Explainer: Why Did Bahrain and the UAE Normalize Relations with Israel?
November 1, 2020

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain signed the Abraham Accords last month, joining Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994) as the only Arab countries to normalize relations and establish diplomatic ties with the State of Israel. This should have come as no surprise.

Despite publicly claiming to champion the Palestinian cause, the UAE has stealthily cooperated with Israel since the 1990s, if not earlier, carrying out joint military exercises and sharing intelligence, while Bahrain ended its boycott of Israel in 2005. Both nations are dependable US allies and will likely benefit from a surge in American military and business contracts as a result of their “peacemaking” with Washington’s closest regional partner. But why is this happening now?

The roles of two regional players, Turkey and Iran, are major factors in this development. In 2020, Turkey has significantly amplified its involvement in several regional conflicts, from Armenia-Azerbaijan, to Syria and Greece. Most concerning for the UAE, however, is the civil war in Libya, where Turkey has been one of the strongest supporters of Fayez al-Saraj’s UN-recognized government based in Tripoli. Several Arab states oppose Al-Saraj’s “Government of National Accord” because of its links to the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE has been one of the more active players supporting the Tobruk-based Libyan faction led by strongman Khalifa Haftar, with Bahrain condemning Turkey’s involvement earlier this year. Increased cooperation with Israel is, from their vantage point, one way of keeping Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in check.

While Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy has contributed to the timing of this pair of peace agreements, the Gulf-Israel alliance is fueled primarily by fear of Iran. It is no secret that Bahrain, the UAE, and other Sunni-majority Arab regimes in the Gulf perceive Iran as the region’s chief source of instability. The upcoming presidential election in the US has left the anti-Iran alliance wondering what would happen should there be a new incumbent in the White House. President Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, better known as the Iran Deal) has been one of the most radical of Trump’s foreign policy reversals from the Obama administration (2009-17). With Trump’s Democratic opponent former Vice President Joe Biden currently running a campaign short on foreign policy specifics, but heavy on calls to return to the “normalcy” of the Obama years, Israel and several Gulf states are worried that an incoming Biden administration would either reinstate the JCPOA or craft a new deal with Iran. Even if negotiating a new agreement with Iran may not be a potential Biden administration’s top priority, closer cooperation between members of the regional anti-Iran coalition would likely result from a less hawkish US stance on Iran.

What does this mean for the Palestinians? First and foremost, it is clear that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative—in which Arab League countries agreed to recognize Israel only following a full Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip—is as dead as the two-state solution. Although this will come as no surprise to any Palestinian who has lived through the post-Oslo Accords era, for many Palestinians and their allies it provokes a deep sense of betrayal on a matter of principle. Any notion of official pan-Arab solidarity has been trampled on.

And more betrayals are on the horizon. President Trump announced last week that at least “five more countries” are set to normalize relations with Israel, after Sudan announced a similar normalization deal to Bahrain and the UAE’s in exchange for being removed from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. If Saudi Arabia were to follow suit (although this prospect is far less certain), there could be a domino effect, with more Arab countries officially joining the anti-Iran coalition.

The unfortunate reality is that, for states like Bahrain and the UAE, support for Palestine was never a matter of principle. For decades, supporting the Palestinian cause was seen as helpful to the state’s survival: it nurtured a nostalgia for Arab nationalism and distracted the citizenry from domestic oppression. Now, the reverse appears closer to the truth, with regime survival dependent on currying favor with Israel and the US.

The Abraham Accords demonstrate once again that, when it comes to their struggle for liberation, the Palestinian people cannot rely on anyone but themselves.

About The Author: 

Eli Powelson is an American historian based in Beirut and Los Angeles. He holds a BA in History from San Francisco State University, an MA in Arab and Middle Eastern History from the American University of Beirut, and will soon begin a PhD program in Middle East History. His research has focused on Palestine in the early British Mandate era with a special concentration on media analysis.

Read more