Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) stands out between the desert and the Persian Gulf like an air-conditioned glob of Kardashian on the edge of a baking, austere peninsula. The place lacks the mystery of the East, but it can still be pretty baffling. Like Hong Kong was to China, it isn’t where two cultures meet so much as where a single culture goes to be something else. A cultural id for those who can afford it. Everything gleams like the sun, even the things that have no business gleaming – like a gilded McDonald’s with marble floors and maître d’. The mystery of something like that is, “Why bother?”
What UAE lacks in hydrocarbon wealth it makes up as a gateway for financial services in the Arab world. Legitimate banking makes a place rich, but not that rich so it helps to not be very picky about clients. Keep the place shiny and maintain an easy standard of living for the UAE’s 10 million or so citizens, and dissent will never reach the tipping point into revolution. He may turn a blind eye to money-laundering, but what Mohammed bin Zayed, UAE’s de facto ruler, can’t abide is political Islam. From where he sits, the 2011 Arab Spring unleashed more chaos than hope. Tragically, he’s largely been proven right on that score. The masses, certainly well-fed ones, are self-policing. This leaves Zayed to move the pieces around the board at home and regionally the way he sees fit.
On August 13 the agreement that opened official relations between the UAE and Israel was announced, without pomp, mostly on twitter. The agreement with Israel makes the UAE the first Gulf State and only the third Arab state (after Egypt and Jordan) to formally open relations with Jewish state and seems to have been hacked out not by professional diplomats, but spies and sheikhs. The announcement is not a seismic shift in the vibrating fault lines of the Middle East, merely the formal recognition that the shift has happened.
The “grief and fury” of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over Egypt’s recognition of Israel in 1979 has blown away after a generation of Muslim civil war where the new enemy isn’t a Jewish state but a Shi’a one: Iran fuels war across the region in Iraq, Syria, Libya and its wholly owned army in Lebanon, Hezbollah. The situation isn’t unprecedented, European wars of religion wrapped up after 30 years with a healthy appreciation for national sovereignty. After the Ottoman centuries and another hundred years of colonialism and its aftershocks the Arabs, like everyone else, just want to get back to business.
And the end game for Zayed’s machinations is just business. The tiny country punches well above its weight as one of the most influential Gulf States, wielding soft power through its financial center in Dubai. When that fails, Zayed likes to tinker, using the odd coup d’etat, but – like the deal with Israel – he’s pretty quiet about it. The UAE is a small country and needs to operate within alliances; grand gestures tend to invite blowback from allies and enemies alike.
Zayed is nothing if not Machiavellian, and I mean that in the most positive sense of the word, less dogmatic and more practical than most Middle Eastern leaders, or Western ones for that matter. He can afford to be, no one actually voted for the man and no one can vote him out. So why not? The UAE acts more like a 15th century Italian princely state that anything the West would call a “nation” consisting of more or less, seven family estates, related but separately owned, like cousins who don’t particularly get along, but are stuck with each other.
And now the UAE is stepping into the diplomatic vacuum in the region left by Saudi Arabia as its new crown prince, Muhammed bin Salman (MBS) secures his powerbase at home. This is a tricky at the best of times, and these aren’t the best of times with Saudi Arabia facing a host of domestic problems, the, alongside growing antagonism with Iran. So a new crown prince is not going to risk the backlash of the fundamentalist Wahhabis who put him in power, even if reality would suggest that the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia neatly align as both see Iran as an existential threat.
In the face of an aggressive, meddling Iran, the interests of most Arab countries doalign with Israel. The problem is getting them to openly admit it. Last week’s deal was a step in the right direction. That’s where the open diplomacy matters: Getting a valid passport from the Post Office is easy enough, to get one from your local crime boss is, while possible, problematic. Better then, to use official channels.
This deal with Israel aims to bring some stabilizing partnerships into the world as it actually is, rather than a vision of how it should be. Something that Machiavelli famously advised. Most Arab countries have reacted positively. Oman – which has long had semi-secret dealings with Israel - looks keen to follow, as does Bahrain. This is both an acceptance of the political reality of Israel as well as a fatigue with Palestine’s unbending revolutionary positions.
What this deal is starting to build is a sort Sunni “super-bloc” in the region to counter Iranian aggression. Liberal democracies might cringe and the backing of the status quo and monarchies, but that might be a small price to pay to check the largest factor if instability in the region. Not perfect, but it does change the reality on the ground without firing anymore shots.
Richard Murff has reported from Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. He is the author of Haint Punch and the upcoming Pothole of the Gods