James Gurd: So often, views of the Middle East are out of date. As this historic deal between Israel and the UEA shows.

19 Aug

James Gurd is Executive Director of Conservative Friends of Israel.

The Covid-19 news cycle was interrupted briefly last week with a historic development from the Middle East: the announcement of intentions for full diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. The agreement includes the key tenets of an unremarkable bilateral relationship – from the opening of embassies to passenger flights – but this was no ordinary announcement.

It represents the most significant development between Israel and its Arab neighbours since Jordan’s peace agreement with Israel in 1994 and, if fulfilled, it will become only the third Arab nation to establish full diplomatic relations with the Jewish State. While the agreements with Egypt and Jordan have largely brought a practical but crucial peace, this new relationship will be founded upon friendship and expanding mutual interests.

Unthinkable to many, the momentous announcement has in fact been in the offing for some time.

The rules of the ‘old Middle East’ have been changing for over a decade. The great Arab nations have seen an increasing number of high-profile Israeli delegations travelling through. Discreet at first, these visits have become increasingly regular and overt, with Benjamin Netanyahu officially visiting Oman in 2018, and Saudi news publishing an unprecedented 2017 interview with Israel’s IDF Chief of Staff, Gadi Eisenkot, in which he publicly offered to share intelligence on Iran.

In a sign of the changing times, extraordinary reports emerged a couple of years ago of tensions between two Gulf states (reportedly Bahrain and Oman) over who would first host a visit from Netanyahu.

Rightly, much of the focus behind last week’s announcements has centred upon the strategic alignment between Israel and the UAE (as well as its Gulf neighbours) over the threat posed by Iran. Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions have long cast a shadow over the region, and Sunni Arab leaders now recognise that Iran’s nuclear programme and destabilisation of multiple countries via its terrorist proxies represent an existential threat to more than just Jerusalem.

Its reported firing of ballistic missiles (inexplicably omitted from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal) at a critical Saudi Arabian oil facility last year showed beyond doubt how far Tehran is prepared to go. Israel represents a crucial and dependable ally against Iran, especially at a time of shifting U.S. policy interests.

The resource-rich economies of the Middle East will also have their eyes on their economic futures. With finite supplies of fossil fuels, changing consumer habits likely accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic and increased environmentalism, the leaders of these countries will be acutely aware of the need to diversify away from natural resource revenues. Israel’s remarkable success as a tech powerhouse offers a valuable blueprint.

The move towards peace can also be understood against the tumult of the ‘Arab Spring’. Throughout, many regional leaders desperately resorted to that old clarion call: ‘Your hardship is a consequence of the evil Zionist entity’.

But if that period taught us anything it was that the Arab people sought basic freedoms and personal securities, thereby conclusively putting to bed the misguided notion that regional stability hinged solely upon resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. While this outdated world view continues to shape the thinking of some Western capitals, in reality the Israeli/Palestinian issue has been low on the agenda for Arab leaders and officials meeting with their Israeli counterparts in recent years.

The Israeli media is now awash with speculation over the possibility of further regional states moving towards formal ties with Israel. While Bahrain and Oman are presented as the prime candidates, Sudan is a possibility, and formal ties with Saudi Arabia are no longer unimaginable.

Crucially, a decisive movement away from historic Arab-Israeli enmity offers an opportunity to revive the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process. While the Palestinian Authority was predictably quick to denounce last week’s announcement as a betrayal, many Arab capitals are understood to be growing weary of the intransigence that has seen off multiple viable peace deals. This perhaps explains their cautious welcoming of Donald Trump’s attempt to rethink the Oslo paradigm – held increasingly as a failed formula by politicians and commentators of all stripes.

While Arab leaders may not agree with every aspect of Trump’s proposal, by seriously engaging with the peace process and by actively encouraging the Palestinians to return to talks, the UAE and other Arab countries may finally help unlock that most elusive peace agreement.

The ramifications of these shifting sands extend far beyond the region. Under consecutive Conservative Governments, the UK has been deepening its own ties with Israel – with record trade, deep security links, and even historic first official visits to the Jewish State by the Duke of Cambridge and Prince of Wales. As Arab states move towards publicly recognising Israel as a valuable regional ally, and given our shared concerns over Iran and Islamist terrorism, the UK should use its historical links to encourage the change and maximise the ample opportunities for new regional trade and security initiatives.

The UAE’s Foreign Minister reflected Saturday that “clearly, 70 years of not communicating with Israel has led us nowhere”. It is a conclusion that will lead others to follow the UAE’s historic decision to move to a future of friendship, not one of hostility.