The GCC Sanctions against Qatar broke the GCC, Will the UAE Deal with Israel disintegrate the UAE?
With the war on Yemen going against Saudi stated goals, three years ago, (5 June 2017), Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposed isolating sanctions. Three years later, none of their conditions, which included, primarily, shutting down Aljazeera, ending Qatar’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood, and severing diplomatic relations with Iran, is realized. That decision essentially broke down the GCC. Now, United Arab Emirates, under the leader of an ambitious and aggressive emir, compared to his father, is normalizing relations with Israel. What will UAE receive in return?
Since Trump took office, anticipation for “the deal of the century” said to settle once and for all the Palestinian-Israel conflict ran high. Trump is now four months away from ending his first term and, based on most polls, is unlikely to get a second term. Trump and his allies are nowhere near a historic deal. In fact, he has been moving further and further from that goal since he ordered the U.S. embassy moved to disputed Jerusalem. Therefore, this move is more political than diplomatic. Trump could earn some additional votes in Nov. 3 elections. Netanyahu could survive the legal and political crises at home for few more months. But there is nothing strategically valuable for the de facto ruler of the UAE, the Crown Prince of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, in a deal like this at this specific time. There are only risks; and the internal risks are more consequential than the external ones.
On Sunday, Turkish political leaders condemned the move as an act of betrayal to Muslims. By then, the Turkish military had already issued a threat to United Arab Emirates. Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s Defense Minister, asserted that “the UAE supports terrorist organizations hostile to Turkey with the intention of harming us. [Turkey it will hold the UAE accountable] at the right place and time.”
The actual reason for the threat is UAE’s indirect clash with Turkey on a number of fronts, especially in Libya. Turkey, however, used the Palestinian cause, which still draws sympathy and support among Arabs and Muslims, to justify Turkey’s ongoing dispute with UAE and Saudi Arabia. UAE should take the Turkish warning seriously given that Turkey has sent thousands of troops and military hardware to Qatar. In other words, Turkey does not need to mobilize troops for a military strike against UAE; they are already mobilized in UAE’s neighborhood.
The more serious consequence of UAE’s deal came from Iran. The political criticism that came out of Iran was less threatening than the warning that came from the military brass. Heads of all the branches of the Iranian military, including the revolutionary guard corps, warned that the deal forces Iran to change its posture vis-à-vis its neighbor across the Gulf. The new position was summarized by Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, saying, “definitely, the Iranian nation’s attitude towards this neighboring state (UAE) will change fundamentally, and the Islamic Republic’s armed forces will also deal with that country with different calculations.”
UAE, should take Turkey’s threats seriously. But it should pay close attention to what the Iranian military leaders are saying. The fact that the military is taking the lead in making the Iranian position relevant to the UAE-Israel deal known and not the political and diplomatic leadership signals the fact that Iran considers this issue a national security matter. That means, not only Iranian national border is at play, but all of Iran’s security apparatus, including its security arrangements with other states and non-state entities, are now factored in.
Given the volatile situation in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and given the Iranian presence in that geography, should Israel directly attack any Iranian assets in those countries, or start an open war against forces allied with Iran, like Hezbollah, Iran could retaliate against UAE, claiming that Israeli assets are now stationed there. Looked at from this point of view, it becomes clear why UAE’s deal with Israel, can only bring more risks to the loosely connected emirates — Abu Dhabi (the capital), Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm al-Quwain. The ruler of Dubai, Mohammed Ibn Rashid al-Maktoum, especially, had already expressed concern over the long-lasting war in Yemen when the Houthis sent unarmed drones to drop mostly warning bombs on the airport there. Dubai’s economy is dependent on its ability to create a stable and secure hub for international corporations to move part or all of their operations there. Living with the prospect of missiles falling in densely populated glass city, Dubai, because of some war action in Lebanon, Syria, or Yemen makes such an economic model unsustainable. Once the rulers of Dubai and other emirates recognize this threat, and with the few countries relying of oil from the region, their union could crumble.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA is a member of the faculty at the University of Iowa with joint appointment in International Studies, Religious Studies, and College of Law. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest, not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he might be affiliated.