By Bernd Debusmann Jr
The historic normalisation of ties between the two countries represents a victory for Donald Trump's approach to foreign policy that will still benefit the UAE even if he is voted out of office, according to US-based experts
The normalisation of ties between the UAE and Israel is a “big win” for US President Donald Trump and the UAE alike that may lead to a surge in commercial air links and business ties between tech start-ups in the two countries, according to Washington DC-based Middle East experts.
On Thursday, Trump announced what he termed a “historic peace agreement” between the two nations. In a joint statement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said that Israel and the UAE had agreed to a “full normalisation of ties” as part of a “diplomatic breakthrough” carried out “at the request of President Trump.”
Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the DC-based Arab Gulf States Institute of Washington, said that the UAE-Israel agreement is likely to be touted by the administration as evidence that President Trump’s highly personalised, informal approach to foreign policy can produce desired outcomes for the US government.
“It’s a pretty huge win,” he said. “The US network [of allies in the Middle East] has been greatly bedevilled by disunity. You have parts of the coalition that are at odds with each other, and big chunks - like Israel and the Gulf states - that don’t even have diplomatic relations. That’s been a real problem.”
The UAE-Israel agreement, he added, was a “huge step” that shows that Trump’s approach to foreign policy can be effective, despite being significantly different than the ‘traditional’ methods of diplomacy the US has utilised in the past.
“It’s a significant, personal, gain for Trump,” he said. “He can say now to his critics, in effect, that actually his system of transactional, personalised diplomacy pays off. He will be able to say it implicitly, and his supporters are already saying it openly. He’ll say that these people owed him and that he asked them to do it [the agreement]. It pays off sometimes. It didn’t with [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Il, it’s not working with Iran, but it worked here and that’s a good thing.”
Simon Henderson, an energy policy expert at the Washington Institute, also believed that the agreement is “a significant victory for President Trump”, but that the UAE still stands to gain in the long-term should there be a change in presidents following the November election. “Abu Dhabi wants to work with Trump, but also not ignore the prospect of a [Joe] Biden presidency,” he explained.
“This is an issue that actually works probably quite well for Biden’s bit of the Democratic party, which is supportive of peace moves in the Middle East.
“This sort of insulates, if perhaps doesn't guarantee, that Mohamed bin Zayed, who has got on very well with the Trump administration, is not going to find that a handicap if in five months time he finds himself having to deal with Biden,” he added.
In a statement following the announcement, the UAE’s ambassador to the US, Yousef Al Otaiba, said that talks between the UAE and Israel to begin implementing the normalisation of ties will begin in the coming weeks, with a focus on cooperation to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Other near-term plans include discussions on visa access, telecommunications links and collaboration on health, water and food security.
In his remarks, the Washington Institute’s Simon Henderson said that in the short-term, he expects the first “headline items” to be the exchange of embassies, as well as air links between the two.
“In terms of air links, it’s a question of overflight rights. You can have direct flights, but unless you’re going to take the sea route through the Strait of Hormuz and around Arabia, you’ve got to get agreement from other people on what the actual route would be. That’s obviously Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“You probably do see Israeli tourists on Dubai beaches already, but ones that haven’t brought their Israeli passport with them,” he added. “Whether that would increase in volume, particularly in these Covid days, who knows. I think where the expansion occurs is in commercial links.”
Ibish, for his part, said that the UAE is likely to benefit from open exposure to Israeli’s start-up scene. Israel - which has more than 6,000 active start-ups and an economy driven by technology firms and entrepreneurship - has repeatedly been called “the startup nation” by local officials and foreign observers.
“The UAE sees itself, with quite a lot of justification, as a technology hub in the Middle East. There’s a determination to push forward with putting the UAE at the centre of a post-energy and technologically oriented, new kind of economy and social order in the Middle East,” he said.
“If they ask themselves who can help, who is doing that too and doing it well, there’s an obvious answer,” Ibish added. “The answer is Israel. It has a great deal of technology and is further along with the process of getting to that kind of place.”