The policies of three of the Middle East’s top players have been outlined in a flurry of diplomacy, joint statements and budget announcements over the past two weeks.
The United Arab Emirates sent its National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed to Iran while also receiving Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Israel deployed its Defense Minister Benny Gantz to Washington, as Iran doubled its military budget. As the UAE minimizes tensions with regional capitals and endorses peace, Israel and Iran engage in military buildup and seem to be banging the drums of war.
Bennett made a historic visit, the first of its kind for an Israeli premier to the UAE, where he met with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed and held one-on-one meetings with ministers.
Bilateral trade between the UAE and Israel stood at near $800 million, for the first nine months of 2021. Direct Emirati investment in Israel has also been on the rise, as cooperation surges between the region’s third and fourth biggest economies, with equal-sized GDPs at around $400 billion each.
Such cooperation would guarantee substantial economic growth between Israel, a nation focused on start-ups, and the UAE, a country with highly developed sectors in financing, marketing and other monetization tools.
Despite the dizzying pace at which the UAE and Israel are coming closer together, the UAE signaled that peace with the Jewish state was economic and cultural, rather than one against Iran. Along these lines, Bennett did not hold a one-on-one with any defense or security official while in the UAE, including with Sheikh Tahnoun, the official who had just returned from Tehran.
With nuclear talks between the world and Iran seemingly going nowhere, the UAE seems to be aware that regional war is closer than ever. Yet, Abu Dhabi’s message is clear: It intends to sit out military entanglements in the region, including between Iran and Israel. Emirati neutrality does not mean it has no favorites, but if it does have one, it was not giving it a hand.
Israel, for its part, is drawing a line in the sand: The Jewish state will not tolerate a nuclear Iran and is willing to use military force to stop Tehran from making a bomb. Hence why Gantz visited Washington and asked for the acceleration of the delivery of two air refueling tankers that Israel had earlier purchased from the US. Such technology is required when fighter jets fly long distance missions, exactly like when Israel decides to strike Iranian nuclear facilities.
Meanwhile, Iran announced that for the year 2022 it would double its military budget to $30 billion. Despite the increase, Iranian access to the superior Western military technology will remain limited, which suggests that Tehran will likely increase money it allocates to its regional terrorist militias with which it threatens – and often blackmails – regional powers, first and foremost Israel.
Former President Donald Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran could not force Iran to come back to the negotiating table, but Trump’s policy certainly put Iranian uranium enrichment on hold. Had Trump been elected to a second term, it would have been unlikely that Tehran would have resumed enrichment on full speed.
But with President Joe Biden, diplomacy has taken an ideological tilt, with the foreign policy team seemingly more interested in the ambiguous concept of decolonization than in maintaining regional and world peace. Making things even worse, to the Biden team, ending the age of empires means rolling back American power while simultaneously allowing Iran to expand and build its own regional empire.
With America under Biden withdrawn and restricting its foreign policy to irrelevant diplomacy, regional powers are jockeying to fill the void. Israel and Iran are preparing for war, each reinforcing their own points of strength. The UAE, however, wants to minimize the effects of whatever war may have on its economy and prosperity, a prudent policy that countries with similar profiles might be well advised to follow.
What unfolds in the coming months and years remains to be seen. What is certain is that the main players are bracing for drastic change, and that the superpower that once used to steady the regional ship is not interested in playing its role anymore, leaving the ship to sail leaderless through a lot of turbulence.
Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC.