This past Monday, a plane from Israel’s national airline, El Al, landed in Abu Dhabi, the first such flight in history, at least officially. It was also the culmination of a joint project that reportedly began in 2018 to open up relations between Israel and the seven wealthy city states that make up the United Arab Emirates, which also include Dubai, a major regional economic hub.
On the fight were several high level American and Israeli officials, including the U.S. president’s son in law, Jared Kushner. The group was traveling from Tel Aviv to a ceremony to celebrate what are called the Abraham Accords, an agreement set to end a long running boycott of Israel by the Emirates and normalize relations between the two countries.
While Kushner’s main reason for pushing the agreement seems fairly obvious: a rare foreign policy ‘win’ for the Trump Administration in the run up to the country’s November elections, the motivations of the other parties to the deal are more difficult to discern.
For Benjamin Netanyahu, the deal seems like a bit of a political gamble. Unable to secure a victory in three elections in less than two years amid an ongoing corruption scandal and now widespread criticism of his government’s handling of the Covid 19 crisis, the prime minister and his Likud Party risk disappointing their far right settler base in the West Bank.
These settler communities, numbering some 600,000 people, were expecting concrete plans to move forward with the annexation of at least 30% of the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, under the terms of the so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ Kushner was promoting earlier this year. This arrangement was not negotiated with and was quickly rejected by the Palestinian leadership in both the West Bank and Gaza.
Perhaps to placate this far right settler audience, in his public statements, the Israeli PM has signaled that he hasn’t agreed to stop the process of annexation, despite spokespeople for the UAE arguing this was what was promised. Instead, Netanyahu claimed only to have paused the process, while insisting on his country’s sovereignty over the areas covered by Kushner’s deal.
As reported by Reuters, intentional or not, the ‘misunderstanding’ may be the result of a difference in wording between the English and Arabic versions of the deal.
Kushner, who could be used as an advertisement for entitled privilege, publicly scolded the Palestinian Authority in January when it became clear they couldn’t be forced to accept his one sided deal, “If they screw up this opportunity—which, again, they have a perfect track record of missing opportunities—if they screw this up, I think that they will have a very hard time looking the international community in the face, saying they are victims, saying they have rights.”
For Israel’s business community, opening up ties with the wealthy Emirates is sure to be viewed favorably, especially by the country’s agricultural and tech sectors.
As an absolute monarchy, the UAE and its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, whose name is often shortened to MBZ, have less to fear from niceties like elections. A sweetener to the deal for the Emiratis seems to have been an American offer to sell F35 fighters and possibly stealth technology to a country that has already bought billions worth of advanced arms and been accused of human rights abuses in both Yemen and Libya.
Israel reportedly objected to this transfer of technology on the grounds it could erode their “qualitative military edge” in the Middle East, but it appears set to go ahead. The vast sums collected by defense contractors from the side deal will almost certainly show up in White House talking points in the weeks ahead.
MBZ is an interesting figure, older than either Kushner or the more famous Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, he may be the most influential of the Gulf despots. His main foreign policy focus, and by association his country’s, has been on the rising influence of Islamism as an ideology and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular in the region, which he has said in the past are a threat to the stability of unaccountable governments like his own. One example of the seriousness of his approach to these perceived enemies is reporting that he was one of the main instigators of the Egyptian military’s overthrow of that country’s Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammad Morsi in 2013.
This was also part of the reason for the blockade of Qatar in 2017, as well as ongoing tensions with Turkey, which is ruled by a Brotherhood like party and has its own regional ambitions. These tensions are more in the open than ever as the two countries support opposite sides in Libya’s ongoing war.
Although the Emirates have been less aggressive in their criticism of Iran than their Saudi allies over time, the newly established ties with Israel seem to signal that MBZ and others might take a harder line on the Islamic Republic in the years to come.
While the UAE, an incredibly wealthy country with a population under 1 million, is usually thought of as one of the more liberal Gulf states, there is a dark underbelly to the ritzy exterior of the Emirates, where activist voices often mysteriously disappear. In Dubai especially, which has a large tourism industry, almost all of the work is done by guest workers, who often pay for the privilege of a low paying job that allows them to send money home to their families in countries like Sri Lanka.
This already disturbing portrait of a life akin to slavery turned surreal under the lockdowns that took place to address the spread of the novel coronavirus, which left service and other workers without the means to earn a living or return home.
On top of this, as explained by a recent Guardian story profiling two such workers, many of these workers are also paying the debts related to securing their jobs and travel to the Emirates.
“These are worrying reports,” May Romanos of Amnesty International told the paper, “Given the already vulnerable position of migrant workers in the UAE, abrupt redundancies are likely to have a devastating effect.”
Considering the widespread worry that other countries might want to influence the upcoming American election, it might be worth mentioning how much the UAE has given to Donald Trump over the years, most recently through his son in law.
At the height of the Covid 19 crisis in the Spring, the Emirates arranged for 3.5 million tests to be delivered to their embassy in Washington and on to Kushner, who was running a ‘private sector’ task force parallel to the official one under the direction of Vice President Mike Pence.
Unfortunately, the tests had not been properly refrigerated and were useless. Kushner, perhaps wisely, left the Emiratis holding the $52 million bag for what might have also turned out to be an illegal transaction under American law. Besides, as noted by Vanity Fair’s Katherine Eban, who broke the story, the thinking at the time was that the pandemic would mostly tear through states controlled by Democrats. a partisan victory of sorts for the current U.S. administration amid widespread misery.
In the end, the misunderstanding must have been resolved, as the deal with Israel moved forward in the aftermath. While support for the Jewish state, regardless of what kind of government it has, is a fraught issue, especially for the progressive left in the United States and allied countries like Canada, the diplomatic support given by most of these states to the despotic kingdoms of the Persian Gulf, especially the UAE, reveals the dishonesty of those, conservative and centrist, whose empty rhetoric about human rights is a tool of convenience rather than a deeply held belief.