Opinion

The Real Reason Gulf States Are Normalizing Relations With Israel Right Now

Israel and Gulf states have engaged in discreet cooperation for years, on issues from Iran to Islamist radicalism. What has changed is not only the tempting prospect of arms deals with the U.S.

Shira Efron
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Tel Aviv City Hall is lit up with the word “peace” in Hebrew, Arabic and English to mark the signing of normalization accords between Israel, and UAE and Bahrain, at the White House. Sept. 15, 2020
Tel Aviv City Hall is lit up with the word “peace” in Hebrew, Arabic and English to mark the signing of normalization accords between Israel, and UAE and Bahrain, at the White House. Sept. 15, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Shira Efron

Rarely does the Middle East deliver good news, which is all the more reason to celebrate the historic normalization of ties between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

There are still many unknowns, and it is too early to discuss the details of the agreements and the plans for their implementation. Nonetheless, it is clear that these agreements and the ones that might follow, will have a positive impact on the region by "spurring economic growth, enhancing technological innovation and forging closer people-to-people relations," as the accords’ rubric declares.

Notwithstanding these noble goals, however, it is important to remember that Arab motivations for the agreements are not purely idealistic.

This article is part of a series: Ten experts break down the Israel-UAE-Bahrain accords. Read them all here

Sure, the UAE, Bahrain, as well as Saudi Arabia and other regional players, need stronger security cooperation with Israel to effectively respond to both the rise of Islamist radicalism and Iran’s regional influence.

But such discreet cooperation has been going on for years - without normalization. 

While Israel frames the agreement as a joint struggle against Iran, the Persian Gulf countries have been hedging vis-à-vis Tehran, for example, with Emirati COVID-19 assistance to Iran.

So what else is in play?

It’s been widely discussed that the U.S. selling F-35 stealth fighter is a prime objective for the UAE. Furthermore, for Gulf states, peace with Israel paves a more solid path to the U.S. Congress and to the prospect of further arm sales.

The agreements could also help sustain U.S. involvement in the region. Both Israel and U.S. Arab partners fear the threat of a bipartisan consensus in Washington to withdraw from the Middle East.

As we celebrate this remarkable diplomatic achievement, it is therefore important to remember that in addition to the (over) frequent references to the desire for coexistence among the descendants of Abraham, other more steely interests played an important role leading to the ceremony in the White House. 

Dr. Shira Efron is a policy fellow at Israel Policy Forum. Her research focus is U.S. policy toward the Middle East, Israel’s evolving ties with China, and the nexus between climate change and national security. Twitter: @ShiraEfron

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