Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Emirati Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan met in New York City on the sidelines of a summit of world leaders. They discussed regional security, trade, energy disputes and bilateral relations as well as Iran’s involvement in Yemen.
The “united emirates” is the official title of the United Arab Emirates. The country has a population of over nine million people, and it borders Saudi Arabia to the south, Oman to the east, Qatar to the west, and Iran to the north.
The first-ever official meeting between Israel’s prime minister and the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates on Monday is the latest in a flurry of diplomacy reshaping Middle East geopolitics amid fears that the Iran nuclear talks will collapse and concerns about the United States’ shrinking role in the region.
The talks in Abu Dhabi—the first between Israeli and UAE leaders since the two countries established diplomatic relations last year—provided Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan with their first opportunity to coordinate personally on their shared regional rival, Iran, and its expanding nuclear program.
It was also an occasion for the two presidents to discuss their nations’ growing commercial ties, which were normalized late last year after 50 years of no official diplomatic connections. The Abraham Accords, which included numerous other Arab nations, resulted in billions of dollars in new commerce.
Mr. Bennett and Sheikh Mohammed met for more than four hours on Monday, both with larger delegations and in a two-and-a-half-hour private meeting at the prince’s palace.
Mr. Bennett’s visit was described as “another milestone in the development of friendly ties and a strong collaboration between the two nations” in a joint statement, which also said that a number of economic and civic concerns were addressed.
In the first ten months of 2021, the two nations’ recognized bilateral commerce surged by tenfold year on year to $874.5 million. That amount, however, does not include some of the most significant agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, such as Israel’s Delek Drilling’s $1 billion sale of a share in its Tamar gas field to Emirati wealth group Mubadala.
Sheikh Mohammed came to Turkey late last month to try to mend fences with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is a backer of Islamist political organizations that the UAE views as a national security concern.
In November, Israel’s Ministry of Defense took part in the Dubai Airshow for the first time, as bilateral commerce between the two nations continues to grow.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Andrea DiCenzo
Separately, individuals involved with the preparations said Qatar is brokering negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey for a once-unthinkable meeting between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Mr. Erdogan, marking a possible detente in a split that has divided the region for years. Qatari authorities attempted unsuccessfully last week to get the two men together in Doha, where they both traveled through within a day of one other, and officials are now seeking for an appropriate time and location in the coming weeks, according to the individuals.
Diplomats in the Middle East say they’re talking to adversaries they’ve avoided for years, amid doubts about the Biden administration’s commitment to the area after its sudden exit from Afghanistan and turn to China in foreign policy. Following a largely unanswered purported Iranian drone strike on two Saudi oil sites in 2019 and a decreased US presence in Iraq, regional authorities believe Washington’s desire for participation in the area is dwindling.
While Iran claims it is not attempting to produce nuclear weapons, a study at its main sites reveals it may be working on the technology. The Wall Street Journal lays down Tehran’s capabilities as it achieves new uranium enrichment milestones and restricts inspection access. George Downs provided the artwork for this article.
“There is a question of what the Americans’ policy in the Middle East is, and the perceived image is that they want to get out of here as soon as possible,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv who focuses on Persian Gulf politics and security.
The United States, Russia, China, and the European Union are meeting with Iran in Vienna to discuss reviving the 2015 nuclear agreement, which removed sanctions in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program. Gulf and Israeli officials are watching with concern. Over the last two weeks, there has been no progress, and Middle East leaders are concerned that the talks could fail, precipitating a regional crisis with Iran.
“All the players—Israel, the United Arab Emirates—everyone is jockeying for position,” said Joshua Teitelbaum, a Middle Eastern Studies professor at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. “With a new government and a strategy we’re still guessing about, and Iran on the verge of gaining a nuclear weapon, everyone is having to reestablish connections.”
Israel is at a disadvantage, notwithstanding growing cooperation throughout the Middle East. Despite the Abraham Accords, it has scant and primarily unofficial links around the Persian Gulf, leaving it more reliant on the United Arab Emirates. Despite a covert desert meeting between Prince Mohammed and then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year, Israel still has no diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia.
According to analysts, the Emiratis view a relationship with Israel, which has increasingly lobbied for the right to attack Iranian nuclear sites, as a chance to strengthen their security credentials, maybe with superior Israeli weapons. The Emiratis, on the other hand, are concerned that any uncoordinated military response may trigger a larger confrontation.
Last week, negotiators convened in Vienna to attempt to resurrect the Iran nuclear agreement.
Getty Images/Handout/Agence France-Presse
“What the Gulf governments are seeking to do differently in this new phase is maintain their connections with problematic countries closer and weaken Iran,” Sanam Vakil, deputy head of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program, said.
Rekindled discussion is also giving fresh impetus to settling the disputes that erupted in the aftermath of the Arab Spring protests. Saudi Arabia is decreasing its military presence in Yemen, where it has all but lost the fight to Iran-aligned Houthi rebels.
Some Arab powers have started to promote the concept of recognizing Syrian President Bashar al-legitimacy Assad’s in the hopes of bringing an end to the country’s almost decade-long civil war. Syria may attend the Arab League summit in Algeria in March for the first time since its membership was suspended in 2011. The UAE’s foreign minister met with Mr. Assad in Damascus last month, and Syria may attend the Arab League summit in Algeria in March for the first time since its membership was suspended in 2011.
Simultaneously, the Saudis have had numerous rounds of talks with Iran this year, with Iraq serving as a mediator, in the hopes of resuming diplomatic relations for the first time in six years. Sheikh Mohammed’s brother, UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, visited Iran earlier this month and urged Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to visit the UAE.
Analysts say the goal of the numerous discussions isn’t to mend fences with an adversary, but to reopen lines of contact in the case of a collapse in nuclear negotiations.
A meeting between Mr. Erdogan and Prince Mohammed provides an opportunity to put issues in the Turkish-Saudi relationship behind them. Among these was the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 by a team of Saudi government agents. According to Saudi and Qatari sources, Prince Mohammed wants a pledge from Mr. Erdogan that he would never reference Mr. Khashoggi’s killing again, and that he will get Turkish media to stop bringing up the subject.
It’s possible that Mr. Erdogan’s calculus is more about money than geopolitics. He has been hunting for economic lifelines while Turkey is engulfed in a currency crisis.
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