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Israel and UAE: How nominal enemies became allies

January 31, 2022

Israel's historic presidential trip to the UAE is highlighting burgeoning relations between the two countries. Their shared arch-enemy Iran and regional climate challenges suggest their ties may strengthen further.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog walks alongside Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan
Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan held historic talks in Abu DhabiImage: Amos Ben-Gershom/Government Press Office/REUTERS

Less than 48 hours after Israeli President Isaac Herzog and his wife arrived at the airport in Abu Dhabi, the historic mission already felt somewhat accomplished.

The symbolic trip marked the first time an Israeli president visited the United Arab Emirates — and images of the Israeli flag being hoisted on Emirati soil signaled warm diplomatic tidings between the two countries. 

In the Middle East, however, the status quo remains when it comes to geopolitical maneuvers in the competition for regional hegemony. Not long after Herzog's arrival, breaking news hit the headlines: The Houthi movement in Yemen had fired a ballistic missile toward the UAE. The Emirati Defense Ministry said it intercepted and destroyed the missile. 

And here's why the failed missile attack is not seen as a coincidence: The Houthis are backed by Iran — the mutual arch-enemy of both the UAE and Israel. In 2015, the UAE joined forces with the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthi movement in Yemen — a conflict and humanitarian crisis that still rages today. 

Despite the sudden change in atmosphere on Monday, Isaac Herzog didn't disappoint his host. "We are here together to find ways and means to bring full security to people who seek peace in our region," the Israeli president assured Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, according to the Israeli government press office.

The two countries, once nominal enemies, turned official allies some 16 months ago, when the foreign ministers of the UAE and Bahrain, as well as Israel's then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, signed a peace agreement that normalized diplomatic ties between their countries. The Abraham Accords, as the statement became known, was a landmark achievement under then-US President Donald Trump.

But while diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE have significantly increased, other allied countries like Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan are moving at a much slower pace.

Emirati and Israeli flags
The Emirati and Israeli flags fly overhead as Israeli President Isaac Herzog gives a speech at Expo 2020 in DubaiImage: Jon Gambrell/AP Photo/picture alliance

Increase in trade and travel

The main driver for the fast track in their ties is that the UAE and Israel are similar in terms of economic size and development.

"They both have a gross domestic product (GDP) of around $400 billion (€356 billion) and their relatively small populations enjoy a high living standard measured in per capita income," said Atradius, a trade credit insurance company.

"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 the Dubai 2020 expo, adding that a multimillion-dollar research and development fund was also established. 

In comparison to 2020, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics recorded more than a 30% increase in import and export of goods, excluding diamonds, to and from the United Arab Emirates.

While in Dubai, Herzog also highlighted that "Israelis and Emiratis are studying together and learning each other's cultures and languages."

So far, around 250,000 Israelis have visited the Emirates. Israel's strict policy combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, including closing the main airport, however, has impacted Emirati arrivals.

"We await many Emiratis traveling to Israel following COVID," Herzog said.

infographic of Israeli trade

Further areas of collaboration between the UAE and Israel are sustainability, research and development, agriculture, medicine and financial technologies.

"Climate change, in particular, is a challenge that all states in this region are facing. And the only way to deal with it is to work together," said Sebastian Sons, an expert on the region at the Germany-based Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO).

"Israel is technologically the most developed player in the region and therefore a lucrative collaboration partner," he told DW in a telephone interview.

Sons also pointed out that countries that haven't signed diplomatic papers with Israel, such as Oman or Saudi Arabia, would benefit from tackling climate change together with Israel. "From a technological point of view, they need Israel and cannot meet these challenges alone," he said.

A special case

Of all countries in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is probably the most sought-after ally for Israel — yet at the same time, it is also the most controversial.

"Saudi Arabia would be the big prize for Israel," Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), told DW in a phone interview. 

For many years, the Saudis have been maintaining relations with Israel, albeit not official ones.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Donald Trump, Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan
In 2020, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) signed the Abraham Accords in Washington alongside President Donald Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-NahyanImage: Saul Loeb/AFP

"Israelis would love to have the 'kosher stamp' of Saudi Arabia as the leader of Sunni Islam and custodian of the Holy Places," Guzansky said.

However, there are still many sensitivities, such as differing opinions on Palestine and a two-state solution.

At the same time, Guzansky also sees many parallels, such as similar challenges including their conflict with Yemen and staunch dislike for Iran. "It would be smart to offer them help now, as they will remember this. They need someone in the region, and this someone could be Israel," he told DW. 

And yet, there seems a long way to go.

"Normalization is unlikely because Saudi Arabia has much stronger anti-Israeli circles, including King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud," said Sons.

Any attempt to recognize Israel would be against the Saudi raison d'état.

However, according to Israeli reports, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and former Israeli leader Netanyahu already had several unofficial talks in recent years. Therefore, the analyst believes that in the future there will also be "cooperation in the military, economic or energy sphere will intensify."

One of the reported unofficial agreements between Saudi Arabia and Israel was actually crucial for the presidential visit in the UAE.

Israeli President Herzog and the first lady were able to fly over Saudi Arabia, as Riyadh has been permitting the Israel aircraft access to its airspace.

Edited by: Stephanie Burnett

Israel's new peace deals

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Jennifer Holleis is an editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa.
Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East
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