this context that the increased security engagements between the two should be contextualized. In late October 2021, the Chief of Emirati Air Force, Major General Ibrahim Nasser Muhammed al-Alawi, visited Israel for the first time to observe Blue Flag 2021 – the massive biennial multi-national air force exercise conducted by the Israeli Air Force. Two weeks later, the Israeli Air Force Commander, Major General Amikam Norkin, visited the UAE to attend the Dubai International Air Chiefs’ Conference held on the sidelines of the Dubai Airshow 2021.

One might be surprised to note the back to back meetings between the air chiefs of the UAE and Israel, especially since the two countries have only recently normalized bilateral relations. But if one looks at the evolution of the relations between the two countries, preceding the signing of the Abraham Accords, one might not be alarmed by the back to back visits. In fact, the process of normalization between Israel and UAE was ongoing for some time, and, if not earlier, at least since the signing of the JCPOA between Israel and P5+1, the two had begun exchanging views and were engaging each other covertly including meetings between the security agencies. Besides there were significant signals from both sides, especially from the UAE that it is preparing the ground to move towards a formalization of relations with Israel. For example, the inauguration of the Israeli representative office to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi in December 2015 was a clear sign. Similarly, UAE began participating in US-led military drills in the Middle East without objecting to Israeli participation as early as in 2017.

Hence, the growing proximity between the UAE and Israel are driven both by changing regional geo-political and geo-economic compulsions wherein the interests of both Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi are aligning faster than anticipated. This also underlines the fact that the two countries are emerging as the primary regional allies of the United States and are at the forefront of the changing regional dynamics creating new opportunities for partnership with emerging global powers including India.

(The author is Fellow, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses. Views expressed are of the author and not of the Government of India or MP-IDSA. They do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).

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