by George Wright
Earlier this month, Israel and the United Arab Emirates signed a historic peace agreement: Israel will put aside plans to annex disputed territory in the West Bank in return for Emirati recognition of the Jewish state. Other prominent Arab countries will probably follow suit, with Bahrain and Oman also reportedly keen to normalise their relations with Israel. However, this deal is not only the result of a sudden recognition of the similarities between the two nations but also a realisation of the mutual threat of Iran.
Iran has pursued an aggressive foreign policy, which has posed a continued threat to Sunni and Jewish populations within the Levant and Arabian Peninsula, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution: Whether it’s financing and controlling Hezbollah, which has used the Lebanese government as its puppet for decades, or mobilising the Al Quds force, headed by General Soleimani, which has carried out untold massacres across Iraq. The long-standing feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which has evolved into proxy struggles in Yemen and Iraq, is threatening to go nuclear despite American-led sanctions to prevent this. More and more countries in the Middle East are beginning to realise and recognise the age-old maxim: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Opponents of the deal have taken the predictable line: that this deal has betrayed the Palestinians, who have been ‘sold out’ by the Emirates and other Arab leaders. This criticism is levelled by Qatari broadcaster, Al Jazeera, which has evolved in the last 20 years to be little more than a propaganda platform for ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Iran. As Turkey and Qatar begin to bend to the will of political Islam, with moves such as the recent decision to revert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, they have started to align themselves more and more with Iran, against the rest of the region. Following the announcement of the peace deal, Turkey is now threatening to sever its ties with UAE.
The UAE has long been a melting pot for the peoples and faiths of the world. Respect for religious freedom is one of the Arab state’s most important principles. As political Islam continues to threaten the leadership of the Gulf States, the UAE has come to realise that they suddenly have mutual allies in Israel, which has long been resisting political Islam, since the Iranian-backed Hamas gained control of Gaza in 2007.
Recent political turmoil in Lebanon, culminating in the Beirut explosion, has left its people desperate for new governance. The Hezbollah-controlled government has lost its grip on power after the entire government resigned this month. As a country of strategic importance in the feud between Israel and Iran, given its proximity to Israel, there will be intense competition to influence its new government. Iran will be keen to keep Lebanon onside to continue attacks against Israel and maintain support for Hamas. Israel will be eager to gain influence so that it can improve its national security.
What this deal reveals is that despite the heated history between Israel and the Arab States, a more critical threat has emerged in the form of Iran.
The threat of Iranian expansionism and destruction continues to grow as Hezbollah and Al Quds exert pressure on governments in Beirut and Baghdad and operate militias in the countryside of the Levant. Iran is just a short trip across the Gulf from the Emirates. It has already seized its islands of Abu Masa and The Tunbs, a dispute not easily forgotten by Emirati leadership. Finding allies in the region to counter Iranian expansionism is vital to Emirati and Israeli interests.
The Israeli-Emirati peace deal marks a new chapter in the politics of the Middle East. One with both high risk, but also high reward. How easily will other Arab states recognise Israel and work to contain Iran?