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How the UAE Found a Friend in Israel

Abu Dhabi and Tehran have a history, but that's been scrapped as the Emirates see benefits in a new relationship.
mbz bibi

On August 13, the United Arab Emirates and Israel declared the normalization of their relationship, ending several years of secret security ties—which was already known to many countries in the region. 

However, its announcement was alarming for Iran as it may turn it into another Azerbaijan, acting as, in the eyes of Tehran, a base for Israeli sabotage operations.

Sure, the UAE has always faced internal disagreements among its seven emirates over how to deal with Iran. During the eight years of war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s, Abu Dhabi and a number of emirates sided with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, while Dubai, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain tilted towards Tehran, leading to a strong trading relationship which had a huge positive effect on Dubai’s economy.

But the UAE along with Oman sought mediation between the two sides of the Iran-Iraq war, and overall enjoyed constructive relationships with Iran during that period, in which several Iranian diplomats visited this littoral state to announce Tehran’s willingness to accept any initiative.

Moreover, despite its siding with Iraq, some high-ranking members of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi played a prominent role in what is known in the West as the Iran-Contra scandal, in which U.S. officials facilitated secret arms sales to Tehran. Compared to the past decade, the UAE held a positive view of Tehran at this time. 

Besides, the UAE, namely Dubai, hosts hundreds of thousands of Iranians who live and have successful businesses there. For instance, the Galadari family, one of the wealthiest families in Dubai, and the Gargash clan, whose member Anwar Gargash is currently the minister of state for foreign affairs, are among the most well known Iranian families in the UAE. Furthermore, in a 2007-document revealed by Wikileaks, a U.S. senior official in the UAE says “Many local police are Emiratis of southern Iranian/Baluchi origin…. who speak Lari a dialect of [Persian].”

However, after the 2004 death of Zayed Bin Al Nahyan, the 33-year ruler of Abu Dhabi who occasionally traveled to southern provinces of Iran for vacation and hunting, his sons, including Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, known as MBZ, took over the leadership. At that point, the relationship between the two countries gradually deteriorated. At the same time, Abu Dhabi was forced to come to the aid of Dubai after the 2009 debt crisis. Dubai’s leader Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who always favored better ties with Iran even during sanctions, was left weakened. This resulted in more consolidation of MBZ’s power. Al Maktoum, prime minister of the UAE, has been ignored by MBZ to the extent that he wasn’t even included in the UAE-Saudi Arabia coordination committee, formed in 2018. 

With MBZ fully in charge of the country (his brother, Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, is still the president but a stroke left him in ill health and unable to carry out the day-to-day affairs of state) he has pursued a hawkish foreign policy, seeking to fulfill his ambition to create a unique identity and turn Abu Dhabi into a significant political player in the region. He also wants to be prepared to face what he perceives as the “threat” of Iran and Saudi Arabia, with which it has fought 57 battles in 250 years over UAE territory. Beginning secret ties with Israel in 2012, reducing Iran’s footprint in UAE, lobbying against the 2015 nuclear deal, waging war against Yemen while nurturing its own separatist militias in South Yemen and acting against any presence of political Islam in the region including Libya—all is in line with the foreign policy goals of MBZ.

But what happened that spurred MBZ towards officially normalizing the country’s ties with Israel? It is possibly all about Iran, the U.S., and Trump.

In the past three years, the UAE faced an unprecedented challenge: A reported strike of Yemeni, Iran-backed Houthis on Dubai airport in 2018 and the sabotage attack on four commercial ships in Fujairah’s coast.  

Looking at these threats as a clear warning by Tehran, MBZ expected the U.S. to stand fully behind Abu Dhabi and teach Tehran a lesson. But no one from the White House assured them of their safety. This was probably a turning point for the UAE as it reminded them of former U.S. President Barack Obama who, in their eyes, sold them out to Iran. Hence, they embarked on a quest to reach an independent foreign policy while forming an alliance and seeking new shelters to survive as MBZ has been always anxious about being in the crossfire of  an Israel-Iran war. 

This uncertainty about U.S. support is not something new. In 1959, Iran’s Mohammad-Reza Shah started to look for an alliance with Soviet Union in the middle of Cold War as he grew increasingly distrustful of Washington and felt extremely insecure about his survival following a failed coup in 1958, and a successful one in Iraq in the same year. 

In addition, Abu Dhabi looks at the alliance with Israel as the key to containing Iran, but believes such a strategy should  be pursued under the pretext of the “Israel/Palestine issue” in order to be able to persuade and appease its own public opinion. According to a WikiLeaks document, in a meeting with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in 2009, MBZ talked about how they can bring Arab public opinion on board: “To win [the public opinion] over, the U.S. should quickly bring about a two-state solution over the objections of the Netanyahu government.” A few days ago, MBZ did the same thing as Trump, conveying this false message to the Arab public that they had sacrificed themselves by inking a deal with Israel in return for “cancellation” of the annexation plan. We know that the annexation was merely delayed, not scrapped.

Besides, the UAE is probably worried about a possible victory of Joe Biden, who would be less influenced by Abu Dhabi’s demands. That’s why, when Trump, desperate for a foreign policy achievement, asked them for a peace deal between UAE and Israel, they embraced it, and gave him the “go ahead.”

Iran nonetheless is starting to look at UAE as another Azerbaijan, a Shiite country hosting an Israeli base which has reportedly resorted to clandestine actions against Tehran. “We warn them not to want to invite Israel to the region, in which case they will be treated differently,” stated Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on August 15.

Tehran is probably right to be worried as “closer security coordination” of Israel and UAE has been promised in the joint statement of Tel-Aviv and Abu Dhabi. This type of cooperation would definitely influence UAE decision-making, and could turn a once-backyard neighbor into a staging ground for attack against Iran.

Rohollah Faghihi is a freelance journalist covering Iran. He has been featured in Al Monitor, Foreign Policy, and Middle East Eye. Follow him on Twitter @faghihirohollah