Fear of Iran compels an increasing number of Gulf states to recognize Israel despite its treatment of Palestine
In today’s world, interstate relations are decided on the basis of trade and threat perceptions. The Islamic world, perceived as united in the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), is challenged by threats that undermine the members’ resolve to collectively decide their regional policies.
In the Gulf, states with Muslim-majority populations fear each other more than their common enemy, Israel. The religion that united members of the OIC on the basis of their opposition to Israel, its unfair creation and its occupation of Palestine, has been replaced by a fear of one another; and the states appear to decide policy on the basis of their economic interests.
The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), which decided to recognize Israel last month, comprises the following “emirates”: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Al Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Qaywayn. Their feeling of being threatened by Iran rather than Israel has likely begun a sea-change in the region that will impact the entire world. The enemy, the U.A.E. declares, is not Israel but Iran.
Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the U.A.E. and most vulnerable to Iran in the words of its Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, defends the emirates’ recognition of Israel by saying: “Iran is the one who has declared a war on us, with its Revolutionary Guards Corps, its Lebanese party [Hezbollah], its Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, its Houthi arm in Yemen and others. So anyone striking and destroying their piles of ammunition is not to blame. This is self-defense.”
Outside the region, the U.A.E. is often clubbed together as a junior partner of Saudi Arabia. But if you look at its economy, it leaves Saudi Arabia far behind and deserves to be called the “economic capital of the entire Persian Gulf region and one of the most advanced business centers in the world.” The moment you focus on trade you have to accept the yardstick of pragmatism and ignore any ideology that restrains freedom of contacts. According to one regional expert the Dubai International Business Center is one of the friendliest places in the business, financial and commercial world.
It is not openly known that “dozens of Israeli cyber-tech companies have been active in the U.A.E. for the past few years and that almost the entire digital network in the U.A.E. contains at least one Israeli component.” These systems are sourced entirely in Israel, if not explicitly under their Israeli names.
A representative of the Israeli Chamber of Commerce has revealed “that the Gulf states constitute the fourth-largest bloc of importers in the world, with purchases amounting to trillions of dollars per year. Furthermore, Israel has practical solutions for most of the U.A.E.’s most basic, existential needs, including water, desert agriculture, solar energy, advanced food manufacturing, and, of course, several aspect of defense, from advanced weapons systems to cyber-security.”
What one can’t ignore, looking from the outside, are the rights of the Palestinians living under an oppressive Israeli occupation. One can forgive the Palestinians for hating the U.A.E. for “its latest act of submission” but an objective Palestinian simply can’t ignore what the rulers of the U.A.E. feel living next to Israel that secretly trades with it and thus helps it attain the status of an economic power; and Iran that physically threatens it with its missile and drone capability and is able to block movement in the Gulf where its patrol boats at times challenge the American fleet.
Shia Iran is an ideological state that will decide its strategic path on the basis of trade. In fact, its policies in the region have consistently ignored the economic aspects of its location and its mineral and “literate manpower” wealth. It has shaped its foreign policy on the basis of its perception of the treatment meted out to Shia minority communities living as often persecuted second class citizens in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The policy has been ideological but unrealistic, ignoring Iran’s oil-rich economy that needs external contacts.
Iran was militarily ill-matched against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein but the field for its dominance was cleared by the American invasion of Iraq and the death of Hussain in 2006. Today, the Shia-dominated government of Iraq is not in favor of Iran’s “friendly interference” and dreads the departure of the American force as announced by President Trump. Iraq sees more trouble after America unfolds its next strategy of cutting Iran down to size so that it no longer threatens the Gulf States. The exit of India from Iran is clearly seen as a preparation of the opening of a new front that clubs high-tech Israel with the Gulf Arabs and India.
An “ideological” Pakistan is less able to acquire flexibility of state conduct than India and its Hindutva under Prime Minister Modi. India continues to show Kautilyan pragmatism in its foreign policy, pulling out of Iran to benefit from the changing nature of the Gulf where its 8.5 million expat citizens go to work. On the other hand, Pakistan’s own diaspora doesn’t incline it to become flexible in its Middle East policy.