Policy Recommendations for Optimizing The UAE’s Iranian-Israeli Balancing Act


Mon, 13-12-2021 05:55 PM, Aden

Andrew Korybko (South24) 

Israeli Prime Minister Neftali Bennett’s visit to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is historic because it’s the first time that any of his country’s leaders publicly traveled there while in office. There was a report in 2020 alleging that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly went there in 2018 but it remains unconfirmed. For that reason, Bennett’s trip should be considered the first such one in history. It comes a year after his country and the UAE formally established relations following the Abraham Accords late last year. Prior to that point, ties were very cordial, so this development was predictable in hindsight even if no one could have known the exact time it would happen in advance. 

Bennett’s trip to the Gulf country speaks to the continued closeness of their relations. They share multicultural outlooks in terms of their internal affairs and similar regional security concerns vis-à-vis nearby Iran. Furthermore, they also have very robust and diversified economies that are mutually complementary. As a case in point, there’s the chance that they could cooperate on what Professor Michaël Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy and a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, described in his August 2021 report for the National University of Singapore as the “Arab-Mediterranean Corridor” (AMC). 

Two months later in October of this year, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid announced that his country, the UAE, and their shared American and Indian partners will establish a forum for economic cooperation. Although not openly declared, it’s widely interpreted that they’ll seek to advance Professor Tanchum’s AMC proposal considering how mutually beneficial it would be for their interests. The most obvious obstacle, however, is that Saudi Arabia has yet to formally recognize Israel despite also reportedly retaining excellent relations with it for the same regional security reasons as the UAE did prior to its own decision to recognize that country late last year. 

In any case, there’s another geostrategic force that’s bringing Israeli and the UAE closer together other than their shared regional connectivity interests and security concerns about Iran, and that’s their unease at the US’ gradual disengagement from West Asia as it steadily “Pivots to Asia” in order to contain China. Even though the US is part of the latest unofficial “Quad” between those three and India, it’s unclear whether it shares their regional vision or is interested in substantively investing in advancing it. The reason for this skepticism is that the US also formed another unofficial “Quad” with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan in July aimed at regional integration but no work has yet been done.  

The US’ “Pivot to Asia” under the Biden Administration is different in form than the policy pursued under his predecessor, former US President Donald Trump. The latter remained committed to pressuring Iran in parallel with loyally supporting his country’s traditional Emirati, Israeli, and Saudi allies. By contrast, incumbent US President Joe Biden is officially reviewing his predecessor’s regional arms deals, which prompted concern among Saudi Arabia and the UAE that he might not respect them in full. Furthermore, he’s also openly critical of Saudi Arabia on alleged human rights issues at home and concerned about war crimes in Yemen. His administration has even sharply criticized Israeli settlements. 

The greatest regional shift from Trump to Biden is certainly the latter’s active renegotiation of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal that the former pulled out of. This move could potentially become a game-changing one if it drastically reshapes the balance of power and interests in West Asia. That could happen after some time if the US continues pressuring Saudi Arabia, ambiguously recalibrating its relations with Israel and the UAE, and ends up removing or at least scaling back its sanctions against Iran. The regional balance would certainly be upset, which thus necessitates closer coordination between those three mostly directly affected countries, especially the Emirati-Israeli axis that recently emerged. 

Nevertheless, all parties – especially the UAE – must be extremely careful to avoid inadvertently worsening the existing “security dilemma” with Iran. This concept refers to the International Relations theory that one state’s defensively motivated actions could be interpreted as offensively driven by another, which in turn inspires the second-mentioned to defensively bolster its own capabilities, though in a way which is seen as offensively driven by the first-mentioned and so on and so forth. This could lead to an uncontrollable escalation of military-strategic tensions that worsens regional instability. With this in mind, some pragmatic proposals can be made.

First, it’s wise for the Emirates to continue balancing between regional partners in order to avoid any disproportionate dependence any single one. In practice, this explains its leadership’s decision to recognize Israel last year and then recently dispatch its Foreign Minister to Iran. These moves served to signal its peaceful, positive, and pragmatic intentions towards all regional stakeholders. Furthermore, they occur against the backdrop of the UAE comprehensively expanding its relations with China and Russia. This shouldn’t be seen as an anti-American move, though the pace of this process was likely accelerated by concerns about America’s future commitment to its traditional regional allies. 

Second, keeping in mind the primary principle of maintaining a balancing act, Emirati-Israeli military relations must also remain balanced. Trade between those two in this industry should ideally grow in proportion with the UAE’s similar such relations with other partners. This is extremely important in order to avoid inadvertently worsening the existing “security dilemma” with Iran that the UAE’s Foreign Minister recently worked so hard to help alleviate. It might therefore be wise for the country to explore more arms purchases from Iran’s Chinese and Russian partners since Tehran wouldn’t consider those two to have any regionally destabilizing intentions like it fears America and Israel do. 

Third, the UAE should seek to balance its regional connectivity interests between the AMC and China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) by attempting to integrate itself into becoming a pivotal node within both. Iran clinched a 25-year strategic partnership agreement with China earlier this year that unconfirmed reports claimed will see the People’s Republic invest upwards of $400 billion there across the next quarter-century. Iran also plays a key role in the North-South Transport Corridor (NSTC) between Russia and India. Considering how economically developed and diversified the UAE is, its leadership should position the country at the crossroads of these three connectivity projects: AMC, BRI, and NSTC. 

To conclude, Emirati-Israeli relations are very strategic and driven by shared interests in the connectivity and security sense, but the UAE must focus on balancing between Tel Aviv and its other regional and extra-regional partners in order to become a globally significant power for peace. The country should pragmatically manage regional perceptions of its relations with Israel so that they aren’t wrongly interpreted as occurring at anyone else’s expense like Iran’s, which could worsen the existing “security dilemma” in West Asia. Additionally, the UAE’s proposed role in the AMC shouldn’t exclude it from participating in BRI or the NSTC. Its leadership must therefore strike the perfect balance between all. 

Moscow-based American political analyst
- The opinions expressed in the article reflect the view of its author

UAEIsraelAbrahamChinaBelt and roadTrumpBidenMiddle EastNuclear dealPakistanAfghanistanMediterranean