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Why Israel is opening its first diplomatic mission in the UAE

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, last February. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Israel will open an official diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi in the coming weeks, Haaretz's Barak Ravid revealed Friday. The new outpost in Abu Dhabi could be a big step for Israel, marking the first time it has had an official presence in the United Arab Emirates. It might also be evidence  that the shifting realities of the Middle East could have a positive effect on Israel's relations with the Gulf states and the broader Arab world.

Israel has long had limited diplomatic relations with the Gulf states, who, like much of the Arab world, do not recognize the State of Israel and who support the Palestinian cause. Currently, Israel has full diplomatic relations with just two of its Arab neighbors, Egypt and Jordan, signing peace treaties in 1979 and 1994. The only other member of the Arab League to maintain full relations with Israel is Mauritania, though there have some limited diplomatic and trade relationships with other Arab states.

The UAE does not formally have diplomatic or economic relations with Israel, and Israeli passport holders are only allowed in the country under special circumstances. Relations between the two countries took a serious step back in 2010, when Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh, a Hamas operative, was killed in a Dubai hotel room in what was widely suspected to have been an Israeli government-ordered assassination.

The new diplomatic mission in Abu Dhabi will certainly be unorthodox. Rather than establishing relations between Israel and the UAE, the mission will be officially accredited to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental organization designed to promote the use of renewable energy. Israel will be the only country with a diplomatic presence in the UAE that is solely accredited to IRENA, and diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE will not formally change. The situation might be compared to that of Iran and the United States, with Tehran having diplomatic representation at the United Nations in New York City despite no formal diplomatic relationship with the United States.

There had been hints that such a move was coming. In January 2014, Israeli Infrastructure Minister Silvan Shalom told the Jerusalem Post that he aimed to create a permanent mission to IRENA in Abu Dhabi. Shalom had been visiting the UAE to attend an IRENA assembly and expressed surprise that not only had he been allowed in the country but that, with the exception of Kuwait, Arab states had not withdrawn from the event. Haaretz also notes that Israel's unexpected decision to support Abu Dhabi's bid for the location of IRENA's headquarters in 2009 may have been due to a desire for an official Israeli presence in the country.

One contributing factor to the opening of the mission may be a newfound common ground between Israel and Sunni Arab states due to their shared opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. During the years of negotiations for that deal, Israeli officials met with officials from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, slowly developing what one Israeli official would privately describe as "good personal relations." And while most of the public in Arab countries may still view Israel with deep suspicion, some recent polls suggest that in some Gulf states Iran has supplanted the Jewish state as the most feared regional power.

Still, some Israeli officials have been quick to downplay reading too much into the new diplomatic mission, with one telling Reuters that it was only a "half a step out the door."

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