Explained

On Trump and Iran, the UAE Shifts Strategy — and Israel Should Take Heed

The Gulf state is recalibrating its alliances with powerhouses like the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, and these moves are shaking up the region. Israel should take note

Passengers ride a traditional abra boat across the Dubai Creek in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Monday, July 22, 2019
Jon Gambrell,AP

Israel has long hinted about its quiet ties with Arab Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as their common struggle to contain Iran and steadfast alliance with the United States have opened doors for cooperation on security issues. 

But recent fractures in both those alliances — between the UAE and Saudi Arabia regarding Yemen, and the UAE and the United States facing the threat posed by Iran — challenge the mutual interests on which their budding security relationship was founded. 

>> Read more: Mysterious Israeli businessman behind mega-deal to supply spy planes to UAE ■ Trump's Gulf standoff is chipping away at the Arab anti-Iran alliance 

For Israel, this should serve as a cautionary tale as these strains can give insight into its own relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump and Iran.

Dr. Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, notes that recent UAE overtures to Iran are a way for the Gulf country to hedge its bets in the region. In conversation with Haaretz, he suggests that the UAE has been shifting strategy as the U.S. appear to no longer be the reliable security patron it once was. 

According to Guzansky, there are three driving forces pushing the UAE to reevaluate its regional strategy vis-à-vis Iran as well as its participation in the Saudi-Iran cold war that has shaped the Middle East through devastating proxy wars in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq during the past decade. 

Read more: Why Saudi Arabia and ‘Little Sparta’ still can’t defeat Iran in Yemen 

The first factor, the researcher says, is the UAE’s need to extract itself from the five-year quagmire in Yemen, which continues to deplete resources, demoralizes the military and threatens to leave a permanent stain on the country’s reputation within the halls of the U.S. Congress. 

Trump recently had to veto a bipartisan bill that passed in both the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the Republican-led Senate. The legislation rebuked American support for the war in Yemen and would have limited arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The second factor, Guzansky notes, is the UAE’s understanding that it has to focus its military and diplomatic efforts on Iran, both as a means of securing the Gulf and shoring up investor confidence in the emirates, which relies heavily on foreign business and international travel. 

U.S. President Donald Trump. The UAE wants to be in the good graces of the White House even after he is no longer in office.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the UAE, was originally both one of the driving forces pushing for Trump’s hardline against Iran and Saudi Arabia’s key ally in its regional struggle with Iran.

Thirdly, the UAE’s actions are driven by concern over Trump. For all of his strong rhetoric, Guzanksy explains, the American president now carries a “small stick,” and all the various actors in the Middle East understand that he won’t pursue military action against Iran. From Great Britain and South Korea to NATO, Trump has shown himself to be a very temperamental ally who is willing to pursue his own agenda regardless of partners’ concerns — including security ones.

Trump has frequently called for stalwart U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia to start paying for their own defense, and in June even went so far as to question why the U.S. (in the Gulf) is “protecting the shipping lanes for other countries for zero compensation.” 

Gaining U.S. backing through warming ties with Israel

As the UAE recalibrates its regional strategy, it places an emphasis on political support from America, where it wants to maintain allies in the government even after Trump’s time in office is over. One way to help ensure that support is through relations with Israel, which continues to enjoy extensive defense funding from Washington. 

Israel’s security has been and remains a key bipartisan issue in Congress, despite its increasing politicization, particularly by Trump and left-wing, Israel-skeptic U.S. lawmakers.

Earlier this month, Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz sent shock waves across the Middle East when he announced that he recently met with a “high ranking persona” from the UAE to improve ties between Israel and Arab states.

Katz claimed the two reached a “substantial agreement” and that he was working on “transparent normalization and signed agreements” with other Gulf states, adding that Israel “does not have a conflict with them.” 

The Israeli foreign minister also claimed that Israel is participating in the U.S.-led coalition (which so far only the United Kingdom has joined) to secure shipping routes in the Strait of Hormuz. His claim evoked a fiery response from Iran, which threatened that a “Zionist” presence in the Gulf could trigger a war. However, a recent report by the Israeli public broadcaster clarified that Israel was not expected to send naval forces and would likely only provide intelligence.

Katz’s statements were met with skepticism within Israel. Guzanksy points out that with a do-over election less than a month away, the internal politics of the day “played a role” in the foreign minister’s remarks. 

Netanyahu with the sultan of Oman

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to remind voters his foreign policy accomplishments and close relations with powerful world leaders, including Arab countries that are known for shunning Israel. Netanyahu scored major diplomatic victories when the Gulf states accepted Trump’s move of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and recognition of the Golan Heights.

Guzansky believes that whatever the result of the September 17 election, Israel should continue to treat the UAE as a “regional powerhouse,” and thus a key priority. The Gulf state, he says, has a highly effective army: While Saudi Arabia operates like an “aircraft carrier,” the UAE is much closer to a “missile ship.” The Gulf state in turn recognizes Israel’s regional advantages in areas like missile defense and high-tech security (According to the New York Times, Israel sold the UAE upgrades for its F-16s and military-grade mobile phone spyware). 

While Netanyahu continues to tout his improving ties with Arab states and hints at major “breakthroughs” on the horizon since his visit to Oman last year, that trajectory may have become far more complicated now. The anti-Iran alliance that drew Gulf states and Israel closer together may be waning, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — which is nowhere near a resolution — poses a serious hurdle to a public improvement of ties with Arab states. 

The UAE has its own burden to shoulder

Recently, the UAE has been making many symbolic gestures that break old paradigms. In February, it welcomed Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi. In May, the Anti-Defamation League announced the UAE would be getting its first ever chief rabbi — albeit in a very limited capacity. Both Katz and Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev traveled to the UAE recently.

These gestures, Guzansky warns, should actually serve as a red flag: Despite its “open image,” the UAE is still an authoritarian police state.

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. had arranged a series of secret talks between the UAE and Israel on Iran in recent months. The WSJ quoted a U.S. official as saying that the talks “were intended to increase diplomatic, military and intelligence cooperation in dealing with Iran.”

Nonetheless, despite those reported talks, late last month the UAE sent a delegation to Tehran to discuss maritime security. Unlike the United States and Saudi Arabia, it did not directly name Iran as the entity responsible for limpet mines exploding on tankers off the UAE’s coast in June.

Involvement in the complicated war raging in Yemen, shifting political ties and concerns over an economy that could easily deteriorate are all keeping the Gulf state concerned with its own affairs. Now it appears to be making new guarantees for its own stability and forging a path between two inconsistent allies — the U.S. and Saudi Arabia — and its former archenemy, Iran. 

This reset by the UAE is a warning Israel should keep in mind as it, too, struggles to preserve and improve its status in the region. Seeking out some kind of détente with Iran is likely not an option, nor to go it alone without the U.S. security umbrella. Peering over at its neighbors in the Gulf however, Jerusalem can gain a reminder about the repercussions of tying its security so exclusively to an unpredictable Trump. With that in mind, any Gulf state-Israel normalization still “has its limits” due to the peace process and regional realities, concludes Guzansky.