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October 5, 2020

Realignments in the Middle East

Opinion

October 5, 2020

During the past few months, the politics of the Persian Gulf has changed pretty fast. These changes will have a far-reaching impact not only on the Gulf area but also in the entire Middle East, and on South Asia too. Starting with the UAE, some other countries are also improving their relations with Israel.

Since the process started with the UAE, let’s begin our discussion there. Earlier this year when the UAE sent its space mission to Mars, the world was puzzled about what this small country was up to. Though small, the UAE has extended its influence substantially. To understand how it was possible, we need to take a brief look at its history. The UAE is a federal state comprising seven Emirates, which joined hands to form a union in 1971. The largest unit of the UAE is Dubai, with four million people out of a total population of nearly 10m.

The second is Abu Dhabi with around three million and the third Sharjah with nearly 2.5m. So around 95 percent people live in these three units and the remaining in Ajman, Ras al-Khaimah, and al-Fujairah; whereas the smallest is Umm al-Quwain with just 75,000 people. The UAE shares land borders with just two countries: Oman in the east and Saudi Arabia to the southwest. Interestingly, out of nearly 10 million people, only 1.5m are citizens of the UAE; the rest are foreigners such as nearly four million Indians and three million Pakistanis.

The UAE has the sixth largest reserves of oil in the world, and the seventh largest of gas. Before the formation of the UAE, the tribal sheikdoms in this area were known as the Trucial States – the word Trucial derived from a series of truces signed in the 19th century with Great Britain. They remained an informal British protectorate until British PM Herold Wilson announced in 1968 that the treaties would be revoked. Then the ruler of Abu Dhabi, Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan, led negotiations to form the UAE and remained its leader till his death in 2004.

He maintained good relations with the UK and US, and developed his country using its oil wealth. In addition to the UAE, in this region the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) plays a significant role. The GCC formed in 1981, comprising Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE; Iraq has never been part of the GCC. The six Gulf States of the GCC are under the command of Sunni Muslim rulers. Perhaps that is one reason they have not embraced Iran and Iraq into the GCC.

In the GCC, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Qatar claim to be constitutional monarchies while Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are absolute monarchies. We can gauge the claim of constitutional monarchies by the fact that in Bahrain, Khalifa bin Salman has been prime minister for the past 50 years, making him the longest-serving PM in the world. In the UAE, the president is the 72-year-old Khalifa bin Zayed, but the de facto ruler is his 60-year-old younger brother Muhammad bin Zayed, commonly written as MBZ. Normally, the president of the UAE is from Abu Dhabi and the prime minister is from Dubai.

Currently, the prime minister and vice-president is Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum aged 70. MBZ is also the second in command of the army, and has been playing a decisive role in improving relations with both India and Israel. During the past 15 years, MBZ has transformed both external and internal policies of the UAE. He has developed an aggressive foreign policy and helped the Arab world quash any democratic movements. The Arab world has 22 countries which are also members of the Arab League (AL), with a population of around 450m which is nearly equal to that of the European Union (EU).

Within Europe, citizens of at least 27 countries can cross borders without visa, but in the AL there are hardly any countries that allow each other’s citizens visa-free travel; so much for the Arab or Muslim unity we talk about. Before establishing relations with Israel, we saw the UAE intervene in Yemen where Saudi Arabia was leading military action against Houthi tribes who hold sway over most of northern Yemen. The UAE used its F-16 fighter planes to hit Houthi targets but even after five years the de jure capital Sanaa is still under Houthi control.

Dozens of UAE soldiers have died in missile attacks by the Houthis. In just one attack, nearly 50 soldiers died which was the largest loss of life for the UAE anywhere in the world, prompting it to withdraw from Yemen. The UAE also did not like it when the former US president, Obama, signed an agreement with Iran. When Trump assumed power, relations between America and the UAE once again started flourishing.

America, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have relatively similar feelings towards Qatar. When Saudi Arabia blockaded Qatar, the UAE supported the blockade. The same can be applied to Libya where America and the UAE have a common stance. In 2019, MBZ welcomed Pope Francis to the UAE where he led prayers of nearly two hundred thousand Catholic Christians coming from 100 countries. An enormous Hindu temple has also opened its doors to worshippers in the UAE. The UAE forces have also quietly worked with Nato after the removal of the Taliban government in Afghanistan since 2001.

They have tried to reduce the impression in Afghanistan that Nato forces were anti-Muslim. The UAE has built or renovated many mosques across Afghanistan. Another manifestation of this is also evident in Somalia which is practically divided: with Somaliland in the north as an autonomous state supported by the UAE; whereas the capital of Somalia – Mogadishu – has Turkish advisers and forces. In Libya too, Egypt and the UAE are helping Khalifa Haftar who has occupied eastern parts of Libya while the internationally recognized government in western Libya has support from Qatar and Turkey.

But the most significant step we witnessed in August 2020 when standing by Netanyahu and Trump, MBZ announced that the UAE was initiating formal diplomatic relations with Israel. Now Israel and the UAE will try to contain Iran and Turkey to check their influence in the region. Recently, when Greece and Turkey faced each other in a maritime dispute near the island of Crete, the UAE also directed its planes and ships in that direction. All this indicates that with better relations with Israel, the UAE plans to increase its influence mainly regarding Iran and Turkey as well.

Though the expected cooperation between Israel and Turkey will span from commerce and culture to education and health, it is no secret that their primary collaboration will be in military matters. Israel is likely to help the UAE with its most developed technology that Iran and Turkey lack. Finally, on September 15, Bahrain has also signed an agreement in Washington with Israel to establish diplomatic relations.

To conclude we may say that the Gulf States are quickly drifting towards Israel, and that is going to be a major challenge for non-Arab countries to realign their foreign policy.

The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.

Email: [email protected]