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The UAE's love affair with Israel

In past decades, Gulf states allied with Iran and supported the PLO to preserve their regimes. Today, they back Israel for the same reason
Israeli and UAE flags line a road in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya on 16 August 2020 (AFP)

In early 2006, a controversy arose in the United States over the sale of a British firm to Dubai Ports World (DPW), a state-owned company in the United Arab Emirates. DPW was to take over the management of six major US ports bequeathed to it by the sale, until pro-Israel Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer held a press conference, joined by families of 9/11 victims, and charged that DPW's takeover was a national security threat. 

While the sale had been approved by the US Treasury Department and enjoyed the backing of president George W Bush, the controversy led to a congressional decision to delay the sale. 

The campaign against DPW was launched by a small Florida-based firm, Eller & Co, which had two joint ventures with the London-based company that sold its assets to DPW. Eller hired lawyers and pursued a "legal strategy that [sought] to blend national-security concerns with details of a very technical business dispute," according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. Eller's lawsuit cited federal commissions that investigated the 9/11 attacks, noting that "several of the hijackers" travelled through the UAE to the US.

Anti-Arab US hysteria

In March 2006, the congressional US House Committee on Appropriations voted 62-2 to block the deal. Schumer and then-senator Hillary Clinton led the charge. While Bush threatened to veto the legislation, the UAE-owned company chose to defuse the situation, opting to sell its assets to a US company. 

This was not an arbitrary campaign, but one that followed the anti-Arab US hysteria after 9/11, which both Israeli and pro-Israel US politicians exploited for the benefit of Israel's longtime opposition to close ties between the US and Arab countries. Since 2006, the UAE government has cosied up to Israel so that the pro-Israel US lobby would stop blocking its investments and the Israelis would intervene on its behalf with the US Congress. 

The 9/11 attacks endangered the standing of Gulf regimes in the US, as they became subject to a hostile US media campaign and congressional animosity. This is when they began seriously to open up to Israel

In 2010, Israel's then-infrastructure minister, Uzi Landau, from the extremist and racist Israeli party Yisrael Beiteinu, was invited to attend an Abu Dhabi-based renewable energy conference, becoming the first Israeli minister to visit the UAE capital. More officials would follow in 2016 and 2018

In fact, 2018 was an auspicious year for UAE investment, as this was when the Trump administration rewarded the UAE for its ongoing relations with Israel and approved a 50-year contract for the UAE company Gulftainer to operate and manage a port in Delaware, this time without controversy. 

In 2009, the UAE began to allow Israeli athletes to compete in international sporting events in the UAE, but refused to play the Israeli national anthem or raise the Israeli flag. This changed in October 2018, and, since then, UAE relations with Israel have accelerated quickly. The UAE's air force has also flown sorties with the Israel Air Force at joint military manoeuvres with the US.

Betraying the Palestinian struggle

Since the announcement of the new normalisation agreement on 13 August, the UAE has been criticised for "betraying" the Palestinian struggle. Defenders of the UAE jumped in to claim that Palestinians were ungrateful for all the support the Emiratis had provided the Palestinian resistance over the years. 

While such support was given to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the 1970s and 1980s by the late UAE ruler Sheikh Zayed, his successors have been much less generous. UAE generosity in the 1970s and 1980s was, in fact, part and parcel of the overall financial generosity of Arab Gulf regimes towards the PLO. The motivations were not ideological, but political.

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The 1950s and 1960s saw much revolutionary upheaval across the Arab states of the Gulf, including in Saudi Arabia, where oil-workers' strikes were the norm; in Bahrain, with its then-active student movement; in Kuwaiti intellectuals' commitment to a leftist Arab nationalism; and in the major revolutions in Yemen and Oman. 

Yemen's overthrow of its dynastic ruler invoked Saudi wrath and a Saudi-imposed war, which sucked in the Egyptian army on the side of the republicans and secret Israeli military help on the side of the Saudis and Yemeni royalists. When the Marxist South Yemenis were able to establish their own revolutionary state in 1967, it shook Gulf rulers to their core. 

The American strategy at the time was to strengthen the Saudi-Iranian alliance against all these revolutionary groups, an alliance that remained intact until the overthrow of the Shah in the late 1970s. Iran under the Shah was a close ally of Israel. 

Revolutionary support

The revolutionary war led by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arabian Gulf was put down in 1975 by a coalition of British, Iranian and Jordanian soldiers who came to assist the Omani sultan. The challenge by Palestinian guerrillas (who were joined by Jordanian leftists) to Jordan's autocratic King Hussein in 1970, which his army defeated, rang the alarm bells for many of these regimes. 

On the Moroccan front, the revolutionary Polisario Front in 1976 declared an independent republic in the Western Sahara, which remains under Moroccan occupation to this day. 

While all of these revolutionary groups supported the Palestinian struggle, many were directly inspired by the Palestinian revolution. It was in this context that Arab conservative regimes opted to finance the PLO, on condition that it not support any of the Arab revolutionary groups seeking to overthrow them. The PLO's then-leader, Yasser Arafat, was so responsive to these terms that he completely disavowed the Polisario struggle and sided with King Hassan II of Morocco. 

Graffiti of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is pictured in Jenin on 7 February (AFP)
Graffiti depicting the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Jenin, February 2020 (AFP)

After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the expulsion of the PLO from Lebanon to Tunisia, the PLO went down the road of giving up its revolutionary credentials completely. The Iranian Revolution was seen as the new external threat to the security of Gulf dictatorships, which led them, along with the US and France, to unleash Saddam Hussein on the young revolution. 

Defeated, abandoned by the Gulf ruling families and driven to bankruptcy, Saddam decided to invade Kuwait in 1990. The 1990-91 US and coalition invasion of the Arabian Peninsula dealt the coup de grace to the deal that conservative Arab regimes had made in the early 1970s to fund the PLO to ensure it would not support their local opposition. 

With the fall of the Soviet Union the same year, the PLO lost diplomatic support and its Gulf funders. By then, not only had the PLO long ceased to be a revolutionary movement, but most of the revolutionary struggles in the Gulf were also defeated. 

Mutual interests

The 9/11 attacks endangered the standing of Gulf regimes in the US, as they became subject to a hostile US media campaign and congressional animosity. This is when they began seriously to open up to Israel, hoping that, in return for close relations, Israel would help stop US hostility. Clearly, however, in the case of the UAE, the pace was not fast enough to stop the anti-UAE campaign during the DPW controversy in 2006. 

Once the threat of Saddam was neutralised with the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, all efforts went into preserving Gulf regimes from the so-called Iranian threat. As the new Iran was declared an enemy of Israel, the mutual interests that Gulf rulers and Israel shared became even more central. 

Everything changed with the 2011 uprisings across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Syria. The internal threat to Saudi Arabia and others became real again

The Palestinian uprisings of 1987-1993 and 2000-2005 were of concern to these regimes, but as the Oslo Accords ended the First Intifada and intensified Palestinian Authority (PA) collaboration with Israel ended the second, Palestinians were no longer seen as a threat. 

But everything changed with the 2011 uprisings across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen to Syria. The internal threat to Saudi Arabia and others became real again. The struggle was now between Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who supported the Arab dictatorships, and Qatar, who supported the Muslim Brothers in a number of Arab countries. 

Qatar, like the Emiratis and the Saudis, is committed to the survival of the Gulf regimes, but it saw a neoliberal Muslim Brotherhood takeover in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia as a way to neutralise more radical revolutions that could threaten Gulf regimes, especially as the Muslim Brotherhood had friendly relations with the US and was not necessarily hostile to Israel. 

The UAE and Saudi Arabia were more cautious, and believed that the fall of any Arab dictatorship could spell the end of their rule. As the Arab revolutions were co-opted and destroyed with the propaganda support of a new liberal class of Arab intellectuals funded by western and Gulf NGOs, stability was restored. 

The new enemies

Hamas, whose organisational links to the Muslim Brotherhood are foundational to its very creation, was now isolated in Gaza, subjected to murderous and criminal invasions by the Israeli apartheid regime and fenced in by the pro-Israel Egyptian regime. It was relatively neutralised as a potential threat. 

Meanwhile, the military rise of Hezbollah and its thunderous defeat of the Israeli military in 2000 and 2006, combined with its alliance with Iran and Hamas, made the movement the major target of US, Israeli, Saudi and UAE hostility. 

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The elimination of internal revolutionary threats to Arab regimes, which spiralled into a fight between those sponsored by Qatar and those sponsored by the Saudis and the UAE - the latest rounds of which are being fought in Syria, Libya and Yemen - cleared the way for a closer friendship between Gulf rulers and Israel, especially as the Israelis have proved reliable in the last decade in interceding for Gulf rulers in Washington. The only thing that irks the new allies is Hezbollah and its Iranian ally, with efforts to eliminate both proceeding continuously, if unsuccessfully. 

In the 1950s, the Americans created the Baghdad Pact to divert attention from Israel/Palestine and convince the Arab people that the Soviet Union, not Israel, was their enemy. The pact included Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan and Britain. All other Arab countries refused to join and Iraq withdrew in 1959. At the time, both Turkey and Iran were allies of Israel; today, they are the most hostile countries to Israel in the region, while Arab countries are its closest friends.

The Gulf regimes themselves had a close alliance with the Shah of Iran in the 1960s and 1970s and supported the PLO in the 1970s and 1980s. They did not do so on principle, but specifically to preserve their regimes. Today, they support Israel and oppose Iran, Hezbollah and the Palestinians for the very same reason.

The longstanding contradiction, whereby Arab tyrants who oppress their own people were in a state of enmity with Israel - which was in turn oppressing the Palestinian people - has ended; today, all the oppressors of the Arab peoples are allies in the open.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Joseph Massad
Joseph Massad is Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan, Desiring Arabs, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated to a dozen languages.