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Israel’s president traveled to the United Arab Emirates in January on an official visit where he met Abu Dhabi’s crown prince. The landmark meeting is a sign of growing security coordination and economic cooperation between the two countries, who share a regional opponent in Iran.
Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and de-facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan met Israel’s President Isaac Herzog sixteen months after the establishment of diplomatic ties under the controversial Abraham Accords signed on September 15, 2020. The UAE is the third Arab country to establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel after Egypt and Jordan.
Sheikh Mohammed said Israel and the UAE share a “common view of the threats to regional stability and peace, particularly those posed by militias and terrorist forces”.
During Herzog’s trip, the UAE was on the receiving end of its third attack of the month from Yemen’s Houthi rebels – a group aligned with Iran. The Houthis have used missiles and drones, with the first missile attack on January 17 killing three people. A second attack was intercepted with American assistance out of Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra Air Base. The UAE’s defense ministry said missile launchers in Yemen were destroyed by coalition warplanes in response.
These missile strikes come seven years after the start of Yemen’s civil war, in which Saudi-led coalition attacks have wreaked havoc on the country. Thousands of Yemenis have died with many more struggling with food insecurity and disease. While the war in Yemen has escalated in recent months – with the Houthis launching cross border attacks into the UAE and Saudi Arabia and the Saudi coalition intensifying airstrikes on Yemeni cities – the UAE began scaling back their involvement in 2019 after privately expressing sentiments that the war was unwinnable, according to CNN. The UAE reduced its military presence in Yemen but still has influence over large local forces it armed and built in places like the oil-rich provinces of Shabwa and Marib.
Following these latest attacks, Israel offered support to the UAE in the forms of intelligence and security against future drone attacks. In addition to a growth in security ties, the two nations are also forging stronger economic links. In terms of economic size, Israel and the UAE are comparable, with both countries’ GDPs hovering around $400 billion.
Israel’s Bureau of Statistics registered a 30 percent increase in import and export of goods to the UAE compared to 2020. Around 250,000 Israelis visit the Gulf Emirate each year, boosting tourism in the UAE. Israel’s strict COVID policies have meant few Emiratis have made the reverse trip, though a post-COVID tourism boom is expected.
“It is a short time since the accords were announced, and already our trade has topped NIS 1 billion (around $315 million, €280 million), more than 120 agreements have been signed,” Herzog said at the Israeli pavilion at Dubai’s 2020 expo, where the country is hosting a series of events. He added that a multimillion dollar research and development fund has also been agreed on. Herzog, whose role as president is largely ceremonial in Israel, also used the expo to meet with Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, and to visit the country’s small but growing Jewish expat community.
The UAE and Israel are also expected to collaborate on a series of other interests including climate and sustainability issues, agriculture, research and development, medical and financial technologies.
Herzog’s visit may also lead to further expanding the Abraham Accords, as mentioned by Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in January. Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco were also part of the Abraham Accords in addition to the UAE and now Israel has its sights set on larger regional players.
“If you’re asking me what the important countries that we’re looking at are, Indonesia is one of them, Saudi Arabia of course, but these things take time,” Lapid said.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have maintained unofficial relations for years with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holding several unofficial talks. However, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud isn’t as fanciful on the idea of normalization and the kingdom has stronger anti-Israel circles than some of its neighbors. The Saudi King’s intervention was crucial, however, for this trip. Herzog’s flight to the UAE passed over Saudi Arabia’s airspace with Riyadh’s permission.
For decades, the Arab League consensus has been against normalizing relations with Israel unless a peace agreement is achieved that establishes a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Instead, the Abraham Accords have left Palestinians sidelined. In fact, there has been little more than ceremonial references to Palestinians since the Abraham Accords were announced.
Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip and opposes normalization with Israel released a statement saying trips like Herzog’s “encourage the occupation to continue escalating its aggression against our Palestinian people and denial of their rights.”
Palestinians in Israel continue to live under what Amnesty International calls “a cruel system of domination and a crime against humanity” and released a report in January calling said system, “apartheid.” Arab regimes are unlikely to be deterred by such damning reports or the language of human rights.
The fact Emirati authorities did not invite the media to meetings or plan any press conferences speaks to the country’s anti-democratic nature. Only state-media is running carefully constructed statements on Herzog’s trip, while no Israel-based media joined the trip either.
For years, Arab states have paid lip service to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation without matching actions to words. In this latest round of normalization under the Abraham Accords, relations that were previously under the surface have begun coming up for air. Autocracies like the United Arab Emirates will hardly be concerned for Palestinian human rights when they show so little concern for the rights of those under their own rule.
As long as nations in the Arab Gulf are ruled by the iron grip of anti-democratic forces, others in the region fighting for their rights, most notably Palestinians, will have to look elsewhere for support.