Israel’s expanding recent engagement — political, economic and strategic — with the Arab Gulf states has been the worst kept secret in the Middle East. The Gulf Kingdoms, many of which have a strong streak of pragmatism, have been shedding the old shibboleths about Israel. The United Arab Emirates has been hosting Israelis — from ministers to athletes and businessmen to artists — in recent years. Yet, there is no question that Thursday’s announcement on the full normalisation of diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel, brokered by the United States, marks an important moment in the volatile geopolitics of the Gulf and the Middle East.
The UAE is only the third Arab country to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. That it has taken more than a quarter century since Jordan warmed up to Israel pointed to the difficulties of breaking new ground in the region. Israel’s hardening attitudes towards the Palestinians and its continuing construction of new settlements in the Palestinian territory were one factor that made it hard for Arab states to normalise ties with Tel Aviv. Contributing to the difficulty were a series of other developments, including the rise of al Qaeda, the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the American invasion of Iraq, and the Arab Spring. But the focus on the Palestine problem began to shift amidst the new faultlines that have preoccupied the region.
One is the deepening conflict between the Arab Gulf Kingdoms and Iran in recent years. Second, the Gulf monarchies were also threatened by the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood that was seeking a new order in the region and is finding strong support from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Third, the Gulf has also become increasingly anxious about American commitment to regional security amidst Washington’s debate on potential retrenchment from the Middle East. Finally, the frightening possibility that the age of oil might be drawing to a close has compelled the petro-states to reconsider their national strategies.The Gulf countries have been looking for new partnerships, including with Israel, China and India. Israel has been eager to break its isolation in the Muslim world. With some other Gulf states expected to follow the UAE’s lead on Israel, despite Palestinian objections, the stage is truly set for a major realignment in a region that is of special significance for India.