Why the UAE Made Peace With Israel

WhatsApp diplomacy seems to have worked for the Trump administration.

Culture Club / Getty / The Atlantic

This morning, Donald Trump announced the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Israel is also committing to not annexing the West Bank. The agreement will shock those who thought the portion of the Jared Kushner portfolio devoted to peace in the Middle East consisted of a single briefing folder filled with printouts of Wikipedia articles. But there were signs that this agreement was coming, and that the Trump administration would be uniquely suited to making it happen.

Saudi Arabia is not officially party to the agreement, but its relationship with the UAE is so fraternal that we should assume that it eagerly approved, and that the UAE will represent its interests in Israel as if they were its own. The Trump administration deals with these countries through the same personal channels, which look opaque and corrupt to us because they are. A few months ago, a Saudi academic told me that Trump was easier for him to understand than for me, because I live in a country where nepotism is a crime, and he lives in one where it is the system of government. The idea that a president would appoint his son-in-law to manage the most sensitive aspects of his administration offends me. To a Saudi, he said, it is just how things get done, and there is nothing mysterious about it at all.

Every politically connected Saudi knows that Kushner has direct communication lines to Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the crown prince and de facto ruler of the country, and to Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and counterpart to MbS in the UAE. There is no remotely comparable Palestinian figure with whom Kushner or Trump could chitchat or bargain. So it should be no surprise that the first harvest of this administration’s Middle East strategy would be an agreement that ignores the Palestinians altogether and instead deals with one of these billionaire princes.

It would be stupid to call this strategy of personalized, WhatsApp diplomacy canny, because it is the only strategy available to an administration that has destroyed all other avenues of negotiation. But the strategy is not crazy. The neoconservative line during the George W. Bush administration was “The road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad” (that is, if you want peace in Israel, you need friendly Arab democracies). That didn’t work as planned, so why not let our diplomatic GPS reroute us through Abu Dhabi instead? The Gulf monarchies are at least ready to deal, and they have some confidence that Trump will give them the support necessary to withstand the opprobrium —foreign and domestic—that will arrive after their having apparently sold out the cause of Palestinian liberation.

What’s more, these monarchs’ eagerness to work with Israel is sincere. The UAE has not hated Israel the way other Arab states have. Ten years ago, I wrote a story about Arab farmers on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border. The story was published in an Abu Dhabi newspaper, and I worried that the evidence of my trip to Israel would complicate my reentry into the UAE. Friends in the UAE assured me that the government didn’t particularly care about the Israeli stamp in my passport, and that no one would bother to stop and question me unless I was also wearing a yarmulke with an Israeli flag on it and singing “Hatikvah” when I tried to go through immigration. (I was told that the story upset some of the paper’s brass—not because it was about Israel, but because it dwelled unduly on the farmers’ pigs, unclean animals that were unwelcome subjects in a family newspaper.) Last year, I attended a papal mass in Abu Dhabi, the first of its kind in the modern history of the Gulf. The UAE rulers, like the Saudis, have been blaring signals of their desire to open up and be more like other countries—just richer, hotter, and more authoritarian.

The final affinity among these states is hatred of Iran, which would destroy Israel and many of the Sunni Arab states if it had the chance. The Trump administration’s hostility toward Iran (or more precisely, Barack Obama’s deal with Iran, which froze Iran’s nuclear program but guaranteed the survival of its regime) is a reassuring certainty for the UAE and Saudi Arabia—and as the odds of a second Trump term diminish, leadership in both countries should be considering ways to ensure continued indulgence by a Biden-Harris administration. Kamala Harris in particular has called for a reckoning with Saudi Arabia over the murder and bodily disintegration of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Friendship with Trump is easy for the UAE. But by making peace with Israel (and at some cost to itself), the UAE is forcing any U.S. president to consider the consequences of criticism or threats of ouster. (Joe Biden called the agreement “a historic step.”) This deal is an insurance policy.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979, tweeted out his approval. No doubt the Emirati rulers are considering the fate of Sisi’s predecessor Anwar Sadat, who was murdered for what many Egyptians considered similar treachery. (Already MbZ has issued a statement that avoids saying what Trump’s said explicitly, which is that “normalization” was agreed upon, rather than just considered an end point toward which both countries are slowly heading.) Popular sentiment is hard to measure in Gulf monarchies, let alone whether popular disapproval could end this deal, perhaps before it starts. Neither the UAE nor Saudi Arabia is a free society in which ordinary people can depart from government policy without consequence. It would be optimistic to expect throngs of adoring Arabs to welcome the incoming Israeli ambassador. Decades of official enmity, and general and uncoerced bitterness about treatment of Arabs in Israeli territory, do not evanesce because of a tweet by the U.S. president and a handshake between the emir and the Israeli prime minister.

And yet one notices a shift in the past decade or so, since roughly the end of the second intifada, in 2005. Conversations with Arabs about Israel once characterized by vitriol now much more often begin and end with shrugs of resignation. I have never met a Saudi or an Emirati who has confessed—even privately—a desire to visit Israel and make friends with Israelis. But not many seem to have the desire to throw a rock into an Israeli sergeant’s face, either. Perhaps that’s what peace looks like, at the beginning anyway.