After the normalization ceremony in Washington on Sept. 15, where Israel officially established full diplomatic relations with both Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United States and some commentators labelled this as a sign of Middle East peace. Other observers meanwhile suggested that a new front against Iran and Turkey was being established.
Much of this coverage, however, misses their developing relations, under the surface, for several years, and how the agreement will advance Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv’s geopolitical cooperation.
While the UAE’s initial acceptance of normalization on Aug. 14 was unsurprising, as Abu Dhabi has built strong economic and cyber-security relations with Israel over the last decade, Bahrain’s monarchy was also expected to follow suit with its Emirati backers.
The UAE has established greater sway over Bahrain after helping crush its 2011 Arab Spring uprising, and the tiny monarchy now seeks to remain on the side of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, having echoed their antagonism towards Qatar and Turkey. Though Riyadh is considered to have had a large role in Bahrain’s foreign policy stance previously, the UAE’s leading of recent normalization efforts encouraged Bahrain to follow suit, suggesting Abu Dhabi is playing a more proactive role in Manama’s decision-making.
While Bahrain was a more viable case for normalization with Israel, this trend could affect other countries. Another key example is Sudan, whose democratic transition the UAE has tried to derail, seeking to shore up military rule and block any post-revolution Islamist resurgence.
Israel is evidently a key partner for this too. The London-based Al Araby Al Jadeed newspaper reported that the UAE acted as a ‘mediator’ between vice president of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo (“Hemedti”) and Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen during a meeting in August. Sudan is speculated to be next in line for normalizing with Israel, which could help lift it off the economically crippling US list of state sponsors of terrorism, on which it was placed in 1993 and which still blocks crucial investment into the country.
Meanwhile, the UAE is also engaged in empowering various separatist factions in the region to bolster its sphere of influence, and Tel Aviv could become an important partner in this strategy.
Israel has a history of backing different separatist factions in the Middle East. It was the only country to back northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish government’s bid for independence in 2017, even in defiance of the US’ rejection of the faction’s ambitions. It also supported South Sudan’s separatist movement after Sudan supported Egypt’s war with Israel in 1967, and later aided the government after its independence in 2011.
Such moves help Israel gain different allies in the region, and the UAE will likely encourage Israel’s support in supporting authoritarian and secessionist regimes, to bolster Abu Dhabi’s regional influence.
The UAE has supported Haftar’s now failing siege on Tripoli, after Turkey’s military support to the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) successfully repelled his military assault. However, the UAE will be hoping to salvage his position and maximize his forces’ presence in eastern Libya and cancel out any peace initiatives that could marginalize Abu Dhabi’s influence.
Israel has also reportedly established covert ties with Haftar. Various reports indicate that LNA figures met Israeli intelligence officials in Cairo and Amman, already highlighting shared Israeli-Emirati interests over Libya. The UAE has also supplied Haftar’s forces with Israeli-made air defense systems, along with other Israeli-made military equipment like rocket launchers. It would therefore not be surprising that Israel could tighten its unity with Abu Dhabi over eastern Libya, with Haftar becoming a key figure in their alliance.
Meanwhile, another party that seeks greater influence with Israel is Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council (STC), which has received extensive Emirati support throughout Yemen’s war. Following the normalization agreement, STC Vice President Hani Bin Breik tweeted his support of the agreement. Moreover, while Yemen’s Houthi rebels slammed the deal, and protests erupted against the normalization elsewhere in the country, the STC did not respond as harshly.
Various claims of Israeli and Emirati-STC cooperation over Yemen have emerged. An Israeli news outlet Israel Today claimed in June, citing unnamed sources, that Israeli officials and STC figures met and established strong ties with one another, even calling them “secret friends”. Meanwhile, the French-Jewish website JForum alleged that both countries planned to establish spy bases on Yemen’s geostrategic island of Socotra in the Gulf of Aden, which the UAE-backed STC took over in June.
While there may be questions over the validity of these sources, the STC’s objectives in Yemen are struggling, owing to a lack of international support for its aims, while facing pressure from Saudi Arabia and the international community to abandon its secessionist goals. This also inhibits the UAE’s goals of controlling Yemen’s southern ports, which would then help it to expand its global maritime trade.
Therefore, with the STC’s evident receptivity towards Israel, a UAE-STC and Israeli axis could emerge, to bolster the separatist faction’s objectives in Yemen and push for an independent southern state.
Similarly, the UAE also backs the autonomous government of Somaliland, in Somalia, to secure influence over ports in the Horn of Africa and in the Bab el Mandeb strait, a vital strategic link for global maritime trade between the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. It also aims to weaken Somalia’s central government in Mogadishu, which has opposed the Emirati activities in the Somali peninsula.
Somaliland recently hailed the UAE-Israel deal. “As a peace loving people, we support the historic normalization agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel in exchange for taking annexation off the table (suspend applying sovereignty to areas of the West Bank),” said Somaliland’s Envoy to Kenya Omar Awil.
Israel’s Yossi Cohen claimed that a peace deal could be coming with two countries in the Horn of Africa, suggesting Somaliland may be under its radar, alongside Sudan.
After all, Israel may benefit from a friendly administration next to the Bab el Mandeb, due to its own concerns there. Tel Aviv perceives Iran and the Houthis, Tehran’s Yemeni allies, as a threat which could close the Bab el Mandeb to weaken Israel. Though both Tehran and the Houthis are unlikely to do this, Israel could still act to secure this regional passage, and an alliance with Somaliland and the STC could prove beneficial here. The UAE would therefore view Israel as a key partner in the Somali peninsula too.
Clearly Israeli and Emirati relations could lead to a wider empowerment of secessionist and counter-revolutionary actors, while Washington’s favor for both countries would only bolster their cooperation.
[ The writer is a researcher and journalist focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily related to the Gulf region. ]
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.