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Emirati normalisation questions

Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on 1 December 2016 [Egyptian President Office/ApaImages]
Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on 1 December 2016 [Egyptian President Office/ApaImages]

Three "breakthroughs" made by Abu Dhabi in the past months, call for reflection:

The first was with Israel, as relations have gone beyond the normal level of opening embassies or exchanging political visits, etc, reaching the level of joint military manoeuvres in the Red Sea. This means they have reached an alliance relationship.

Second was with the chemical-weapon using Assad regime, which moved from the mere opening of the Emirati embassy in Damascus, at the end of 2018, to the visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs to Damascus about two weeks ago.

The third was with Ankara, which was visited by the strongman of the Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, where he was received with a protocol usually reserved for heads of state, and during the visit an investment package amounting to $10 billion dollars was signed.

What unites the three countries, despite their many differences, is that they are pariahs at varying degrees and to different extents. Israel is a pariah in its Arab environment as a state (or rather, it was until before the Abraham Accords) regardless of the party that rules it. In addition to being "disliked" in many Western circles, it is viewed, in public opinion, as a heavy moral burden. While the US is a strategic ally of Israel, regardless of the political changes in Washington and Tel Aviv, the relationship between the two countries is not free of political tensions, often translated into American interventions in Israeli domestic politics with the aim of getting rid of an unwanted government and replacing it, through elections, by another. Regardless of the campaign of Arab normalisation with Israel that was led by Jared Kushner during the presidency of former US President Donald Trump, the UN resolutions against it, in the Security Council and the General Assembly, regarding its occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands and its racist measures, are still evidence of its isolation and rejection, although they are not being implemented.

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Bashar's chemical weapon using regime is more isolated and ostracised today than Israel, although this ostracism does not extend to the Syrian state, if we can refer to it as a Syrian state in the current conditions. Despite the "atmosphere of normalisation" that has pleased the regime in recent months since the meetings of its Foreign Minister, Faisal Miqdad, with some of his Arab counterparts on the side-lines of the UN General Assembly in September, the project to transfer gas and electricity to Lebanon through Syrian territory, and the phone call with Jordan's King Abdullah II, the regime remains far from gaining international recognition of its legitimacy. It also remains the main obstacle to any normalisation with other countries because it is not in the process of "improving its behaviour" as is required of it, meaning that it does not give those wishing to normalise with it any justifications that could cover up its criminal behaviour. The Arab "breakthroughs" in normalising relations with the regime will remain black marks on the record of those normalising and there is no practical benefit to the regime or to Syria.

As for Turkey, its relative isolation by its NATO allies, the Americans and Europeans, is related to Turkish regional policies and, to a lesser extent, to Turkish internal affairs. Western governments, especially the American administration, do not hide their dissatisfaction with the Turkish policies that President Erdogan has become responsible for drawing, since he put all the power and authority in his own hands. As for its Arab isolation by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, it mainly relates to Turkey's position on Sisi's coup in Egypt in 2013, and its repercussions. This isolation began to break down a few months ago in the Egyptian-Turkish meetings to settle differences, which have not yet reached an agreement between the two parties, and the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince's visit to Ankara was the most important breakthrough on this front.

This is not only because he is the most senior official in the three anti-Erdogan countries, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but also because the atmosphere of hostility between Ankara and Abu Dhabi has reached extents that were difficult to imagine overcoming. Ankara has continued to accuse the Emirati leadership, and the Crown Prince, in particular, of financing the coup attempt in July 2016, and continues to hold it responsible for the killing of 251 Turks who were shot dead by the coup soldiers.

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However, politics is not based on ideological or principled constants, but rather on "pragmatism and realism," as one of the Turkish president's advisers justified the visit in the face of government critics for not raising the issue of financing the failed military coup in the meeting between Erdogan and bin Zayed. As for Erdogan, he told reporters that similar steps might take place with Saudi Arabia and Israel.

In any case, regardless of the Turkish motives for normalisation with the UAE, and with the clarity of the motives of both Israel and Assad, the question remains about Abu Dhabi's motives for the afore-mentioned three normalisation campaigns.

Initially, no one is assuming it is ideological principles on the part of the UAE, which it has overstepped in the afore-mentioned normalisation campaigns, especially with regard to Israel, as normalising with Israel may have been the most consistent with its absolute pragmatism. As for its normalisation with Bashar's regime, it can be read as the UAE brings the leader of the coalition hostile to the Arab Spring revolutions. From this point of view, it was bound to reward the Syrian killer for his violent "success" in burying the revolution of the Syrian people. Finally, regarding its sudden normalisation with Ankara, this is the most important breakthrough, because the previous hostility with it was based mainly on ideological choices, i.e. hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood, and towards political Islam, in general, from the UAE, and Turkey's alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam.

The UAE, which has always been satisfied with its economic and financial role, has been changed by the Arab Spring revolutions and, therefore, took on a direct military role in Libya and Yemen, and regional political ambitions to compete with other countries in the region. The afore-mentioned normalisation campaigns are just steps to strengthen this regional role in preparation for arrangements that take into consideration the power vacuum left by the US, the return of Russia and the Iranian expansion that has reached its climax. It clearly shows that the competition is between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Qatar for leadership of the Arab region, with the major regional powers remaining represented by Turkey, Iran and Israel.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Quds Al-Arabi on 1 December 2021

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

ArticleBahrainIsraelMiddle EastOpinionPalestineUAE
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