by Prof. Dr. Süleyman Kızıltoprak / Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University
Last 50 years’ events United Arab Emirates (UAE) witnessed both on its own history and the region’s history can be repeated in forthcoming 50 years.
With the exploration of petroleum about 60 years ago in United Arab Emirates (UAE), this poor region composed of small desert chiefdoms experienced a rapid transformation and turned into a modern state with respective high life qualities.
UAE’s warm relations with Israel behind closed doors were known. With recent expressions this sort of relations has been officialised and turned into an open form. However, the acceptance of an agreement between UAE and Israel on Palestinian territories is more important.
Short history of petroleum-oriented Emirates
With a territory of 77,700 kilometre squares, UAE is a convention of emirates born of petroleum. In early sixteenth century, the Ottoman Empire under the leadership of powerful Sultan Selim I took action in order to attain the goal of eliminating the threats of the Portuguese on the Arabian Peninsula and especially on the holy lands via Red Sea and Gulf of Basra and containing Iranian expansion on Ottoman Empire’s eastern frontiers. Sultan Selim I hindered the Portuguese by annexing holy and antique settlements such as Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo, Mecca and Medina and assured the security of the Arabs of the region by gathering them under the same framework. Suleiman the Magnificent annexed Basra and Lahsa with the aim of chasing the Portuguese who were still threatening the Gulf of Basra and Arabian Peninsula. Thus, southern shores of the Gulf of Basra were secured. The situation was stabile in the Gulf of Basra until the arrival of Britain’s East India Company in the nineteenth century.
In 1820, several treaties were signed between littoral chieftains and the British on the security issues against the pirate attacks of the ships belonging to the British trade company and the utilisation of the ports in a safe way. In 1853, the parties reached a more detailed peace agreement in order to totally eliminate piracy. With this agreement the tribes known as “Littoral Emirates” or the “Emirates of Oman Coast” began to be called as “Trucial States” in English, “al Imarat al mutasaliha” in Arabic and “Antlaşmalı Emirlikler” in Turkish. By accepting this naming, Littoral Emirates turned into allied representatives of Britain in the region.
Against this British attempt, regional powers Ottoman Empire and Iran took action separately in order to protect their own interests. While Iran agitated the Shiites of the Gulf against Britain, Ottoman Empire increased its control on the region of Najd in 1871 and dominated the territories reaching till Qatar and declared that it did not recognise the British agreements with littoral chieftains of the Gulf of Basra.
In 1892, Britain attained a more comprehensive and more interest-oriented agreement with littoral chiefdoms. With this, the emirates remained free in their domestic affairs and became bound to British in security and foreign relations. The Ottoman Empire rejected all these agreements until 1914 and recognised the agreements between Britain and Gulf emirates that were signed just before the eruption of the First World War. Thanks to these agreements, the British secured their control on Oman coast and Gulf of Basra’s entry-exit points besides their continuing advantages in India. Despite recognising the independence of India in 1947 and retreating back from its ex-colony, Britain did not want to give up its supremacy on the emirates of Gulf of Basra and Oman coast.
On 30 March 1968, nine emirates including Bahrain and Qatar agreed on forming a union. However, Bahrain and Qatar decided on independence and left the union soon. With British approval and presence of a UN observer, Bahrain declared independence on 14 August 1971 followed by Qatar on 1 September 1971. Upon that, six of the littoral emirates or Trucial States as the British called, namely Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al Quwain, and Fujairah, assembled on 2 December 1971 and declared “al Imarah al Arabiyya al Muttahidah” (United Arab Emirates). Ras al Khaimah joined this federation in February 1972 as the seventh member. Abu Dhabi sheikh was appointed as president and Dubai sheikh as vice-president. Abu Dhabi was declared as temporary capital; however, it has remained so far. The decisions are taken on the basis of unanimity by the highest decision-making mechanism of the country, the seven-member Supreme Federal Council (al Majlis al aala li al ittihad). However, Abu Dhabi and Dubai have veto rights on all decisions. The president and vice-president of the union are elected by this council as well.
Petroleum gifted the coastal chiefdoms with state and population
With the exploration of petroleum about 60 years ago in United Arab Emirates (UAE), this poor region composed of small desert chiefdoms experienced a rapid transformation and turned into a modern state with respective high life qualities. Until joining the petroleum exporting countries in 1962, local chiefdoms had been busy only with pearl hunting, fishing and minor trade.
The emirates’ population was below 100,000 in 1960. This number rose to 180,000 in 1968, 558,000 in 1975, 1 million in 1980, 1.379 million in 1985, 2.938 million in 1999 and 8.264 million in 2010. UN estimates that the country’s total population was 9.771 million in mid-2019. According to UN data (2019), immigrants make up 87.9% of total population. Ethnic make-up of the population with 2015 estimates is: Emiratis 11.6%, Southern Asia 59.4% (India 38.2%, Bangladesh 9.5%, Pakistan 9.4%, others 2.3%), Egyptians 10.2 %, Philippines 6.1%, others 12.8%. Foreign population of the Emirates is affected by state policies in source countries and international developments. For instance, Indian population rose to 38% in 2015 up from 25% in 1985; whereas, Pakistani population went down from 13% to 9.4 % during the same period.
USA succeeded Britain in terms of UAE’s allegiance and dependency relations within time. Especially after the 11 September 2001 attack, UAE became the key partner of USA’s new policy in the region. With 308.5 billion dollars of export and 229.2 billion dollars of import according to 2017 data, UAE is one of the worst affected countries of the fluctuations in international markets as its main export items are petroleum and natural gas. This fact moves the government closer to USA. Indeed, as recent history suggests, this role contains great risks for UAE. While Iran was the greatest partner of the western world and the USA before 1980, this role shifted to Saddam-led Iraq after the revolution. After Saddam’s self-demolishment through his attack on Kuwait (at least through USA’s silence) and subsequent 11 September attack that led to his country’s invasion by USA, this role shifted to UAE and Saudi Arabia.
UAE engaged in continuous zigzags during the so-called Arab Spring; however, it did not leave the USA’s side. Recently, it has sided with Trump administration who claimed to end the centennial Arab-Israeli conflict via a “peace plan”.
Centennial Peace Plan or unconditional surrender to Israel?
Israel’s intentions toward strengthening its relations with Arab countries of the Gulf of Basra were known before. In recent years, hostility against Iran approached the parties. UAE and some Gulf countries did not hide their intentions toward a peace agreement with Israel. Compromise behind closed doors was uncovered with UAE’s peace memorandum. USA’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel seemed to be approved by UAE. Annexation decision of West Bank seemed to postpone the date of the signing of the peace agreement with Israel. However, when the looks turned toward the explosion in Beirut Port, the time seemed appropriate for signing. Thus, UAE-Israel relations went further beyond from just anti-Iran alignment.
In return for Israel’s suspension of annexation of some parts of West Bank under invasion, UAE took action on 13 August 2020 Thursday in order to establish official relations with Israel. With a common memorandum of Israel, USA and UAE this step was highlighted as a “historical diplomatic breakthrough” that will bring peace to the Middle East. USA praised the “courage” of UAE and Israel for opening a new path that would “reveal the great potential in the region”.
Why did UAE sign a peace agreement with Israel?
For years, there had been an unmentioned military alliance between Israel and UAE and this was not secret. However, why is such an agreement attained now in an open way? The views that this agreement was the sole action that would stop Israel from annexing invaded territories in the West Bank were denied by the Palestinian side because the Emirates have never been present in the fore of the peace-making processes so far and have not had warm relations with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.
As known, Israel reached similar peace agreements with Egypt in 1989 and Jordan in 1994. Despite the fact that these agreements contained disadvantageous clauses for Arabs, there were certain gains for the mentioned countries to convince their own people as well. For example, Egypt re-took the Sinai Peninsula that had been lost in the war of 1967. Jordan also acquitted the stereotype of being the “scapegoat” who had supported Saddam against Israel.
UAE became the first Arabic Gulf country to declare official relations with Israel. Then what has UAE acquired with this agreement? An agreement on Palestinian territories means singling the Palestinian Arabs out. With this, Israel’s presence on invaded lands is recognised and even the decision of annexation is not rejected. Only Israel’s postponement of annexation decision in this phase is demonstrated as a gain.
The diplomatic appeal came after Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s decision of suspension of annexation of some parts of the invaded West Bank. This intention of agreement had been previously criticised by Arab countries and Europe. By claiming that this would permanently collapse the hopes for a Palestinian state alongside with Israel, EU and some Arab countries expressed that the status of Palestinians’ territories turned from invasion to annexation and added that the mentioned agreement ground meant the recognition of unrighteousness.
Trump proclaimed the agreement with his senior advisor Jared Kushner, USA’s Ambassador in Israel David Friedman and USA Foreign Ministry’s special representative for Iran affairs Brian Hook who is the pioneer of Trump Government’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran.
Although the agreement’s content is not exactly known, the “trusted ally” appraisals by USA seem to have sufficed for the UAE side. Netanyahu emphasised that although it was not an official peace agreement with Palestinians, the agreement between Israel and UAE was important to demonstrate the start of his country’s increasing acceptance in the region.
In Jerusalem, Netanyahu said “this shows the profound transformation we have achieved in Israel’s position in the Middle East”: “For decades, Israel had always been symbolised as an enemy. However, today many countries regard Israel as a strategic ally”.
This diplomatic agreement reflects the increasing anxiety that is common between Israel and Arabic Gulf countries on a potential conflict with Iran. Israel periodically hit the Iranian targets near the Syrian border. USA and its allies blamed Tehran for passing the narrow Hormuz Strait on Iran’s southern shores and attacking petroleum tankers en route the Gulf of Basra.
Trump told that Israeli and UAE leaders would visit the White House for a signing ceremony in proceeding weeks. The agreement contains direct flights, embassies and other bilateral deals. The Israeli and Emirati officials will meet soon for some bilateral arrangements as well. Including those who regard Iran as the source of instability in the Middle East, USA officials applauded the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and UAE.
USA’s special representative for Iran affairs Brian Hook’s usage of the word “Arabs” as one part of the agreement in his speech “the peace agreement between Arabs and Israelis is the worst nightmare of Iran” points out Bahrain and Oman and covertly Saudi Arabia along with UAE.
According to the claims from UAE side, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed and other Emirati leaders decided to offer the normalisation agreement by believing that Israel’s annexation would annihilate the two-state solution and Israeli-Palestinian peace. In this line, bin Zayid said “during a conversation with President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu, an agreement was reached on stopping further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories. Moreover, UAE and Israel came on terms on a roadmap to establish bilateral relations in cooperation”.
Israel’s gains, Arabs’ losses
To categorise the winning and losing sides on the basis of the content of the agreement:
- Trump Administration in USA acquires a positive image on the eyes of the electorate by providing positive contributions to peace process and Israel. This can be assessed as a well-timed political move by Trump to steal some wind from Biden’s sails before the elections.
- In Israel, Netanyahu can advertise himself as the “great statesman who successfully broke the Arab enmity circle”. This is a development that would enhance Netanyahu’s image which had been deteriorated after corruption allegations against him on air.
- UAE started to propagate itself as “the Arab country who signed peace to stop Israeli annexation”. However, Israel insists that it only temporarily suspended the annexation policy and did not permanently quit it.
- Were Palestinians present in any phase of the negotiations in any way? No, they were not. Did Palestinians support the “temporary” suspension of annexation? Palestinians provided no positive reactions for this agreement ever.
- How did the 22-member Arab League which had been founded in order to cooperate against Israel’s expansion on Arab lands and 57-member Islamic Cooperation Organisation (ICO) respond to this agreement? Despite an avowed reaction from Turkey, the silence of Egypt and Saudi Arabia is quite illustrative. From now on, Turkey’s leadership role will increase in regional politics and on Islamic countries while others’ role will decrease. Besides providing the most serious reaction to this agreement, as seen either inside the domestic borders or in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s moves on protecting its rights on sea by respecting the rights of the peoples of the region are appreciated by the international community, especially by the peoples of the region and ICO members. In addition to this, Turkey’s positive attitude toward the problems faced by the Middle Eastern countries, benevolence in humanitarian aid campaigns and utilisation of its military capacity as a deterring power in all events provide the most significant contribution to the ICO countries and the peoples of the region who expect a permanent and just peace instead of submissive policies concerning the Palestinian Question.
- Did UAE reserve its right to abolish the agreement in case of Israel’s suspension of the decision of stopping annexation? No, there is not such a statement. Conversely, Netanyahu asserted that they had temporarily suspended the decision of annexation. That is, the Israeli side can decide on a new annexation plan soon.
To sum up, this agreement means a rapid victory for Israel. Within time, Israel will normalise its relations with other Sunni Arab states as well and thus will attain more gains to increase its legitimacy on the territories it has invaded. With this agreement, Arabs will quit their goals to boycott and isolate Israel in international realm. From now on, the Palestinians will feel lonelier in their resistance against Israel and search new strategies to protect their lands. In this regard, the Middle Easter Question will not end; conversely, the multi-dimensional conflict system of the Middle East will become more sophisticated. This conflict will continue in a predictable future and permanent peace will not be attained.
Contrary to this, UAE’s ambassador in USA Yusuf Otaiba expects the arrival of peace to the region. According to him, this agreement is a significant breakthrough that “will diminish the tensions in Arab-Israeli relations, create a new energy for a positive change and immediately halt the annexation and violent confrontation potential”.
Let us see will it be so? Will Israel’s expansion strategy toward Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian territories end? Will Israel give up its annexation policy after its completion of Jewish settlement building in the territories it has invaded? Will peace arrive in the region that has wiped blood and tears for centuries? Will the misfortune of the Iranian shah who lost his throne after establishing warm relations with USA and the Iraqi dictator Saddam spread to UAE?
Time will respond all these questions. However, UAE’s this decision points out the beginning of a new period in the Middle East and the Gulf of Basra. Last 50 years’ events UAE witnessed both on its own history and the region’s history can be repeated in forthcoming 50 years.