Israel's new Gulf relations give Biden's team a new Middle East hub

Israel's new Gulf relations give Biden's team a new Middle East hub
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November became a turning point for Israel’s new ties with Gulf states. It began with Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoThe CIA's next mission: Strategic competition with China and Russia Biden, Trump tied in potential 2024 match-up: poll Why is Trump undermining his administration's historic China policies? MORE announcing a $23 billion deal that included advanced F-35 warplanes and drones for the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and ended with important delegations from Bahrain to Israel. Together, these bookends represent just two facets of multifaceted diplomatic relations. The new ties that the Trump administration helped broker among Israel, the UAE and Bahrain were part of a push for normalization and peace, but they are rapidly growing into a relationship with cultural, trade and academic ties and ramifications for strategic defense concerns.  

In retrospect, it seems natural that the real symbol of new Israel-Gulf ties would not be in the hard politics of diplomacy, but rather in trade. Tel Aviv, the city that always seems to have a new tower under construction along the main Ayalon freeway when I visit, and Dubai are  perfectly placed to plug in to one another. Both are centers of trade and commerce, and only COVID-19 has set them back from setting new record years of growth.  

Speaking at a recent first Israel-Dubai conference, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said on Nov. 25 that “this is not something I was sure I would see in my lifetime.” Rivlin met with a delegation from Bahrain’s King Hamad Global Center for Peaceful Coexistence the next day, and he has invited the King of Bahrain for a visit.  

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It’s difficult to keep track of all the visits taking place and the new academic partnerships, hi-tech initiatives and first flights plying their way between the UAE and Israel. This hive of activity comes despite the pandemic that has slowed down basically everything else. It is evidence of how quickly these countries want to move to cement their new relationship. This is in contrast to the usually cold peace that exists between Israel, Egypt and Jordan, where there are almost never major public visits or people-to-people meetings.  

The resulting ties appear to present the incoming U.S. administration with a robust new hub in the Middle East that links Israel, the UAE and Bahrain. This is important because Washington’s strategic footprint in the Middle East is already anchored in Israel and the Gulf. The U.S. has bases in the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. In Israel, the U.S. role is different; instead of having major bases, the U.S. is closely linked to Israel in other ways, such as the Iron Dome air defense system and Trophy tank defense system that the U.S. Army has acquired. The potential F-35 sales to the UAE would make it the second country in the region to fly the advanced plane. So far, only Israel uses the American aircraft in the Middle East.  

The last piece of this puzzle fits in well with the trade initiatives and military footprint the U.S. has in the region. That piece should be known as a strategic corridor of power. Think of the Middle East today as it was in the past — a crossroads of civilization, trade and conflict. The tensions with Iran, for example, are key to this crossroads. Any containment of Iran requires partnerships among the Gulf states and Israel. 

Similarly, any attempt to stabilize Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and areas in Africa where extremist terror threats exist, such as Somalia, can be anchored through this corridor that stretches from Jerusalem to Abu Dhabi. The decision to push for normalization may not have been envisioned initially as a pathway to a new strategic framework in the region, but it is rapidly becoming one. The UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, has stressed the importance of this stability in the region as part of the peace deal with Israel and the UAE’s request for the F-35s.  

This should be seen as part of the multifaceted approach, one that begins with peace, continues through defense ties and ends with trade and a new corridor of strategic stability in the Middle East. For the next U.S. administration, harnessing this and working with it will be essential.  

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a Ginsburg/Milstein writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” His new book, “Drone Wars,” will be published in 2021. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.