After UAE-Israel deal, which Arab countries could be next?

After UAE-Israel deal, which Arab countries could be next?

7 min read
28 August, 2020
The agreement has amplified regional divisions but also formalised new fault lines. So who could be next to establish official ties with Israel?
Palestinians have denounced the deal as a betrayal. [Getty]
The United Arab Emirates' sudden announcement to fully normalise its relations with Israel has triggered mixed reactions in the Gulf and wider Middle East.

But while some media described it as surprising, it actually caps years of discrete diplomatic and economic cooperation between the two countries. 

Israel-UAE cooperation on issues of mutual interest has been an open secret for many years and the Emiratis had signalled within recent months that they would consider normalising their relations with the Israeli government, especially after an op-ed piece published in the Israeli press earlier this summer by UAE Ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba.

The controversy surrounding the agreement and the impact it will have on Palestinians have been greatly politicised, amplifying regional divisions but also formalising new fault lines.

Palestinians in the occupied territories denounced the deal as a betrayal and expressed their anger by burning a picture of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan during a protest against the UAE in front of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City. 

On the other hand, some of the Gulf monarchies have cautiously welcomed the agreement, reflecting new priorities in the region, where the fear from Iran has pushed former arch-rivals closer together, changing an approach to the Palestinian issue that had determined Arab policy for decades.

The UAE-Israel deal caps years of discrete diplomatic and economic cooperation between the two countries

Many thus wonder whether the UAE-Israel deal may open a new chapter in Middle Eastern relations, especially between Arabs and Israelis, and there is heightened speculation about which countries may follow the UAE's lead.  

Which countries could follow suit?  

While the strongest condemnations of the deal came from non-Arab countries such as Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, many Arab states decided to stay quiet, giving the impression that they do not oppose the agreement. The Arab League, and Saudi Arabia initially, for example, remained silent while Riyadh's close ally, Bahrain, became the first to congratulate the UAE on the deal. Oman also congratulated Abu Dhabi shortly after Bahrain. 

Will Saudi follow suit and normalise relations with Israel?

William Wechsler, Director of the Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council from Washington, DC thinks that the UAE deal certainly presents a strategic opportunity for other Gulf states.

"They will likely wait to see the outcome of the coming diplomacy between the UAE and Israel and the exact contours of the resulting normalisation agreement," he told The New Arab. Moreover, "now that the UAE has 'broken the ice,' as long as the resulting normalisation is seen to benefit the UAE it is only a matter of time before several of the other countries follow," he added. 

For Gerard Feierstein, Senior Vice President of the Middle East Institute and former US ambassador to Yemen, it is possible that some of the other smaller Gulf countries might be willing to follow the Emirati lead, with Bahrain being the most likely of the GCC states to join Abu Dhabi. Bahrain's official agency BNA described the deal as "historical" and said it would strengthen the "stability of the region." 

Manama is a close Saudi ally and it could play an important intermediary role between the Saudi kingdom and Israel. According to Giorgio Cafiero, a Middle East analyst and CEO of Gulf State Analytics, Bahrain seeks to "establish a more formal partnership with a powerful country in the Middle East that shares its perception of Iran as a major threat." However, it would be hard to imagine Bahrain moving towards normalisation without Riyadh's blessing. More recently, Bahrain reiterated that there would be no accord with Israel without the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.

The strongest condemnations of the deal came from non-Arab countries such as Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, while some Gulf monarchies cautiously welcomed the agreement

Feierstein also mentions Oman as one of the potential candidates, but somewhat less likely than Bahrain. Oman did not hesitate to welcome the UAE-Israel deal but said it was committed to "the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people who aspire to an independent state" with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The country has been known for its neutral foreign policy, and mediating role in regional conflicts. While late Sultan Qaboos hosted Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat two years ago, the new Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, who was sworn in this January, is unlikely to take any unnecessary risky moves, and facing economic hardship at home he will cautiously approach a matter of such sensitivity.

While Kuwait and Qatar have remained relatively quiet over the deal, there is much speculation about the possibility of Sudan making overtures towards Israel. By normalising their relations with Israel, Khartoum, which is heavily strained under US sanctions, hopes to benefit from a deal with a close ally of Washington and be removed from the blacklist of states that sponsor terrorism. 

How the Israel-UAE alliance formalises new fault lines in the Middle East

Saudi Arabia remains silent

The greatest mystery remains Saudi Arabia - the most important regional power in the Gulf. While Riyadh has not condemned the deal, it waited a week before publicly saying that it will not follow suit with the UAE-Israel agreement until Tel Aviv signs an internationally recognised peace accord with the Palestinians, giving the impression that it will follow a wait-and-see approach.   

According to Feierstein, it's unlikely that the Saudis will change their position, both because of domestic opposition as well as the likely complication of Saudi interests in maintaining its leadership of the Sunni Arab and broader Islamic worlds. It's more likely that Saudi Arabia will continue to have back-channel discussions with Israel.

Wechsler, Director of the Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, said that he would be very surprised if Riyadh moved forward on this front while King Salman was still in power. 

As long as the resulting normalisation is seen to benefit the UAE it is only a matter of time before other countries follow suit

Arab public opinion is the key

Any future decision about normalising ties with Israel will greatly depend upon domestic public opinion and reactions from all around the Arab and Muslim world. While the reaction by Arab states has been muted so far, and again the Emirati decision was not a major surprise, Feierstein observes that "early indications are that the decision is broadly unpopular with most Arabs and Muslims." 

In Wechsler's opinion, however, every country is different, and "while some communities may react negatively to photos of, say, Bibi Netanyahu and MBZ shaking hands, most will likely not." Therefore, he suspects that the general sense from Emiratis will be very positive, especially as they see a financial benefit from Israeli tourists and from new joint business opportunities.

 The day after annexation: Israel, Palestine and the
one-state reality

However, Netanyahu's public comments that this agreement merely suspends annexation puts the UAE in a risky position, as such a move would compromise Abu Dhabi in the eyes of the Arab world and beyond and slow down or completely halt the process of normalisation. The question of whether the Israelis have abandoned their annexation policy or only simply suspended it could be key to what happens next.  

"If the Israelis push forward with their annexation without addressing the Palestinian issue, it would place the UAE in an untenable position and raise questions about their ability to sustain their normalisation policy," Feierstein told The New Arab.  

Their position, after all, was justified by their claim that normalisation was a reasonable concession in exchange for an end to the annexation threat. Any subsequent Israeli move would almost certainly chill further Arab-Israeli normalisation initiatives, he added. 

Wechsler observes that Netanyahu is saying what he needs to say to manage the right-wing of his coalition, noting that one should listen to the leaders of the Israeli settler movement.

"They are incensed because they correctly conclude that once normalisation with the UAE is a reality, then Israel is effectively prohibited from unilateral annexation of the kind that Netanyahu threatened, as long as bilateral relations remain strong."      

Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence