As media and people in the United Arab Emirates hailed the Gulf state’s deal to normalise relations with Israel as a diplomatic victory — which they say helps the Palestinians — silence reigned in Saudi Arabia, longtime figurehead of regional policy towards Israel.
Analysts see the surprise UAE-Israel agreement announced on Thursday as a strategic boost for the UAE’s regional and global standing that could put it ahead of its powerful Saudi neighbour and ally, especially in critical relations with Washington.
Saudi Arabia is the Gulf’s largest economy and the world’s biggest oil exporter, but the UAE has in recent years become increasingly assertive in its own foreign policy, especially in regional hot spots such as Libya, Sudan and Yemen.
In July last year, the UAE said it was withdrawing its troops from Yemen where it had jointly with Saudi Arabia led a Western-backed coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis since 2015.
The accord was a rare triumph for US President Donald Trump in Middle East diplomacy ahead of his November 3 re-election bid. But, should he be defeated by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, the UAE could gain an advantage over Riyadh in relations with the United States.
“The move positions the UAE nicely should Biden win, as it will help smooth things over with (the US) Congress and, by doing so, leave Saudi Arabia outflanked and more exposed than ever before,” said Neil Quilliam, associate fellow with Chatham House and managing director of Azure Strategy.
“This must be the real concern for the Saudi leadership right now — and the lead calculation on how to respond to the UAE-Israel move.”
Last year, Congress passed legislation to block sales of some weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in an attempt to pressure the Gulf states over civilian casualties in the Yemen war. The legislation was vetoed by President Trump.
While there has been no official comment from the Saudis on the UAE-Israel pact so far, Twitter users in the kingdom shared pictures of the late King Faisal, who during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war led an oil embargo that aimed to punish the United States and other countries for their support of Israel.
Users shared a quote from one of Faisal’s speeches: “If all Arabs agreed to accept the existence of Israel and dividing Palestine, we will never join them.”
'Gulf is against normalisation'
On Thursday morning, the Arabic hashtag “GulfisAgainstNormalisation” was trending in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, has been ruled by 84-year-old King Salman since 2015. He has overseen bold changes at home and abroad led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS as he is widely referred to, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler and next in line to the throne.
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel view Iran as the major threat to the Middle East. Increased tension between Tehran and Riyadh has fuelled speculation that shared interests may push the Saudis and Israel to work together, and there have been signs in recent years of some thawing between the two.
However, King Salman’s position as custodian of Islam’s holiest sites makes it harder for the kingdom to take the same step as the UAE while the status of Jerusalem remains unresolved and an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal remains elusive.
“To do so would risk losing public support at a time of significant economic crisis and would give a boon to Iran at such a delicate time,” said Quilliam.
Palestinians seek a state on land occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war, with East Jerusalem, also captured then by Israel, as their capital. Israel deems Jerusalem to be its eternal, indivisible capital.
Israel agreed as part of the accord with the UAE to suspend plans to annex parts of the occupied territories, but Palestinians said they were blindsided by the announcement and rejected it, calling it a “betrayal”.
The UAE-Israel deal appeared at odds with a 2002 Arab League peace proposal, moribund for many years, that would have required Israel to withdraw from all occupied territories in exchange for normal relations with Arab states.
White House adviser Jared Kushner hinted on Thursday that other Arab states would follow the UAE’s path. Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, and Oman, which hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018, have both released statements in support of the UAE opening to Israel.
There has been no official comment from Kuwait, nor from Qatar, which has been in a sharp political dispute with the Saudis, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt for three years.
“Everyone in the UAE is so happy and satisfied with the decision [...] The negativity you see is only coming from outside,” said Emirati Twitter user Hassan Sajwani, who describes himself as an Emirati writer on current affairs and counter-terrorism with over 60,000 followers.
He tweeted a flag of Israel with a heart emoji and wrote “Visit Israel”.
Header photo: Palestinians take part in a protest against the United Arab Emirates' deal with Israel to normalise relations, in Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on August 14. — Reuters