By Ethan Kessler
Last week, in a small ceremony in the Oval Office, Israel signed a treaty with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), normalizing relations between the two Middle Eastern powers. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also conceded (in positively murky terms) a delay, at least, in Israeli plans to annex the occupied Palestinian territories. The deal came as a shock to many, given many Arab countries’ continued reluctance to recognize Israel. (Only Egypt and Jordan had peace treaties with Israel before last week.) Beyond the usual anger or adulation showered upon anything touching President Donald Trump, remarkably little has been said on the implications of this treaty for the Middle East writ large. Observers are left wondering: What does this mean for the already withering Saudi-Emirati alignment in Yemen? What does it mean for the Palestinians and future prospects of statehood (or annexation)? What does it mean for U.S. policymakers looking to disentangle from the region? It would be far too much to ask this author to provide answers. What I can offer instead are more questions that challenge existing, perhaps outdated, ways for thinking about the Middle East.
Question 1: Do we have Saudi Arabia and the UAE all wrong?
Read about Middle Eastern politics at a casual depth, and you may well come to view Saudi Arabia and the UAE as the Gulf’s big and little brothers – countries fairly well-aligned when it comes to issues like Yemen, Iran, the Arab Spring, and the Assad regime. This is probably more a function of complexity than anything else – for concise overviews of the entire Middle East, such as Robert Malley’s excellent piece in Foreign Affairs last fall, differentiating substantially between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on many of these issues is not feasible. But, we should not let the two countries’ alignment on the same “side” of the Sunni-Shia and Muslim Brotherhood schisms cloud their many differences.
To be sure, these differences have long been known to be material. In addition to backing a separatist group that challenged the Saudi-backed government in Yemen, the Emiratis withdrew from direct involvement in the disastrous intervention there last year. Abu Dhabi has also maintained higher-level diplomatic relations with Iran than other Gulf states. However, last week’s treaty signing makes it impossible to ignore a key rift between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi: the prioritization of state versus non-state threats. Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), the UAE’s shrewd and shadowy ruler, has been described as “obsessed” with countering Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood – the non-state entity opposed by monarchs and military rulers across the Middle East – yet Abu Dhabi has minimized the former threat by maintaining an economic relationship with Tehran and declining last summer to inch toward war with Iran while Riyadh took a more aggressive posture. Moreover, MBZ has invested in toppling Islamist or Islamist-friendly regimes in the area, and worked to ratchet up surveillance of potential threats to the monarchy at home. Of the two principal threats the UAE faces, Abu Dhabi appears more concerned with the non-state one.
This is all less surprising when one considers that MBZ saw the Arab Spring unfold nine years ago as crown prince. Initially, it may have appeared to him that much of the region’s elites were headed for exile (or worse). Middle Eastern rulers – MBZ included – were shaken. Such an experience likely left an indelible mark on Emirati leadership.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia’s ruler, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), appears to prioritize the state threat posed by Iran above non-state threats by internal actors. He has not backed down from the war in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels, as Abu Dhabi has. Moreover, Riyadh tried to drag Washington into confrontation with Tehran last summer, and has made clear it may pursue nuclear weapons (to hedge against Iranian nukes, of course). It is worth noting that MBS was not a national leader at the time of the Arab Spring like MBZ was – perhaps this partly explains Riyadh’s inclination to orient its foreign policy around competition with Iran instead of insulation against Islamists who threaten the throne.
However, Riyadh’s prioritization of competition with Iran is likely more a product of its unique relationship with the Islamic Republic than anything else. Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, Riyadh has felt that Tehran’s claim to the title of Islam’s “true” custodian poses an existential threat to its own. An essential factor in this dilemma is Riyadh’s duty as custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites – a responsibility enshrined in the regime’s power-sharing arrangement with the conservative religious establishment. Paradoxically, this clerical bloc also frustrates Riyadh’s ability to officially recognize Israel, as Abu Dhabi has – even though such a move would be useful in balancing against Iran. That the UAE does not face these same constraints in its foreign policy is hard to ignore given the recent treaty. To the long list of fault lines in the Middle East, add the rift between those states that can, and cannot, open an embassy in Tel Aviv.
Question 2: Is the two-state solution a useless paradigm?
For several decades now, it has been such that when you say “Israel and Palestine,” I say “a two-state solution.” If only Israel would withdraw its forces back to the pre-1967 borders ruptured by the Six Day War, and if only the occupied territory could be blessed with an internationally recognized Palestinian government, peace may be brought to the Levant. Or so it goes. Such statements have increasingly carried less weight and come with more asterisks in the 21st century after the Second Intifada, the takeover of the Gaza Strip by Hamas, and the Trump administration’s effective recognition of occupied Israeli territories have reduced prospects for a two-state reality. At some point, the idea of a two-state solution becomes so contingent on the improbable reversal of these developments that the entire idea becomes more distracting than useful.
We may have now reached that point. Even before last week’s news, former two-state supporter and ex-neoconservative Peter Beinart made waves by arguing for Israel to confer citizenship to the Palestinians, endorsing a democratic Israel over a majority-Jewish one. The treaty between Israel and the UAE strengthens Beinart’s argument for a one-state solution by making the two-state one even more elusive: Palestinians’ hope for statehood has always rested on the desire of Arab states to counter Israel and their inability to do so without backing non-state actors within Israel (i.e., Palestinians). Now, neither of those conditions holds. The UAE, following in the footsteps of Egypt and Jordan, has made peace with Israel, as it incurs little more than rhetorical backlash from the Palestinians for normalizing relations with Tel Aviv and has little to gain from opposing Israel, especially given that its premier state threat is Iran.
This is not to say that unilateral Israeli annexation of the Palestinian territories (without Beinart’s democratic concessions) is inevitable. In fact, more Israelis oppose than support it. But with less and less official Arab pressure to at least keep up the appearance of a two-state solution, and demographics on the side of conservative Israelis, the already diminutive say of Palestinians in their own future shrinks further. As put by Aaron David Miller, a Middle East specialist in past U.S. administrations and current fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, last week’s news was “a win-win-win-lose” – all parties but the Palestinians benefited. Trump has already flouted any premise of U.S. objectivity in the conflict. Abu Dhabi’s diplomatic breakthrough with Israel makes a two-state resolution increasingly implausible.
Question 3: Are Washington’s existing assumptions about the region flawed?
With the 2020 presidential election cycle in full swing, a lot is in the air. But, one of the few certainties is that regardless of who occupies the White House in January, Washington will likely not be letting up on competition with China. As outlined by both Trump and his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joseph Biden, this shift in priorities will be accompanied by attempts to craft a more restrained U.S. presence in the Middle East.
The treaty between Israel and the UAE shows that these instincts are well-placed. Maintaining a heavy U.S. troop presence is not necessary to safeguard U.S. interests, as Washington has increasingly realized. If U.S. policymakers are worried that the region is not able to protect against Iran on its own, last week’s events should dispel those fears. In Iran, the UAE and Israel have clearly found a common threat. As mentioned previously, Abu Dhabi (unlike Riyadh) does not face prohibitive barriers to working with Israel to meet that threat. And it has done just that. Of course, Iran may not see things so understandingly. (Though it may be finding its own partners in the region to balance against its perceived threats.) But fears that U.S.-aligned countries in the region are unable to balance against Iran without enthusiastic U.S. backing must contend with developments like the recent treaty. Calls to keep U.S. troops in the Middle East ring a bit hollow in light of this latest development.
Of course, the significance of the treaty between Israel and the UAE should not be exaggerated. The two states were already cooperating on a variety of issues, and the two-state solution for the Palestinians was looking wobbly far before last week. But the cultivation of official Israeli-Emirati relations gives us occasion to revisit and challenge stale assumptions about the Middle East. Saudi-Emirati partnership on regional issues is limited by the religious component of Riyadh’s mandate to rule – there is little to suggest a “special relationship” like that between the U.S. and UK during the Cold War. Moreover, in light of the Arab states’ increasing acceptance of Israel, the two-state framework for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems like more of a pretext for inaction than a plan for a sustainable solution. Lastly, efforts to pare down the decades-long U.S. approach to the Middle East seem increasingly prudent, given that the regional actors are evidently capable of balancing threats themselves. Last week’s news is proof enough of that.
Ethan Kessler is a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, with a major in Political Science and a minor in History. Originally from California, he is working on a political campaign in Michigan. He enjoys studying international relations and American politics.