US President Donald Trump heralded nothing short of “the dawn of a new Middle East” as the leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements normalising ties with Israel during a ceremony at the White House this week.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu echoed that sentiment, saying “this day is a pivot of history”.
The diplomatic detente is significant — the UAE and Bahrain will join Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab countries to officially recognise the Jewish state. This will strengthen economic and security ties that have existed tacitly for years and establish diplomatic missions in the respective capitals.
But despite Trump’s grandiose statements, these agreements are little more than a footnote in the wider chaos of contemporary Middle Eastern affairs.
The broader Arab-Israeli conflict has been dormant for decades, as the main players have been preoccupied by the threats of internal dissent and civil strife, rather than one another.
Beyond this, the UAE and Bahrain were never central to Arab hostilities with Israel. Historically, they acted as cheerleaders and financiers for the front-line states during the Cold War, such as Syria and Egypt.
In geopolitical terms, Bahrain is far less notable — it’s effectively a vassal of Saudi Arabia.
Regardless of the immediate changes brought by these diplomatic moves, the bigger question is how Saudi Arabia will respond in the coming months.
It is rare in foreign relations to see “beta testing” of bold ideas, but the UAE and Bahrain have provided just such a test case for Riyadh in its own fraught push to normalise relations with the Jewish state.
This led to an informal arrangement between the Saudis and Israelis, along with the United States and a number of smaller Gulf states, aimed at confronting the Iranian challenge together.
An outright solidification of an alliance between the Saudis and Israelis would allow for greater cooperation and coordination in regional security, diplomacy and trade — and build a more unified and effective front against the threat posed by Iran’s growing influence in the region.
But previous attempts by Israel and Saudi Arabia to warm relations have proved challenging, to say the least.
In 2018, bin Salman made the unprecedented move of declaring Israel’s right to exist, extending a clear olive branch meant to open the door to further opportunities to strengthen ties between the two countries.
However, the prince may have jumped the gun with the statement, which was met with ambivalence by the Saudi public and other Arab states.
Many felt the move too sudden and incongruous with the kindgom’s longstanding position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Saudis have long demanded the creation of a state for the Palestinians before any sort of formal sovereign recognition could be offered to Israel.
Ultimately, this led to an embarrassing intervention by the prince’s father, King Salman, who publicly walked back his son’s statements, in part due to fears of eroding the monarchy’s domestic legitimacy.
Following his chastisement, the prince went silent on the issue for over a year. He also took a less prominent position in the public eye, a significant departure from his normal flamboyant style.
This year, things have changed. With King Salman ailing, the prince consolidating his position within the country further and the ever-present threat of Iran across the gulf, there are new opportunities for Saudi Arabia to potentially re-engage with Israel.
New challenges have also presented themselves. The ravages of COVID-19 and a vulnerable oil market have left the kingdom in a far more precarious position than just two years ago. In such an environment, the risk of losing legitimacy from such a deal could prove far more catastrophic to the authoritarian regime.
Bin Salman may be up to the task, though. The prince has demonstrated a growing aptitude to navigate complex political situations.
Over the past year, for instance, he has curtailed his characteristic brashness, avoiding the blunders seen early on in his reign that damaged Saudi prestige on the international stage and drew ire from his father.
Since his 2018 Israeli misfire, the prince has displayed a more reserved and circumspect demeanour in his public activities and foreign engagements — sending a message he intends to serve out a long and productive term.
Having learned from past mistakes, a more prudent bin Salman is likely to approach a rapprochement with Israel with greater caution than before.
If people in the UAE and Bahrain prove amenable or indifferent to the warming relations between their countries and Israel — and all signs thus far suggest they do — it may encourage the prince to try his plan again.
While many on the Saudi street still oppose Israel in theory, the issue lacks the salience it once did. There is an exhausting array of crises in the region — from Yemen to Syria, Libya to COVID-19 — that have become far more immediate priorities.
Thanks in part to to a concerted propaganda effort by bin Salman, the Saudi public is also increasingly in tune with the ruling elite when it comes to the desire to counter Iran as a national security concern.
As a small country on the Mediterranean sharing no borders with the Saudis, Israel simply doesn’t pose the same kind of threat in the popular imagination as the looming expansionist giant just across the gulf.
With these political dominoes in line, the coming months may prove a far more fortuitous time for bin Salman to pursue a Saudi detente with Israel.
Such a development would not only be historically significant, but would pave the way for an Arab-Israeli alliance — the likes of which has never been seen before.
The normalisation of diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates has variously been described as a “breakthrough” and an important staging moment towards a comprehensive Middle East peace.
These conclusions are, at best, premature.
Normalisation of relations between Israel and an important Gulf state is a highly significant development whose fallout is unpredictable. What seems clear is that the UAE initiative will further deepen a regional divide.
In the Middle East, historic shifts rarely take place without unforeseen consequences. Israel’s pledge not to go ahead with the annexation of one-third of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley for the time being will be cold comfort for the Palestinians.
What has been exposed by the normalisation agreement between Israel and the UAE, brokered by Washington, is acceptance of the arguments for a regional buffer to counter Iran’s growing power and influence.
This is a marriage of convenience.
It should go without saying that absent Iran’s growing security threat to Gulf states, it’s doubtful such a normalisation of ties would have taken place outside a comprehensive Middle East peace.
The latest development bears out one of the Arab world’s stock standard sayings: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
In other words, an Iranian threat to the UAE and its fellow Gulf Cooperation Council members has brought about an accord with Israel that would previously have been unthinkable.
This is not to say this development is unexpected.
Israel has gradually broadened its informal diplomatic contacts with Gulf states in recent years to the point where little attempt has been made to disguise these contacts.
These interactions included a visit by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman in 2018.
In all of this, a fault line in the Middle East is likely to deepen between Sunni Muslim states and Iran, as well as that country’s allies in Syria and in Lebanon.
These Sunni states, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States in collaboration with Israel, are building a buffer against Iran.
It may be simplistic to say this, but a die has been cast.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether regional friends and erstwhile enemies will remain steadfast in their new commitments.
In the shifting sands of Middle East power politics, today’s friends can be tomorrow’s enemies.
If Israel and the UAE are the betrothed in a marriage of convenience, the Trump White House is the matchmaker. Behind the scenes, Saudi Arabia, the dominant Sunni state in the Gulf, will have encouraged the Emiratis to take the first step
Time will tell how quickly other Gulf states will follow. These Arab fiefdoms will be assessing fallout before taking action themselves.
Among the principal aims of US Middle East policy since President Donald Trump came to power has been to broker improved ties between Israel and America’s Arab allies in the Gulf.
This has been part of a wider Trump Middle East peace plan to bring about the “deal of the century”, as the president calls it, that would end decades of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Trump officials believe Gulf states could be more fully engaged in exerting pressure on Palestinians to make concessions that might enable progress towards such a deal.
The UAE and its fellow Gulf states have been among principal donors to the Palestinian movement over many years. Their funding, for example, helped establish and sustain the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
However, times change. Oil-producing Gulf states have much less money to splash around given the demands of their own expanding populations. The collapse in oil prices has not helped.
In any case, Arab states more generally have found the Palestinian issue increasingly a distraction from their immediate concern of keeping Iran at bay.
By and large, these states paid lip service in their criticism of the Trump “deal of the century” when it was unveiled in January. Previously, their reaction would have been one of outright rejection.
In summary, the peace plan demanded the Palestinians set aside their long-held dream of a Palestinian state. Instead, they were asked to accept semi-autonomous enclaves in Israeli-controlled territories more or less in perpetuity
Needless to say this was rejected.
All this leaves the much-weakened Palestinian movement in a bind. The UAE’s decisions will be viewed by its leaders as one more betrayal of their cause in a long list going back to the Balfour declaration of 1917. In that declaration, Britain promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine.
The question for the Palestinians in light of what is effectively and conspicuously a collapse in Arab solidarity in rejection of Israel is what options might be available to them.
Initially, Palestinian reaction has been to decry the UAE’s actions. The Palestinian ambassador to the UAE has been recalled.
However, these sorts of responses don’t amount to a sustainable long-term strategy for a movement that is both divided and tired. What would seem to be required is a closing of ranks among Palestinians under a younger, more dynamic leadership.
It is long past time for vestiges of the PLO’s historic leadership to move aside to be replaced by a new generation.