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Israel’s Twin Crises Put the UAE in a Double Bind

Analysts say Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, is behind the bolder stance. Known locally by his initials MBZ, he’s often cited as de facto national leader since his brother Sheikh Khalifa, the president, suffered a stroke last year.

The scene is familiar: An American Secretary of State arrives in Jerusalem as a right-wing Prime Minister is simultaneously preparing for another cycle of violence with the Palestinians and bracing for blowback from an Israeli attack deep inside Iran. But while Antony Blinken and Benjamin Netanyahu smoothly act out their parts in the kabuki theater of Middle Eastern diplomacy, keep an eye on a character in the background, trying not to display his acute discomfort: Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates.

In previous enactments of this production, MBZ, as he is widely known in the Arab world, would have been in the wings. But he brought himself onto the stage two-and-a-half years ago by normalizing the UAE’s relations with Israel. In effect, he took part ownership of Israel’s more contentious relationships, with the Palestinians and with Iran.

Two other Arab states, Bahrain and Morocco, followed the Emirati example and signed on to the Abraham Accords with Israel, but it is MBZ who has really stuck his neck out. His officials quickly built trade, tourism and security relations with Israel, and talked of $1 trillion in economic ties over the next decade.

Given Netanyahu’s history of belligerence toward Iran and uncompromising hostility toward the Palestinians, MBZ would have anticipated turbulence in the relationship on those two fronts. The UAE is keenly aware that its glittering cities and oil installations sit within range of the Islamic Republic’s missiles. Tehran also uses its proxies, such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen, to menace Emirati interests. The risk is substantial that Iran will lash out at the UAE in revenge for the actions of its Israeli ally.

Violence against Palestinians, whether inflicted by the Israeli Defense Force or by Jewish settlers, represents a different kind of problem for  MBZ: a loss of credibility in the wider Arab world. The Emiratis had argued that signing the Abraham Accords would give them more leverage with the Israelis, the better to protect Palestinian interests. As proof, they pointed to Netanyahu’s abandonment of a plan to annex swathes of the West Bank.  

But the Emirati ability to restrain Israeli actions against Palestinians was always going to be challenged by Netanyahu’s new governing coalition, which is beholden to extreme right-wing parties that call for annexation and more violence against Palestinians.

Now MBZ faces a perfect storm of increased violence against Palestinians, empowered and emboldened settlers — and an Iranian regime, already rattled by internal dissent, provoked by an Israeli strike on a military compound in Isfahan.  

(By contrast, having resisted American pressure to join the Abraham Accords and made a Palestinian state a precondition for formal diplomatic ties with Israel, the Saudis will be feeling vindicated.) 

Thus far, the Emirates have responded with characteristic caution. They have decried the provocative behavior of Netanyahu’s allies: The UAE, along with China, called for a UN Security Council meeting after National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in early January. They have condemned both the IDF’s raid on a Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin as well as the terrorist attack against a synagogue near Jerusalem.

And they have wagged a disapproving finger at the attack in Isfahan. Anwar Mohammed Gargash, MBZ’s diplomatic adviser, said in a tweet the attack “is not in the interest of the region or its future.” He was, however, careful not to directly blame Israel.

But the limits of this cagey approach are certain to be tested as the Netanyahu government settles into power. MBZ can expect more Palestinian-baiting from Ben-Gvir and other hard-right figures, as well as more belligerence from settlers.

With little influence over Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, MBZ can also expect more violence aimed at Israelis. He must know Israel will make more attempts on Iranian military targets, especially as the regime in Tehran races toward nuclear threshold status. And, as he learned last weekend, he can expect all these things to happen at once.

A great deal more discomfort is in store for the Emirati ruler.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Yemen’s Fragile Truce Needs More Than Talks to Survive: Bobby Ghosh

• Netanyahu’s New Partners Waste No Time in Undermining Him: Hussein Ibish

• A Democratic Iran Is Coming and It Will Lead the Middle East: Robert D. Kaplan

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

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