In Brief

Are Gulf Arab States Aligning Toward Israel?

The recent agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates reflects a profound shift in which Gulf Arab states opposed to Iran no longer consider relations with Israel off limits.

Does the Israel-UAE agreement known as the Abraham Accord strengthen their security ties with regard to Iran?

A man near the Burj Khalifa in Dubai reads a newspaper with the headline "Israel Freezes Palestine Annexation for UAE Ties"
A man reads a newspaper near the Burj Khalifa in the Gulf emirate of Dubai. Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

Israel has had a long-standing, although quiet, relationship with the smaller Gulf states such as Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. These ties have mainly involved security cooperation in terms of intelligence sharing. For many years, the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process has impeded formal diplomatic ties. That wall was breached by this accord. The security cooperation might not change, but this agreement is still an important and momentous achievement. And it might yet presage other Gulf countries formalizing their own ties with Israel.

What other Gulf countries could move to improve ties with Israel?

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Bahrain and Oman are the mostly likely Gulf states to next move toward normalizing relations with Israel, while also seeking to maintain ties with Iran. This will not be easy. There is much concern in the Gulf that the United States has not been a steadfast opponent of Iran even despite the current administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign against the regime. Gulf leaders considered the Barack Obama administration’s nuclear agreement with Iran to be too lenient and have noted President Donald J. Trump’s comments about reaching a new accord with Tehran. And Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden has already committed himself to reviving the nuclear agreement if elected, thus easing sanctions on Iran.

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Given the doubts about U.S. resolution and reliability, the gravitational pull is bringing Israel and the Gulf states closer together. They both fear Iran’s regional ambitions and its nuclear aspirations. This nascent alliance is coming together because of their mutual enemies as opposed to shared interests.

What has been the response in Tehran to the Israel-UAE agreement?

The announcement has largely been condemned by the Iranian government on the grounds that it betrays the Palestinian cause. The foreign ministry has described the agreement as “strategically stupid” and a “dagger in the back of the Palestinian people and all Muslims.” The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps similarly decried the agreement as a historical betrayal of the Palestinian struggle.

However, the reaction in Tehran is not uniform. Ali Motahari, former deputy speaker of parliament and an important figure in reformist circles, pointed the finger at Iran itself. While condemning the agreement, he stressed that “[The government is] also guilty. We have frightened the Arabs and caused them to look to Israel as a foil.” Another reformist leader, former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, echoed this theme. “We are finding ourselves in a situation where our neighboring Arab countries are turning to Israel to confront Iran,” he told the New York Times. The reform movement might not have much sway in the government but it is still an important force in conditioning public opinion.

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In the end, Tehran has a lot at stake here. On the one hand, the wall of Arab solidarity against Israel could be starting to crack. Security cooperation between the Gulf Arab countries and Israel is increasing. And yet, Iran cannot act too impetuously given its own ample economic ties with the UAE. At a time when Iran faces heavy sanctions, it cannot jeopardize its remaining commercial relations. This will serve to restrain the much-aggrieved mullahs.

Does this agreement mark a shift in the region’s strategic alignment?

The region’s alignments are constantly shifting given the series of extraordinary events that have taken place over the past decade. The Iraq War and later Arab Spring provoked convulsions whose impact is still being felt. The United States is a hesitant power in the Middle East today, and there is an unusual bipartisan consensus that it has committed too much time and resources to the region. Amid the coronavirus pandemic and a rising China, the United States’ focus is likely to be on domestic needs and Asia.

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The establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and the UAE is a reflection and not a cause of these altering alignments. The new cadre of Arab leaders such as the UAE’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed is becoming more assertive and their public’s attachment to the Palestinian cause seems to have diminished. This generational shift and the fears of an empowered Iran are causing actions that were once considered inconceivable.

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