Three years ago, the United States brokered an agreement between the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel that promised normalization of relations between these Gulf Arab states and Israel.

Since the formalization of the Abraham Accords in September 2020, the UAE and Israel have deepened their ties in a number of economic areas as well as defense. Months after the two Arab countries signed, two more joined the agreement, Morocco and Sudan, and it seemed as if the U.S. might be on track to sign even more Arab countries.

But given Israel’s current far-right government, some believe expansion of the deals is frozen, at least for now. And three years later, the UAE faces the challenge of working with Israel’s most extreme government ever.

Dealing with the political landscape of Israel

The UAE sees itself as a trendsetter in the region with an independent foreign policy aimed at promoting its national interests.

And it benefited from the agreements: between January 2021 and January 2023, 450,000 Israelis visited the UAE and Israeli companies also did business in the Gulf state.

“For a significant number of [Israeli] Tourists… [the normalisation] was positive like it [allowed] Non-dual citizens were able to explore new countries and air travel was shortened as countries opened their airspace,” Mira al-Hussein, an Emirati sociologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford, told Al Jazeera.

“The Gulf is also a new market for Israeli businessmen…For many Israelis dissatisfied with their country’s economic problems, the UAE has become a destination for job seekers,” she added.

But dealing with an Israeli government made up of Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and other far-right hardliners who came to power last year is difficult for Abu Dhabi.

“The coalition with which the UAE signed the agreements is not the people or system with which the UAE is currently dealing. This … disrupts any continuity and familiarity,” al-Hussein said.

Against the backdrop of increasing Israeli violence against Palestinians under this government, the UAE has condemned Israel’s violations of fundamental Palestinian rights.

For example, in April 2022, UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem bint Ibrahim al-Hashemy summoned the Israeli ambassador to Abu Dhabi to protest Israel’s violent incursions in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque, stressing “The need to promote” an appropriate environment that would allow a return to serious negotiations aimed at achieving a just and comprehensive peace and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state… in accordance with legitimate international resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative. “

And then, earlier this year, after the Israeli raid on the Jenin refugee camp, Abu Dhabi “called on the Israeli authorities to take responsibility for reducing escalation and instability in the region.”

Israel has carried out several raids on the Jenin refugee camp this year [File: Zena Al Tahhan/Al Jazeera]

“Recently, the UAE has shown a greater willingness to criticize aspects of Israeli policies that it opposes, including Israel’s attacks on the city of Jenin, its plans to authorize the construction of 10,000 new houses in the settlements, and inflammatory statements from extremist extremists Figures like… “Ben-Gvir,” Elham Fakhro, a research fellow at the Center for Gulf Studies at Exeter University, told Al Jazeera.

UAE critics have expressed doubts about whether this discontent goes beyond expressions and relates only to domestic consumption and not concern for Palestinians. However, Fakhro said the UAE’s willingness to criticize Israel reflected “the UAE’s growing confidence in its relationship with Israel and perhaps its aim to use the relationship to try to determine the direction of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.” “.

No regret

Nothing has changed in the basic calculation that Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv made in 2020, and it appears to be related to them questioning Washington’s long-term commitment to the Middle East.

“The strategic need for greater regionalization remains as America’s leading role in security becomes increasingly unclear,” Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

“Both [the UAE and Israel] As pioneers, they benefit from creating more open relationships that strengthen their position through technology, defense and economic cooperation.”

An Emirati official stands near an El Al aircraft that carried a US-Israeli delegation in the first commercial flight from Israel to the UAE to the UAE’s Abu Dhabi airport on August 31, 2020 [Karim Sahib/AFP]

Ilan Zalayat, a Tel Aviv-based defense and political risk analyst, also estimates that Abu Dhabi has no regrets about normalization thanks to the billions of dollars in bilateral trade, the boost to its tourism sector and the strategic air defense systems it received as a result of the agreements.

“The UAE knew what it was getting into and was fully aware in 2020 that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was going nowhere, but it assumed that a certain status quo would be maintained,” Zalayat said.

“However, the talk by ministers of the far-right Israeli government… about the ‘obliteration’ of a Palestinian city or a… huge building in the West Bank, along with the visit of ministers to the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem, is this “This is something which Abu Dhabi must not overlook,” he said, adding that Abu Dhabi’s “honeymoon” phase with Israel is effectively over, says Zalayat.

Abu Dhabi’s condemnation of Israel’s behavior is understandable given the UAE’s domestic political environment and public opinion throughout the Arab Islamic world.

“The minority [of Emiratis] Those who supported normalization probably did so out of patriotic duty. The overwhelming majority who tacitly oppose it simply choose not to legitimize it through engagement. “The rapid and excessive adjustments in the name of tolerance are found repugnant by a predominantly conservative population,” al-Hussein said.

Although Israelis visit Dubai and Israeli companies have established themselves in the United Arab Emirates, the number of Emiratis vacationing in Israel or Emirati companies setting up there is comparatively small.

“It doesn’t seem like there are many Emiratis who want to engage too much with Israel. But I think the Abu Dhabi leadership is still trying to sell this as something that is pragmatically and financially worthwhile for the Emirates,” said Courtney Freer, a fellow at Emory University.

Palestinians take part in a protest against the UAE’s deal with Israel to normalize relations in Nablus in the occupied West Bank on August 14, 2020 [Raneen Sawafta/Reuters]

The Saudi variable

Looking ahead, Israel’s position in the Middle East will remain precarious unless it can build on the agreements and expand its cooperation with other countries in the region.

The biggest prize is Saudi Arabia, which has significant influence over the future of the Abraham Accords.

Since 2020, Riyadh has been able to observe the effects of the agreements. If it were to join, which seems unlikely in the foreseeable future, it would likely make it easier for other Arab Islamic countries to succeed.

The UAE itself now appears to be hoping that Saudi Arabia will take on the task of holding Israel accountable.

On Wednesday, the United Arab Emirates’ ambassador to the United States, Yusuf al-Otaiba, said it was now up to other countries to normalize relations with Israel to deter Israel from effectively annexing the occupied West Bank.

“Our deal was based on a certain period of time, and that period is almost one, and therefore we have no way to influence the decisions that are made outside the period on which … the Abraham Accords were based,” al-Otaiba said. “I think it’s up to … future countries whether they want to take this particular approach, but there is very little the UAE can do at this point to influence what happens in Israel.”

While some may dispute this characterization of the UAE’s ability – or desire – to influence Israeli policy, it is believed that negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel are underway, with the US serving as a mediator.

The question now is: Will the Saudis agree to a deal – and if so, what concessions will they secure?

“The UAE’s normalization with Israel allowed Saudi Arabia to avoid many pitfalls and mistakes,” al-Hussein said.

“Saudi Arabia is critically important and that gives the kingdom considerable influence,” Diwan said.

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