When our Middle East friends talk, they talk about hedging

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In a recent conversation with a senior Israeli official, I asked what strategic insights he had gained from discussions with his Emirati counterparts. After all, Emiratis have spent decades traveling easily throughout the region, while Israeli discussions with neighbors have often been secret, security-focused, and slightly distrustful. As Israeli and Emirati ties have deepened, one of the advantages for Israel has surely been having better access to Emiratis’ assessments of regional affairs and regional leaders, and especially insights into the sorts of information and judgments that are hard to derive from technical means.

His answer surprised me. He said the Emiratis told him to hedge. Perhaps even more surprising, he suggested that Israel was taking the advice to heart.

One might argue that hedging is exactly what smaller countries do. Unable to control the broader environment, they seek to be nimble and leave themselves options. Hedging reflects uncertainty and the modesty of one’s power. I still recall my own surprise when a Gulf foreign minister seemed to shrug at the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon. He asked, “If they already have a gun pointed at your head, what does it matter if they point a cannon at your back?”

These two countries — among the strongest U.S. partners in the Middle East — haven’t hedged for a while, though. Israel hedged in its early decades, unsure how the Cold War would unfold and keen for partners wherever it could find them. The UAE hedged in its early years, too, learning from the overreach of its wealthy neighbors. But for more than five decades in the Israeli case, and almost two in the Emirati case, the countries have been willing to make bold bets. They both cast their lot strongly with the United States. They were deeply distrustful of the Arab Spring, and they were fiercely opposed to the JCPOA for giving too much to Iran while extracting too little in return. Each had its own diplomatic crises with Turkey, finding the regional expressions of Prime Minister Erdogan’s populist Islamism a deep threat to their interests. 

And yet, the Israeli told me, the Emiratis advised him that it is impossible to defeat Iran under current circumstances, and U.S. resolve seems unclear.

That has prompted the UAE to seek a quiet dialogue with Iran, he said, and also to seek to repair the fraught ties with Turkey. The de facto ruler of the UAE, Mohamed bin Zayed, visited Turkey in November and promised investments; Prime Minister Erdogan visited the UAE last week. The visits reflected the Emiratis’ calculation on Iran, and a desire to hedge.

Surely not coincidentally, Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog will visit Turkey next month, marking a similar effort to warm strained ties. Many media reports tie the effort to economics, and especially the exploitation of gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean, but Iran will surely be on leaders’ minds, even if it is not on the agenda.

The Israeli also talked about the Emiratis’ hedge with China. Perhaps a quarter million Chinese live in the UAE now, and a majority of China’s trade with Europe and Africa passes through Emirati ports. China has sought deeper involvement building Emirati infrastructure, and the UAE continues to work with Huawei, a Chinese manufacturer of 5G telecom equipment. U.S. efforts to persuade the Emiratis to forgo Chinese technology entirely have been unsuccessful, and they have complicated, if not ended, Emirati efforts to buy the F-35 fighter jet.

While the official hastened to say that Israel does not hedge with China, Israel’s ties to China have been a serious source of tension in the bilateral relationship with the United States. In response to U.S. concerns, over the last five years Israel has adopted an increasingly formal process to review Chinese construction and infrastructure projects to ensure they do not open the door to Chinese espionage. It is an issue that is increasingly complicated and will not go away.

The United States is unaccustomed to a world of hedging partners. During much of the Cold War, partners sought to bandwagon with the United States to protect themselves against Soviet aggression. During America’s “unipolar moment,” hostility to the United States seemed reckless, and almost the entire world sought to improve ties with the United States. In the last decade, partners in the Western Pacific who are concerned with Chinese hegemony are deepening their U.S. ties, and European allies who fear Russia’s reach are increasingly rallying around U.S. leadership on Ukraine.

Yet, in much of the world, two things have become clear. The first is that the United States’ unipolar moment will not return. This is partly a consequence of two long and inconclusive U.S. wars in Asia, and partly a consequence of the exhaustion that those wars produced in the United States. The United States government recognizes that it cannot impose its will on the world, and the American people have less interest in trying to do so.

The second is that, unlike the Cold War, countries feel little need to choose one camp or the other. Governments seek better ties with the United States and its Great Power competitors simultaneously. Even the United States is seeking simultaneously to contain Chinese aggression and deepen economic ties. It was once unthinkable that China would replace Canada as America’s largest trading partner, but it has. And the United States is not alone being wary of China while it has deep economic ties with the People’s Republic.

The Ukraine crisis is a reminder that there are still things that only the United States can do, and at least for now, countries will rally around U.S. leadership when they want what only the United States can provide.

But for many of the closest partners of the United States, the global environment calls for more agility than ever. They will still support the United States, but at the same time, they will hedge. While some may be concluding that the unity surrounding Ukraine means nothing has changed, quiet conversations between Israelis and Emiratis suggest the opposite.

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank focusing on defense, national security and international relations issues.

Tags American allies Arab-Israeli relations China Emiratis Foreign policy Great power competition Hedge hedging Huawei Iran Israel Middle East Turkey UAE United Arab Emirates

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