A genuine change in the security architecture of the region will require détente between Middle East’s two rival blocs Photograph:( IANS )
In the short to the mid term, Israel’s addition to this ‘club’ of Gulf monarchies and US’s continued attempts to destabilize the Iranian regime can actually exacerbate tensions as Iran will seek to retaliate against the ‘perceived’ grouping.
The recently concluded UAE-Israel deal dominated the briefings of US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, on his current visit to Israel and other countries in the region. It was also the central theme in his headlining address, recorded in Jerusalem, for the Republican National Convention where Donald Trump was officially endorsed as the Republican Presidential candidate.
Extolling the Abraham Accords that seek to normalize relations between UAE and Israel, Pompeo hinted at other Arab states following suit and a plan for the Middle East that normalizes trade and business relations, removal of travel restrictions and greater security cooperation to tackle threats, including Iran, ‘rogue’ regimes and non-state actors.
The symbolic significance of this deal cannot be overstated – the UAE becomes the third Middle eastern country to normalize relations with Israel after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. It is however the first Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state to take this action.
Though UAE and other Gulf nations have been steadily improving relations with Israel for almost a decade, the formal recognition was held back due to the imperatives of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. The initiative demanded a full Israeli withdrawal from all territories occupied since 1967 in exchange for a diplomatic recognition of the state of Israel. In this case the UAE agreed to recognize Israel in exchange for less – a promise by Israeli PM Netanyahu to temporarily halt annexation of almost a third of West Bank territories, an idea proposed as part of President’s Trump’s middle eastern plan.
The short term political compulsions driving the deal are evident – it provides breathing space to Netanyahu who has been beleaguered by corruption charges and regular protests demanding his resignation. He has portrayed this deal as a vindication of his foreign policy stand that peace with Arab countries does not need a solution of the Palestinian issue. For President Trump, this will be a talking point of his deal making capability in US Presidential Elections in November at a time when opinion polls put him behind his rival Democrat candidate Joe Biden. For the UAE, this has been a ‘diplomatic win’ - garnering them the US favour, benefit of Israel’s ‘hard power’ in its proxy wars and a vindication of its independent foreign policy.
The long term imperatives, however, are more complex and multi-layered and will determine the future of the security in the region.
1. At the local level the Arab Spring & following civil unrest has spooked several Gulf monarchies that realize that they need to focus on continuing effective governance to maintain their political legitimacy. Conflict with Israel has been diluted in order to avoid diversion of resources and re-orient the foreign policy aims. In addition, Israel is capable of fulfilling the Gulf states’ need for sophisticated security and surveillance platforms to police their own populations.
2. At the regional stage, the UAE and Israel’s foreign policy aims have converged at three main levels.
a. A significant common factor has been to counter the Iranian ‘arc of influence’ that extends from Yemen where Iran backed Houthi rebels are engaged in a conflict with Saudi and UAE-led coalition forces supporting President Hadi, Lebanon (via Hezbollah), Iraq & also in Syria with Iran’s support to President Assad. In the last few years, Yemen based Houthi rebels are purported to have acquired sophisticated ‘drone technology’ used to target Saudi airports and military installations and suspected to have disrupted operations at the Dubai airport in 2018. In 2019, attacks on oil tankers, including a UAE vessel just outside the Strait of Hormuz, were also blamed on Iranian proxies. This is a common cause with Israel that has been engaged in a conflict with Hezbollah, has targeted Iranian backed groups in Syria and tackled Hamas in Gaza, with whom Iran has ‘contentious cooperation’.
b. The second imperative has been countering ‘political Islam’ in all its forms – whether Shia variety allied to Iran or the Sunni groups including the Muslim brotherhood & its offshoots such as Hamas and terror groups like Islamic state and the remnants of Al-Qaeda. Many Arab states realize that Israel’s ‘hard power’ including defence technology, cyber surveillance can be instrumental in helping them protect their own interests.
3. At the international level, both UAE and Israel hope that the deal will keep the US sufficiently engaged in the Middle East on their side. For UAE Crown Prince, MBZ (Mohammed Bin Zayed) this is an opportunity to regain the US backing after it garnered backlash from the US Congress for its role in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and its backing of General Haftar in Libya who is fighting the GNA (Government of National Accord backed by the UN) nominally supported by the US. This deal is also likely to ensure that Israel and UAE can obtain advanced US weaponry and its support in international fora for its strategic objectives. This becomes relevant especially in the context of an increasing China-Iran rapprochement and increased Russian-Iranian cooperation in nations like Syria.
So while these imperatives have pushed the two parties towards the deal, what are the future prospects? There has been commentary on the prospect that if other Arab Gulf states were to follow the UAE, then that can constitute a chance to re-write the security landscape of the region. There has also been a proposal that UAE with its exalted standing in the Middle East can play mediator in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by bringing on board Palestinian stakeholders to develop concrete counter proposals to Trump’s Middle East plan.
However at least in the short to mid term the above view seems little optimistic. Though Netanyahu has agreed to temporarily to halt West Bank annexation, his hardline & opportunistic politics means that he is unlikely to give concessions that will be required if a lasting Israel-Palestine peace settlement has to be achieved. On the Palestinian side, it is a divided house with too many stakeholders along with radical Islamist groups like Hamas whose use of terror tactics will be a stumbling bloc.
Moreover this deal does not address the fundamental drivers of conflict in the region. The geo-political faultlines have been shifting for almost a decade from the Arab-Israel conflict to the emergence of Iran and its ‘political Islamist’ allies as the ‘bigger fish to fry’. What this deal might end up doing is formalizing the contours of the two opposing blocs that are engaged in proxy conflicts across the Middle East, squeezing out the space that was available to countries like UAE for backchannel negotiations with Iran. While the loosely defined ‘anti-Iran bloc’ has more economic and military power, Iran’s proxies have made sizeable gains across the region - in Yemen (where Houthis control strategic choke points), in Syria (where President Assad has gained control of almost the entire country). In Lebanon, Hezbollah is kept in check mainly by Israeli military action.
In the short to the mid term, Israel’s addition to this ‘club’ of Gulf monarchies and US’s continued attempts to destabilize the Iranian regime can actually exacerbate tensions as Iran will seek to retaliate against the ‘perceived’ grouping. In addition, the self-interests of regional powers are likely to lead them to take individual sides in conflicts blurring the dynamics of the blocs & adding to uncertainty. The UAE’s role in Yemen as both a part of the KSA-led coalition supporting President Hadi & a backer of Southern Transitional Council demanding secession from Yemen is a case in point.
A genuine change in the security architecture of the region will require détente between Middle East’s two rival blocs, addressing the self-interested claims of region’s nations that is complicating proxy conflicts and emergence of one of the international powers as a neutral and unbiased mediator.