Middle East leaders seeking a sound foreign policy should study carefully the diplomacy of the United Arab Emirates. This country exercises long range foresight and independence in constructing its foreign relations. Many examples preceding the Abraham Accords illustrate how realism in a framework of enduring values can renew the hope of solving many foreign policy crises. The shrewd statesmanship of the late Shaikh Zayed Al Nahyan and his son Khalifa continues under Shaikh Mohamed bin Zayed.
Strategically, the UAE needs to have a wide range of relationships that help it cope with the harsh geographic reality of its location and prosperity. It has vast offshore oil resources adjacent to those of Iran and urban centers in easy range of Iranian missiles and drones. It wants to be an island of stability, but it seeks this goal in a stormy sea of turmoil and conflict.
There is a historical record preceding the signing of the Abraham Accords in August-September 2020. The improvement of relations between Israel and a number of Arab countries began most notably with the 1991 Madrid Conference at the time of the elder Bush and Jim Baker. It was that conference that brought leaders and their diplomatic representatives together. Following the conference, multi-national offices with Israeli representatives, Israeli offices and Israeli businessmen started opening up all over the Arab world. There had already been very diverse relations between Morocco and Israel, including close person-to-person connections. They just did not call these relations official or label them as normal.
The process of a normalization of relations between Israel and Arab countries should not be confused with peacemaking. Peacemaking was what President Carter did between Egypt and Israel. These were two countries that had fought really serious wars. Peacemaking was what some Norwegian diplomats helped get started and President Clinton continued between Israel and the Palestinians, and between Israel and Jordan. It would have been equally historic if the Trump Administration could have achieved peace between Israel and Syria, or peace between Israel and Lebanon or a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The Biden Administration is now mediating efforts to reach agreement on a maritime boundary that will help both Israel and Lebanon develop offshore energy resources.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel famously said that you do not make peace with your friends, you make peace with the people with whom you are fighting wars. Israel never fought a war with the United Arab Emirates or with Morocco or with these other countries that are far away from her borders.
The UAE and the US have shared interests that both sides want to protect by reducing irritants on issues that are not central to their strategic interests. As far as the question of Libya is concerned, we are already seeing the UAE separating itself from the policy of Russia. This was very important because many people in Washington, particularly in Congress, viewed the UAE as being on the same page with Russia. The Wagner Russian mercenaries have greatly complicated the security situation, and some people believed were being financed by the UAE. The Biden Administration elevated this issue on its agenda for high level discussions with the UAE. We can now see the UAE beginning to use its influence in Libya more like that of the United States and West European countries, rather than Russia.
The governments in Abu Dhabi and Washington have a history of cooperation in theaters as diverse and distant from their core shared interests as Somalia and Afghanistan. US decision makers place a high value on such cooperation. In recent years, the UAE has taken lead international roles in nurturing religious tolerance, the peaceful development of nuclear energy and facing up to global environmental challenges.
The UAE has improved its image in Washington in other ways, such as trimming its role in Yemen. The UAE took the very important initiative of separating itself to a significant degree from Saudi policy toward Yemen. It did so at least in part because of high levels of bi-partisan concern in Washington with the many years of civilian suffering in Yemen. If the US government shows the necessary commitment to bolstering the security of the UAE and Saudi Arabia in confronting attacks emanating from both Yemen and Iran, the way may open up to long term solutions to the festering conflicts in Yemen.
In normalizing interactions with Israel through the Abraham accords, The United Arab Emirates charted a wise and careful course. This prepared the stage for Abu Dhabi to articulate the UAE strategic interest on matters more central to the country’s long term national security and prosperity. Washington should welcome the opportunity to continue forging a key partnership in this dangerous part of the world.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Mack is a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council Middle East program, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs and former US Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.