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The diplomatic waltz rounds of the United Arab Emirates

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Giancarlo Valori

Abu Dhabi sets aside differences between the seven United Arab Emirates (Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, Umm Al Quwain, Ajman, Dubai and Fujairah) for rapprochement with Iran, in line with its bilateral dialogue with other countries in the region. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has initiated a process of rapprochement with Iran. In the wake of a series of regional reconciliations with Israel, Qatar, Syria and Turkey, there has been much debate in the UAE over the attempted rapprochement with Iran marked by the visit of the National Security Adviser, Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to Tehran on December 6, with the Al Nahyan clan yielding to pressure from the Emir of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who sees an economic interest for his Emirate in closer ties with Iran.

The UAE’s Iranian-born diplomatic adviser, Anwar Gargash, as well as President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Foreign Minister Chahir Almanrar organised the meeting, which was also attended by the Vice President of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council and number two in the Department of State Security, Hazaa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

While Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan endeavoured to reassure Iranian President Ebrahim Raissi and the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, about normalisation with Israel, there were other points of contention in the meeting, including the disputed islands of Abu Musa, Greater Tunb and Lesser Tunb, and the conflict in Yemen.

There are no signs that diplomatic reconciliation will end the antagonism between Iran and the UAE’s intelligence services. The Pasdaran’s intelligence department, led by Hossein Taeb, has a network of clandestine agents in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, some of whom have been identified and arrested by the UAE Department of State Security, and Iran is seeking their extradition.

On the same day of Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s visit to Tehran, Syria’s Foreign Minister Faisal Al Moqdad also visited the Iranian capital, shortly after Syrian President Bashar Al Assad received UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Damascus on December 9, announcing a new axis that would have an impact on the region in the wake of the Abraham Accords of August 13, 2020.

The Abraham Accords are a joint statement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the United States of America. The term has later been used to refer collectively to the agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (the Israel-UAE Normalisation Agreement) and Bahrain, respectively (the Bahrain-Israel Normalisation Agreement). The statement marked the first normalisation of relations between an Arab country and Israel since that with Egypt in 1979 and that with Jordan in 1994. The original Abraham Accords were signed by the UAE Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Bahraini Foreign Minister, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on September 15, 2020 at the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. The Accords were negotiated by the Trump administration and marked the first-ever normalisation of relations between Israel and an Arab Gulf country. Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco have since followed with their own normalisation agreements with Israel.

Meanwhile – a few days ago in response to the US request to relinquish the use of Chinese technologies – the UAE threatened to terminate the contract for the purchase of F-35 fighters and other weapons, as reported by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti quoting The Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times had previously reported that the United States and Abu Dhabi had agreed to provide F-35 aircraft and Reaper attack drones to the United Arab Emirates. It was clarified that the contract amount would be 23 billion dollars.

Bloomberg News then reported that the Administration of US President Joe Biden had asked the UAE authorities to stop using technology from the Chinese company Huawei to protect themselves from espionage, thus behaving out of spite like a betrayed girlfriend.

According to Iranian media reports, the UAE National Security Advisor, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, visited the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, in Tehran. Meanwhile, during the meeting between Iran and the UAE, the parties discussed bilateral relations, as well as topical issues of regional cooperation. According to Shamkhani, sustainable security and stability in the region could be achieved through cooperation between the countries. He also expressed Iran’s readiness to develop constructive relations with neighbouring countries and urged that, instead of military approaches, priority should be given to negotiations and consensus to resolve conflicts.

“The Persian Gulf countries will only be able to achieve development and prosperity for their peoples through cooperation” – Shamkhani said –  recalling the unfavourable conditions for the population, which resulted in military conflicts in the region.

Al-Nahyan, in turn, expressed hope that the visit to Tehran would contribute to the development and strengthening of relations between the two countries.

“Warm and brotherly relations with Iran are one of the priorities for Abu Dhabi. As a large and powerful regional country, Iran is a link between the East and the West in terms of geopolitical position”, the UAE representative said.

Meanwhile – recalling the title of the article – Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett landed in the UAE on December 13, in a historic visit marking the first time an Israeli leader has publicly met with the actual ruler of the UAE, namely the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Prime Minister Bennett seized the opportunity to highlight what he saw and, indeed, what regional analysts describe as a new reality for the Middle East: “In my opinion, this is what peace and the new reality is like in this region and we are working together to ensure a better future for our children,” he told the UAE state news agency WAM.

Later, Bennett’s office announced that Mohammed bin Zayed had accepted the Israeli leader’s invitation to visit the country. The date of the visit has not yet been set.

Despite some criticism from other parts of the Arab world, Israel and the United Arab Emirates have moved forward with billions of dollars in trade, tourism, technology and transport partnerships. A few months after the signing of the agreements, Israeli tourists flocked to UAE restaurants, beaches and shopping malls. December saw the open-air ceremonies of the Jewish Hanukkah (the Festival of Lights) held in Dubai, something that would have been unimaginable only two years earlier.

Discussions between Prime Minister Bennett and the UAE leader are likely to have focused on areas of mutual cooperation, including energy, trade and defence. Last March, the United Arab Emirates announced a large $10 billion fund dedicated to investing in what they deem to be strategic sectors in Israel.

The sectors include healthcare, energy, water, manufacturing, agricultural technology and space. In November, Israel, the UAE and Jordan signed an important “energy for water” agreement. Moreover, in October, Abu Dhabi’s large sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala, had bought a 22% stake in Israel’s offshore gas field Tamar.

Obviously, in a role-playing game, Iran harshly criticised Prime Minister Bennett’s visit to the UAE.