Volunteers from Emirates Red Crescent prepare parcels with humanitarian aid for Gaza to be transferred through the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, in Cairo, Egypt, March 30, 2024.
Volunteers from Emirates Red Crescent prepare parcels with humanitarian aid for Gaza to be transferred through the Rafah border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, in Cairo, Egypt, March 30, 2024. REUTERS/Shokry Hussien
Commentary / Middle East & North Africa 11 minutes

The UAE, Israel and a Test of Influence

The United Arab Emirates signed the 2020 Abraham Accords with Israel in pursuit of strategic benefits. During the Gaza war, costs are becoming clear. Abu Dhabi shows no sign of rethinking normalisation, but it might consider smaller steps to register discontent with the Israeli campaign. 

In 2020, the United Arab Emirates normalised relations with Israel. The UAE and Bahrain became the first Arab states to establish formal diplomatic ties with Israel since Egypt and Jordan signed peace treaties with the Jewish state in 1979 and 1994, respectively. The Abraham Accords – as the 2020 normalisation deal is known – positioned the UAE as a close partner of Israel that in principle could use its proximity, new channels of communication and the good-will it generated to wield a degree of influence over the country. At the time, Emirati leaders suggested the deal would allow them to push for a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though that was never Abu Dhabi’s primary motive in signing the accords and they generated little, if any change in Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians. 

The accords brought the UAE political capital in Washington, an improved image in the West, increased trade and new weapons supplies. From Abu Dhabi’s perspective, they also contributed to regional security, but the costs of a deal perceived as done at the expense of Palestinians have risen over the course of the Gaza war. The accords now pose a dilemma for Emirati leaders, who face both anger in the Middle East – even resulting in the harassment of Emirati citizens travelling in the region – and frustration within the UAE itself at the government’s perceived silence in the face of Gaza’s destruction and insistence on maintaining ties with Israel. The spike in tensions across the Middle East due to the war also jeopardises the UAE’s proclaimed goal of peace and interconnectivity in the region. 

The Abraham Accords give the UAE some influence in signalling discontent at Israel’s policies in Gaza and raising the costs for Israel of its military operations there. While nothing suggests Abu Dhabi will go as far as pulling out of the normalisation deal, it could still, for example, suspend trade with Israel, as Bahrain has done. Doing so may not much alter Israel’s calculations but could raise the costs of its Gaza campaign, add to international pressure for an end to the war and stave off some of the criticism Abu Dhabi faces. Thus far, the UAE leadership has given no indication that it wants to in any way weaken or otherwise endanger the accords, believing the deal’s strategic benefits outweigh the costs. The question is whether that calculation will hold if the war continues and pressure keeps mounting.

The Abraham Accords

The UAE signed the Abraham Accords in September 2020 alongside Bahrain, with Morocco and Sudan concluding agreements with Israel as well, in October and December 2020, respectively. Gulf states had been engaging with Israel on matters of commerce and security for years, mostly behind the scenes, though Oman and Qatar opened Israeli trade offices in 1996 (only to close them in 2000). In the five years leading up to the accords, Emirati and Israeli leaders met secretly on several occasions to discuss regional security, the threat to their interests posed by Iran and potential military cooperation. In 2015, Israel opened its first diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi, tied to the International Renewable Energy Agency, and three years later the UAE even hosted talks between Israel and Türkiye to help them restore bilateral ties. 

Emirati elites portray the Abraham Accords as a step toward a more harmonious Middle East, with the UAE at its heart.

Emirati elites portray the Abraham Accords as a step toward a more harmonious Middle East, with the UAE at its heart. The UAE aims to foster regional integration and achieve what it calls its “no problems with neighbours” approach. This initiative has not resolved all the friction Abu Dhabi has in its relations with other regional capitals, but it has entailed efforts to lower tensions with Qatar, Syria and Türkiye while also building ties with Israel and Iran simultaneously. The accords would “change the narrative and make [Arab-Israeli] coexistence possible”, as an Emirati official put it. Boosting trade, bolstering links with Washington, which under former President Donald Trump had pushed hard for the deal, and engaging in new ways with Israel were all part of the accords’ attractions. In the opinion of Emirati leaders, these benefits would help consolidate a more peaceful and interconnected region. Importantly, the UAE also sent a clear message to the U.S. that it was a reliable and long-term regional partner, which proved key to unlocking the sale of advanced weapons systems and aircraft. 

The Emirati leaders did not sign the accords primarily as a means of advancing a two-state solution or assisting the Palestinian national cause, though they did cite these objectives as an additional justification. Yet, from the outset, it was unclear what price the UAE could exact from Israel on the Palestinian front or how much effort Abu Dhabi would make to do so. Emirati leaders claimed they had persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to act on his threat earlier in 2020 to formally annex the West Bank, but Israel asserted that it had merely put the move on hold, while proceeding with its de facto annexation of the territory by building more settlements. In 2023, the Emirati ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, who had spearheaded the normalisation talks, admitted that Israel had agreed only to a pause in annexing the West Bank, thus contradicting an earlier statement he had made that signing the accords “immediately stops annexation”. Palestinian officials criticised the UAE for failing to obtain a binding commitment from Israel and – to the contrary – helping normalise de facto annexation.

The Gaza Backlash

Criticism of the accords has heightened during Israel’s war in Gaza. In interviews with Crisis Group and media outlets, Emirati and other Arab opinion-makers note that leaders of the countries that have normalised relations with Israel, including the UAE, believe the Palestinian issue can be sidestepped in Arab-Israeli relations, while stressing how short-sighted that is. 

Since 7 October, the UAE’s image has worsened throughout the region. A January 2024 poll by the Arab Center Washington DC found that 67 per cent of respondents in sixteen Arabic-speaking countries regarded the Emirati approach to the Gaza war as bad or very bad. Rising anti-Emirati sentiment in the region poses problems for an image-conscious state. The government is concerned about reports of harassment and name-calling of Emirati citizens when they travel to other parts of the Middle East because of the UAE’s relationship with Israel.

If the regional backlash was not worrying enough to the Emirati leadership, it also faces frustration at the normalisation accords at home. Prominent Emiratis who once stood behind the deal say they no longer support the relationship. “Israel embarrassed signatories [to the accords]. Netanyahu didn’t freeze settlements, which he had promised to do. Israel just doesn’t care, and now there is a backlash in public opinion”, an Emirati analyst of regional politics explained. Displeasure with the UAE’s approach is reaching boiling point, becoming a topic of debate on social media, during Friday prayers and at dinner parties. “The war is lasting too long and leaving a bad taste in our mouths”, an Emirati academic said. “The [leadership’s] focus is on doing what it can to not be exposed to criticism”, explained another. Even Emirati officials speak of “rising discontent”. The Emirati state has traditionally been confident in its ability to manage outbursts of domestic discontent without relying on channels of democratic representation, but as the war drags on, it may feel under pressure to do more to appease the public. 

The war has brought other challenges for Emirati leaders. Among Abu Dhabi’s main strategic objectives is regional stability and improving cross-regional “connectivity”, namely, linkages to Africa, the Middle East and Asia. While the UAE’s own policies do not always further those goals (Abu Dhabi is, for example, widely accused of fuelling Sudan’s civil war), Emirati leaders clearly aspire to expanded business ties, with the UAE serving as a trade and logistics hub. Cyclical violence in Israel-Palestine that spreads across borders poses an obstacle to such ambitions. Attacks by Yemen’s Houthi militants on shipping in the Red Sea – a regional trade route – are examples of this harmful spillover. “This war and the risk of escalation affect our connectivity agenda”, an Emirati security expert said. 

An Emirati businessman told Crisis Group, “we didn’t abandon the Palestinians. Relations with Israel allowed us to mobilise and provide humanitarian aid quickly”.

Emirati leaders continue to defend the relationship with Israel, arguing that it allows them, at a minimum, to provide assistance to people in need. An Emirati businessman told Crisis Group, “we didn’t abandon the Palestinians. Relations with Israel allowed us to mobilise and provide humanitarian aid quickly”. Within a week of the war’s start, the UAE sent a plane carrying medical supplies to al-Arish in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and allocated over $34 million to aid for Gaza. Over the past six months, the country has evacuated children for medical care and constructed a field and maritime hospital, as well as a desalination plant to overcome water shortages in the strip. When Western donors suspended funding to the UN Relief and Works Agency – the main organisation providing aid and assistance to Palestinian refugees – over the alleged involvement of twelve employees in the Hamas attack, Abu Dhabi doubled down on its own contribution to the agency. The UAE believes the direct line it has to Israel, thanks to the Abraham Accords, has been helpful: “We’ve been using normalisation, leveraging our relationship with Israel, to help [alleviate] the humanitarian situation”, an Emirati official told Crisis Group, indicating that this achievement is enough for now. But the Israeli attack on the World Central Kitchen – an Emirati partner in Gaza – on 2 April demonstrated that the accords did little to protect Emirati humanitarian efforts.

The UAE also believes that its formal relationship with Israel puts it in a strong position to contribute to post-war reconstruction in Gaza and efforts to resolve the conflict in the long run. Abu Dhabi has made clear that it would help fund reconstruction only if there is a “viable two-state solution plan”. Those who support continuing the relationship claim it is not “moral normalisation” but, as an Emirati academic put it, a way to ensure that Israel “sees itself as connected to the rest of the region”. In the UAE’s view, by building stronger relationships with Arab countries in the region, Israel will come to feel less threatened, and as a result will be more willing to address the Palestinian issue in a way that offers a durable resolution of the conflict.  

Still, absent a path toward Palestinian statehood or at least an end to the war in Gaza, the backlash may only intensify, making the relationship with Israel harder to maintain. 

Greater Influence?

The accords have brought about growing and ever more diverse ties between the UAE and Israel, raising the question as to whether the UAE has greater influence over Israel and whether and how it might use this. Many now describe the UAE as Israel’s main lifeline to the Arab world. The Emirati national airline is one of the few in the Middle East to offer direct flights to Tel Aviv, and Abu Dhabi created an overland route from the UAE to Israel to help it recoup trade losses resulting from Houthi attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Ties in finance, agriculture, energy and technology have grown at a rapid pace since 2020, making the UAE Israel’s second biggest trading partner in the Middle East after Türkiye.

The two countries have also worked hard to create an environment hospitable to mutual investment. Their central banks have a cooperation deal, while a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement allows Emirati companies to do business in Israel and vice versa. This pact, coupled with a visa exemption agreement, the first and only between Israel and an Arab state, has attracted Israeli investors to the Gulf state. In 2023, 1,000 Israeli businesses were operating in the UAE. In the largest commercial deal so far, the Emirati sovereign wealth fund purchased a 22 per cent stake in Israel’s Tamar gas field in the Mediterranean Sea for $1 billion. The UAE is also a major source of investment in Israeli technology firms. Abu Dhabi-based tech company G42, chaired by the UAE’s national security adviser, Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, opened its first international office in Israel. Amid the Gaza war, when Israel’s economy is hurting – it contracted by almost 20 per cent in the last quarter of 2023 – this commercial lifeline has become crucial. 

The UAE and Israel also cooperate in the security sphere. They conduct joint naval exercises and co-produce new weapons systems. Israel has also sold weapons to the UAE, including advanced air defence systems. In 2021, Israel Aerospace Industries and the UAE’s EDGE Group (an Emirati defence and technology conglomerate) launched a project to develop unmanned surface vessels. Shortly after, in 2022, Israel sold Rafael-made SPYDER mobile interceptors to the UAE to protect it from drone attacks, after both the Abu Dhabi airport and an Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) facility were struck by the Houthis in January, resulting in the deaths of three people. The UAE and Israel also share a vision of the importance of continued deep U.S. engagement in the Middle East. In fact, in 2021, Israel was moved from U.S. European Central Command to U.S. Central Command, providing a platform for more security talks and greater coordination among the U.S., Israel and Gulf Arab countries.

Using Leverage

The UAE attaches considerable importance to the relationship with Israel and will be reluctant to jeopardise it by demanding major concessions on the Palestinian cause, particularly as Emirati pressure alone is unlikely to much change Israel’s calculations. Still, the Gaza war dragging on may prevent the UAE from enjoying the advantages the Abraham Accords in theory bring or pursuing its vision of an interconnected Middle East. The exchange of fire between Iran and Israel in April drove both these points home. 

There are steps that Emirati leaders could take that fall short of pulling out of the normalisation deal altogether but that would raise the costs for Israel of its campaign in Gaza. The UAE could, for example, look to narrow or sever the economic lifeline its trade ties offer Israel by following the lead of Bahrain and Türkiye and temporarily cutting trade ties with Israel. The Emirati private sector is already showing reticence about trade with Israel. “Business has slowed down”, an Emirati businessman told Crisis Group. The bulk of trade with Israel is done by government-backed or owned entities. Even there, signs of a chill are growing visible. Already, in March, ADNOC shelved talks to purchase a 50 per cent stake in Israel’s NewMed Energy, citing regional instability. The deal, worth $2 billion, would have been the largest commercial deal between the UAE and Israel to date. Abu Dhabi could temporarily shut down the land route that bypasses the Red Sea to get shipments to Israel, which would further squeeze Israel’s already struggling war-time economy. It might also suspend flights and pause the visa exemption agreement, which allows Israelis to enter the UAE without a visa. These measures would not prohibit Israelis from visiting the UAE, but they would make it more difficult. 

Such steps would, in themselves, likely not change Israel’s calculations to any great extent. But they would add to the international pressure Israel faces to end the war, signal Abu Dhabi’s discontent at Israel’s campaign in Gaza and stave off some of the criticism Emirati leaders face, while not imperilling the entire relationship between the two countries, which is important to Emirati leaders. Sooner or later, the pressure Abu Dhabi faces due to the war could lead it to recalculate whether its unconditional ties with Israel are worth the costs.

Contributors

Senior Advisor, Middle East and North Africa
desfandiary
Profile Image
Dialla Jandali

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.