by Moran Zaga
Israel and the UAE have fundamental social, economic and political differences, being geographically distant and having underwent different historical experiences. Yet these two countries share common interests stemming from either identical challenges and threats they face or common opportunities for growth. These interests relate to the fields of diplomacy and security (in the regional and global arenas), economy (such as trade, technology and knowledge sharing) and civilian matters (such as in environmental protection and interfaith dialogues). These generate significant potential for cooperation between the two states, and the recent breakthrough between them will enable progress toward its realisation and expansion into additional fields.
The Diplomatic-Security Field
Israel’s most prominent interest in closer relations with the UAE stems from its desire for greater legitimacy within the Middle East, while the UAE wishes to strengthen its regional standing and role. Abu Dhabi is considered relatively moderate among the region’s Arab-Muslim states, allowing for a pragmatic rather than an ideological approach toward ties with Israel. It also enjoys a degree of political, economic and social stability that it unusual in the Middle East, enabling it to set in motion long-term processes.
The UAE’s decision to establish official ties with Israel, despite the absence of a regional peace initiative and progress in Israeli negotiations with the Palestinians, in return for only a suspension of Israel’s annexation plan, constitutes a new pattern that could encourage additional states to follow this example. Normalisation with Israel could enable the UAE to play a significant role in advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace under changed political circumstances. The UAE’s regional alliance with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Bahrain also holds great potential for Israel, including the prospect of closer relations with these states. On an international level, the UAE devotes major efforts to expanding its diplomatic ties and branding itself as an important global centre of power, hosting international institutions, conferences, tournaments and so forth. The opening of the Emirates’ gates to Israeli participation in these events will provide Tel Aviv with further diplomatic and economic opportunities.
Israel and the UAE also share common challenges, chief among them Iran’s nuclear project, its regional influence and presence in various states, its training and arming of terror organisations, its maritime attacks on US-allied vessels, its use of military force through proxies, and the lifting of the international arms embargo on it. Also of great concern to both is Turkey’s growing standing as a regional power; the folding of the US defence umbrella in the Middle East and the ongoing threat to the UAE and Israel’s stability from terror organisations and radical factions.
The UAE is the most hawkish Gulf state in its attitude toward political Islam (especially the Muslim Brotherhood), which reflects Israel’s worldview. At the same time, Israel’s persistent struggle against Iran serves the UAE’s interests, and normalised relations between the states could help map out joint defence plans and even military operations in the worst-case scenario of a violent regional struggle. The establishment of relations will also enable the UAE to equip itself with advanced technology and weaponry and allow Israel to cooperate with an ally endowed with high-quality military capabilities.
The Economic Field
The UAE is an important economic hub due to its key position as a transshipment point to various parts of the world. Its resultant economic and diplomatic advantages are a magnet for states and companies worldwide and have therefore generated a great deal of interest in Israel, but also mean there will be significant competition to its integration into this circle of opportunity. The Emirati economy is heavily reliant on imports, and its Jebel Ali seaport is the most important in the region. Closer ties between the UAE and Israel would contribute to the opening of trade corridors for Israeli goods to the East and for Emirati goods to the West and the Mediterranean Basin. The two states also stand to profit substantially from establishing direct economic ties. Israel’s expertise in high technology and the UAE’s wealth of energy resources could provide a platform for joint activity serving mutual commercial interests. However, the size of the two countries’ economies in other commercial areas is quite limited compared to the competition posed by other states. Over the past decade, the UAE has started to develop its manufacturing capacity, meaning that its exports to Israel could gradually increase. The UAE tends to be a quick developer and has a history of initiating mega-projects. By focusing on their infrastructure, Israeli enterprises could enlarge their own knowledge and gain significant economic benefits. One of the most prominent collaborations could be Israel’s long experience with research and development centres that are now starting to grow in the UAE. These projects also provide many opportunities for broader international partnerships due to the Emirates’ open business culture.
The Civilian Field
Religion constitutes an integral part of daily life and politics in both Israel and the UAE, and both espouse norms of religious tolerance. Cooperation in this field would present additional opportunities for inter-religious ties, which already exist to some degree, such as Jewish-Muslim dialogue. In addition, Islam’s holy sites within Israel could draw religious tourism from the UAE. Nonetheless, the development of a tourism market would have more of a symbolic than economic value given the relatively small population of both countries. Another benefit, mainly for travellers, would be Abu Dhabi airport’s new status as a transit point for the many Israelis who travel to the East.
The medical sector also holds promising cooperation potential, as seen in the bilateral agreement between Israeli and Emirati companies to fight COVID-19 during 2020. Israel’s cutting edge medicine has drawn the attention of the UAE, which is itself engaged in efforts to advance its healthcare services. An exchange of knowledge and technology would allow Israel to benefit from the UAE’s prosperity and latest achievements in the space and energy industries, and the UAE to gain from Israel’s expertise in science and technology.
The shared desire for progress and interest in advanced technologies may allow for opportunities in other areas too, including environmental protection. The harsh climate conditions in the UAE have prompted a push for technological solutions to deal with the lack of potable water, desertification and heavy heat – phenomena with which Israel is familiar. Both states have built large desalination facilities and are continuing to seek creative solutions to harness solar energy and develop eco-friendly construction. The two states are gradually shifting to alternative energies and both strive to serve as models for global technological progress. A prominent example is the low-carbon, clean-tech Abu Dhabi city of Masdar, slated to become one of the world’s most sustainable urban communities.
Bilateral academic cooperation between Israel and the UAE, until now nonexistent, could also hold potential for both nations. Strengthening ties between researchers and scientists from Israel and the many branch campuses of international universities located in the UAE and other Gulf states could also contribute to the advancement of knowledge, especially in fields unique to the region. It would also provide researchers with access to archives and databases that are currently off-limits.
To sum up, Israel and the UAE have a stake in expanding cooperation in a variety of fields. Their focus lies in the field of diplomacy and security, in the contribution to their relative power and in deterrence against hostile forces in the region. For Israel, formal ties with the UAE will accelerate its integration in the increasingly powerful economic and diplomatic circles around it while strengthening its legitimacy in the region. The Emirati interest, for its part, centers on its regional standing, regional stability and Israel’s potential contribution to the fields of science, technology and security in the UAE. If Israel is an attentive partner for the Emiratis, progressing with them at their desired pace, and if any resolution of the Palestinian issue can provide political dividends for Abu Dhabi, Israel will benefit from a true ally and close partner on a long journey.