Israeli prime minister makes historic UAE visit, stressing ‘new reality’ for region

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (L) welcomed by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (R) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates on December 12, 2021.

Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) | Handout | Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett touched down in the United Arab Emirates Monday in a historic visit, marking the first time an Israeli leader has publicly met the UAE’s de-facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Bennett took the opportunity to emphasize what he saw and, indeed, what regional analysts describe as a new reality for the Middle East: “In my opinion, this is what the peace and the new reality this region is witnessing, and we are working together to ensure a better future for our children,” he told UAE state news agency WAM.

Later on Monday, Bennett’s office announced that Mohammed bin Zayed accepted the Israeli leader’s invitation to visit Israel. The date of that visit has not yet been established.

The UAE and Israel signed the historic Abraham Accords in August of 2020, brokered by the Trump administration and marking the first-ever normalization of ties between Israel and an Arab Gulf country. Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco later followed with their own normalization agreements with Israel.

Despite some criticism from other parts of the Arab world, Israel and the UAE have forged ahead with billions of dollars worth of trade, tourism, technology and transport partnerships. Within months of the accords’ signing, Israeli tourists were pouring into the UAE’s restaurants, beaches and malls. December saw open-air Hannukah ceremonies held in Dubai, something that would have been unimaginable just two years before.

Discussions between Bennett and the UAE leader are likely to focus on mutual areas of cooperation including energy, trade and defense. The UAE last March announced a massive $10 billion fund dedicated to investing in what it deems to be strategic sectors in Israel. The sectors include health care, energy, water, manufacturing, agricultural technology and space. In November, Israel, the UAE and Jordan signed an important energy-for-water deal. And in October, Abu Dhabi’s massive sovereign wealth fund Mubadala bought a 22% stake in Israel’s Tamar offshore gas field. 

A mask-clad Israeli tourist in the historic al-Fahidi neighborhood of Dubai on January 11, 2021. As much of the world tightens lockdowns amid COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Dubai remains open for tourism, branding itself as a sunny, quarantine-free escape — despite a sharp rise in cases.

KARIM SAHIB | AFP via Getty Images

Bennett said of the accords, “The relations between the two countries have strengthened in all fields, and I am very satisfied with that, as many cooperation agreements were concluded in the fields of trade, research and development, and cyber security, health, education, aviation and more, and I look forward to the continued development and consolidation of relations.”

The strengthening UAE-Israel bond is beneficial to both countries when it comes to defense strategy vis-a-vis their shared adversary Iran. Still, this week’s meeting is more significant in terms of a boost to Bennett’s image domestically, said Taufiq Rahim, Dubai-based senior fellow in the international security program at the New America think tank. 

“This visit is one year in the making and in some respects is overdue. The relationship between the two countries has already accelerated significantly. This meeting will be much more impactful back in Israel for PM Bennett’s standing than any new strategic shift in the region.”

Rising stakes with Iran

The meeting comes amid rising tensions in the region between Iran and its adversaries, as Tehran ramps up its nuclear development while partaking in negotiations with western powers to try to revive the 2015 nuclear deal.

Known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Obama-era deal lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear program, and has been dramatically breached on both sides since former President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of it in 2018 and reimposed painful sanctions on Iran. Israel has long vocally opposed a return to the deal.