Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan (“MbZ”) of the United Arab Emirates, the “most powerful Arab ruler” according to the New York Times’ David Kirkpatrick, is also the Arab world’s most sagacious political leader. With the UAE’s current account surplus of $109 billion in 2019 (vs. Saudi Arabia’s $47 billion), he wields enormous economic heft. MbZ has mentored Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 20 years his junior, since the Saudi leader’s youth. His agreement to normalize relations with the State of Israel, almost certainly the first of several Arab states to make such agreements, vitiates the Islamist agendas of Iran and Turkey and improves the prospects for a long-term solution to the Syrian civil war.
Both President Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden took credit for the agreement. The US president and his team worked for this agreement behind the scenes for years, and Trump announced it jointly with Binyamin Netanyahu and MbZ. In fact, Biden had more to do with motivating the agreement than he would like to admit. The prospect of a Democratic presidency spurred MbZ to lock in an agreement with Israel, in case Washington were to shift back to Obama’s accommodative stance toward Iran.
More than his personal diplomacy, Trump’s “America First” policies deserve credit for the agreement, the administration’s clearest achievement in foreign policy. By eschewing American military intervention in the region, Trump pushed the regional players to rise to the occasion. The mortal leap was more difficult for Prince Zayed, and will be for the Saudis and others who follow his lead, because Sunni radicalism remains a formidable force in the region—with funding and encouragement from Qatar and Turkey. The fact that energy-self-sufficient America no longer needs to play policeman in the Persian Gulf, and has wearied of sacrificing blood and treasure in regional wars, compels the Gulf states to act responsibly as a matter of self-preservation. As long as the Gulf States remained de facto US protectorates, they could claim that the “Arab Street” stood in the way of relations with Israel. Now that they have to take responsibility for their own defense, they look to Israel for help.
Trump drew fire in October 2019 when he announced that the small contingent of US forces in Syria would leave, effectively leaving Russia as the dominant outside power. The widely-predicted disaster never happened. Russia has limited the scope of Turkish influence among the remaining radical Sunni fighters and allowed Israel to pound Iranian positions throughout. The UAE-Israel agreement opens new possibilities for Syrian reconstruction.
Blackwater founder and entrepreneur Erik Prince lived in Abu Dhabi for several years and has followed MbZ’s career closely. He commented in an August 19 telephone interview with this author:
The bad treatment that both Israel and the GCC [Gulf Coordination Council] got from the Obama administration really made them look to each other and say, ‘Let’s be friends.’ They did this partly as a help and a nod to Trump and partly as a hedge against what might happen in November, and third, because of the enormous trade potential between those two countries. The UAE is the first and there will be many more.
Israeli analyst Yossi Kuperwasser, a former Chief of Staff to Netanyahu, told an interviewer yesterday:
Ever since what’s called the Arab Spring—the Arab upheaval—the threat of radical groups to the pragmatists in the Middle East became so clear that they needed everyone who was ready to support them. The only real power that is ready to take radicalism on upfront is Israel. Israel never is going to change its color. The United States, for eight years under Obama, was supporting the radicals. It drove the JCPOA . . . The only power you can rely upon that will never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon is Israel. . . . Also, it was proven day in, day out the way that Israel fought against the Iranian presence in Syria, the way that Israel was ready to take kinetic action to prevent Iran from delivering weapons to Hezbollah in Syria.
MbZ’s agreement with the Jewish State required more than pragmatic self-interest, Prince argues. The UAE leader embraces a vision of enlightened and tolerant Islam that is unique in the region. “One of the reasons I felt comfortable moving my family to Abu Dhabi is that it is a real island of freedom—an oasis of tolerance in the Middle East.” During one Ramadan conference on Islam, Prince reported, MbZ spoke of the obligations of fasting and prayer. “MBZ said, ‘You can’t have Islam without freedom—if you’re not free to do it, it’s not religion it’s fascism,’” Prince recalls.
The United Arab Emirates has a small but active Jewish community, and its first synagogue will be completed in 2022, part of an interfaith complex including a Christian church as well as a mosque.
Israel made a largely cosmetic concession to Arab sensibilities by “suspending” its imminent annexation of portions of the West Bank. The joint declaration states:
As a result of this diplomatic breakthrough and at the request of President Trump with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace and focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world. The United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates are confident that additional diplomatic breakthroughs with other nations are possible, and will work together to achieve this goal.
According to a Times of Israel poll, 77 percent of respondents thought the UAE deal was more important than West Bank annexation.
That will not change the facts on the ground. Israel has controlled the West Bank for the more than half-century since the Six Day War, and concentrations of Israeli citizens in the West Bank make it de facto Israeli territory. A formal declaration of sovereignty over these areas would not change much and, unlike Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, it would not have the support of the Trump Administration. There is a simple case for annexation, to be sure: “Land for peace” also implies its inverse: less land when there is less peace. Unless the Palestinian Arabs understand that intransigence entails permanent losses, they will never make peace.
Israel’s deal with the UAE, though, may help break the longstanding deadlock in negotiations with the Palestinians. Citing Palestinian sources in Ramallah, Khaled Abu Toameh reported in the Jerusalem Post on August 19 that exiled Palestinian leader Mohammed Dahlan “played a major role in convincing bin Zayed to strike the deal with Israel.” Dahlan, who served as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ security adviser during the 2007 Hamas coup in Gaza, moved to the UAE after falling out with Abbas. He is an adviser to MbZ, and is the only prominent Palestinian leader to support the Israel-UAE agreement. The UAE’s influence will provide something of a counterweight to Turkey and Qatar, which back Hamas.
Turkey, whose regional ambitions were set back by the deal with Israel, has denounced Dahlan as a “terrorist” and Israeli spy, and accused him of involvement in the attempted coup against President Erdogan in 2016. He has also been accused of involvement in the 2013 military coup against then-Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader backed by Turkey.
A rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Gulf States will have formidable obstacles to overcome. As noted, Iran is the urgent problem that brings them together. Israel has conducted more than 200 air attacks on Iranian and allied forces in Syria during the past year with the tacit approval of Russia, but Iran remains a formidable force inside the country, where a tenuous truce prevails between the Syrian Army and militias backed by Turkey. Reconstructing the country after ten years of civil war and the displacement of about half its population will cost $250 billion by some estimates, and it is hard to imagine an aid consortium of that size without the participation of China, which would rankle the Trump Administration.
Erik Prince thinks that MbZ will turn his attention to Iraq, where Iranian influence has grown since the withdrawal of American troops. The Iranians “are hated by the Sunnis, by most of the Shia, and of course the Kurds.” With support from the UAE, “they could give a root canal to the Iranian influence there,” Prince said. Iran, he added, “steals enough Iraqi crude to fund most of the operations of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps. This fight isn’t going to be won at the ballot box because the Iranians don’t play that way.”
America’s reluctance to play world policeman poses a challenge to America’s allies. With the Trump Administration’s encouragement, two Middle East leaders—Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu—rose to the occasion. The importance of their agreement cannot be overstated. Nor can the problems they will face going forward. Russia will be the dominant power in Syria for some time to come, and China will bid for an expanded role in the region as an economic ally of Iran and Turkey and a likely participant in the reconstruction of the Syrian economy. The post-American order will be treacherous, and it will take visionary leaders to navigate it.