NAVIGATING THE GEOPOLITICAL CHALLENGES IN UAE-ISRAEL'S NORMALIZATION
by Rizal Hamdan 12th September 2020
On the 13th of August 2020, the world was surprised by an agreement to normalize diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates (the UAE) and the Arabs countries' archenemy, Israel. Islamic movements around the world relatively perceived a diplomatic manoeuvre by the UAE as outrageous, backstabbing, and blasphemous. For example, the Islamic Party of Malaysia's (PAS) Youth Division thought the normalization as an act of betrayal to the international Muslim community. Meanwhile, Hamas slams the Emirati recognition of Israel as a "desperate attempt to influence the struggle to defeat the occupation and the fulfilment of the Palestinian rights".
As a Foreign Policy observer, I do believe the intentions of the UAE-Israel's normalization is in accordance with the diplomatic norms of the world. The state does not operate completely with a set of emotions as a human being. Unlike humans, the state is pragmatic in a manner to protect the national interest.
The state in the world system is sovereign. Therefore, it has every right to decide either to adopt balancing, bandwagoning, or hedging behaviour in steering the country's external affairs. In so doing, it involves aligning itself with any diplomatic coalition/bloc or cutting diplomatic ties with any country.
Although the intention for normalizing the UAE-Israel diplomatic relations is certainly not a pleasant surprise for the Muslim world, we must understand the small state external behaviour as a way of coping with threats in changing geopolitics.
The Small State External Behaviour
The UAE is a federation of seven small Emirates consisting of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm Al-Quwain. In 49 years of its inception, the UAE has developed as one of the world's wealthiest countries. The main reason for the rapid development of this country is petroleum production. The UAE is ranked at the 7th top oil producer in the world (4.01 million barrels per day).
On top of that, the UAE is the third-largest oil producer country in the Middle East after KSA and Iraq. From the geographic perspective, the UAE is sharing a land border with the KSA and Oman. Nonetheless, it is approximately closer to other neighbouring countries by the sea, such as Iran and Qatar.
The UAE's position toward neighbouring countries has been influenced over the years by geographic proximity, extensive commercial ties, and military-security cooperation. The KSA maintained its position as the UAE's largest Arab trade partner with USD25.6 billion (export) and USD7.5 billion (import) worth of trades. In a matter of strategy, the UAE's foreign policy has been drawn closer to one of the less-threatening regional powers such as the KSA.
One of the popular strategies in foreign policy is hedging. Hedging is conceived as a strategic behaviour that consists of a bundle of interrelated policy options. In international relations, hedging is immensely popular among the small states. It binds the hostile or competing neighbours or superpowers with multiple legal binding corporations in economy or politics.
From the geopolitical perspective, the UAE is strategically located between two competing regional powers, the KSA and Iran. On 5th June 2017, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) along with Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE altogether severed all ties with Qatar on the ground of the later embrace of various terrorists and sectarian groups aimed at destabilizing the region. Therefore, Qatar is now a threat to the UAE or a non-friendly country.
The UAE-Iran enjoys cordial diplomatic relations throughout the post-gulf war period. Historically, the UAE supported Iraq throughout the Iran-Iraq war. Nonetheless, the UAE's strategic approach had changed when the former invaded Kuwait and triggered the Gulf War in the 90s.
As a country that depends on foreign workers, Dubai for instance, hosts to around 400,000++ Iranian nationals. Hence, it asserted the large Iranian origin community possibly pose a 'fifth column' threat to UAE security and stability in the long run.
To ensure its security against potential threats, the UAE is leaning towards the alliance of the KSA-US in military-security cooperation. The UAE together with the KSA has deep mistrust towards it’s across the water neighbour, Iran. Since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in Baghdad, the Shiite dominant country, alongside Syria, has become a primary threat to these Arab capitalist states.
Although Iran has not shown any inclination to pursue an assertive foreign policy in the Middle East, its strategic presence could be seen everywhere. For instance, Iran has proxy paramilitary groups actively operating across Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. In the past, the UAE had against the Iranian nuclear program on the pretext, it may undermine the state's security in the future. The UAE had increased the pace of oil production to the removal of Iranian oil from the market.
Despite the UAE's continuous cordial relationship with the KSA and the USA, it does not deter the UAE-Iran cooperation in the economy. As for July 21st, the UAE is Iran's third export destination, with 4.62 million tons of non-oil goods worth USD 1.21 billion or 14% of Iran's total exports (as reported by the Financial Tribune). Therefore, by binding itself with Iran in the trade agreement, it indicates how the UAE is buying for itself 'an insurance policy' against any potential of Iran's assertive foreign policy.
As a small state and to avoid hostile relations with its neighbour, the UAE has taken a pragmatic stance by economically binding with Iran, while maintaining the military-security cooperation with the KSA and the USA.
Trump’s Trump Card for the Presidential Election
In retrospect, one of the factors that lead to the downfall of Jimmy Carter was his incapability in managing foreign affairs issues. The Torrijos-Carter treaties (which guaranteed that Panama would gain control of the Panama Canal after 1999) and failure of the operation of the eagle claw in Teheran, subsequently made Carter unpopular among the voters. Being a jingoist is always leveraged to any presidential candidate. One must always be ready to punch above their weight!
Since taking office on January 20th, 2017, President Trump has not achieved any success in his foreign policy strategy. In the Asia Pacific, the US is gradually losing its influence on the People Republic of China (PRC). He almost brought the USA to the brink of war with Iran after a targeted drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, a senior general in the Iranian Armed Forces.
He practically reignites the fire of hostility in the Middle East by relocating the USA's embassy and simultaneously recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Towards the end of his term as the President, his foreign policy strategy in the Middle East is not something to be applauded, tactless, and unsophisticated.
Nevertheless, given the possibility for normalization between the UAE and Israel, Trump has had an advantage for his campaign for the US Presidential Election against another prominent candidate, Joe Biden.
Will the Normalisation Reshape the Middle East Geopolitics?
The prospect of normalization will change the geopolitics of the Middle East. For more than seven decades of a hostile relationship between the Arab states and Israel, normalization will open the new page for peace negotiation between the warring parties.
As a Foreign Policy observer, I offer twofold predictions:
1) The normalization between the two countries could become a steppingstone to the plight of Palestinian through the stale Arab Peace Initiative (the Saudi Initiatives) as endorsed by the Arab League in 2002. Initially, the Arab Peace Initiative calls for normalizing the relations between the Arab world and Israel, in exchange for a full withdrawal by Israel from the occupied territory and establishment of a Palestine state with East Jerusalem as the capital.
2) The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries such as Oman, Bahrain, and Kuwait will jump on the bandwagon in the future. It is crystal clear the GCC countries are the pawn in the regional chess game played by the KSA. As I mentioned, normalization between the KSA and Israel is not an option, since it may cause the former to lose its status as the leader of the Islamic countries. Therefore, the GCC countries will be doing it on behalf of the KSA. Nevertheless, this situation will be leading to internal strife within the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC will be divided into three factions, one side led by the KSA, another by Iran and the modest-neutral countries. ‘The silent revolt’ may arise from modest-neutral countries to counterweight the KSA’s influence in the organisation.
Nonetheless, regardless of the result that may be coming out of normalization between two countries, the Middle East is prone to a multitude of proxy wars between the KSA's Unholy Alliance and Iran sponsored militias. It may further radicalise the existing Palestinian resistance groups, who sought the resolution though weapon rather than negotiation. The way I see it, the impending disaster is looming over the Middle East.
Rizal Hamdan is the Executive Director of NADI Centre.