Israeli President Isaac Herzog spent two days in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and he certainly cannot complain about a lack of attention and goodwill. He was greeted with a 21-gun salute at Abu Dhabi airport on Sunday, and an Arab military band played “Hatikva,” the national anthem of the Jewish state. There was hardly a meeting afterwards where his journey was not described as “historic”. After all, Herzog is the first Israeli president to pay a state visit to the Gulf. But there are no spectacular developments to report. Because what is really special is the normality of such a visit.
When the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Emirates was announced in the summer of 2020, it was a bang, just like Donald Trump liked it. With the Abraham Agreement, the US President at the time brokered a “deal” that was difficult to understand, in which diplomatic progress was interwoven with arms deliveries and other counter-deals. The motives were therefore at least diffuse, the prospects were uncertain.
But now Trump is gone, as is his Israeli alter ego Benjamin Netanyahu – and relations between Israel and the Emirates continue to flourish on all levels: politically, economically, interpersonally. Several Israeli ministers were in the UAE before Herzog, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett coming last in December. Trade is booming, technological cooperation is constantly being expanded. In addition, more than 250,000 Israelis have already taken the opportunity to explore previously forbidden territory with direct flights to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
The new closeness was now also celebrated by the Duke and the de facto ruler of the Emirates, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan. An official meeting was followed by a spontaneously staged invitation from the crown prince to Herzog for another private meeting in his private palace. “Our relations are moving forward at full steam,” announced Mohammed bin Zayed. “I bring a message of peace for the peoples of the whole region,” said Herzog.
Israel sees the rapprochement as a defensive alliance against Iran
After rapprochement with the Emirates, as well as Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, Israel hopes to open more doors in the Arab world. Herzog demonstrated how central Saudi Arabia is in this when he went into the cockpit on the way to Abu Dhabi during a flight over Saudi territory and had the message spread that this was a “very moving moment”. The leadership in Riyadh, however, remains on the defensive.
From the Israeli point of view, the rapprochement with the Gulf States is also a defensive alliance against Iran. The visit of a UAE delegation to Tehran in December therefore raised some concerns that the Emirates could be playing a double game. Now, however, the crown prince assured his Israeli guest that they had a “common view of the threats to regional stability.”
This view was certainly sharpened by the recent attacks by Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen on Emirati territory. In mid-January, three people were killed in suspected drone attacks on Abu Dhabi airport and an oil facility. A week later, two missiles were intercepted, and another missile destroyed the air defenses on Monday night.
Apparently it had been fired specifically for Herzog’s visit. A Houthi spokesman later denounced the Emirates’ leadership as “Israeli tools”. Herzog took the opportunity to point out the source of the common threat to his hosts. “We disperse any attack by terrorist groups,” he said, “and we fully support their security needs.”