Israel’s vulnerable new friends

Most Israelis, if they know anything about the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, know that they’re rich, vulnerable, far from the conflict with Israel, and dangerously close to Iran. It’s this combination of factors that made possible this past week’s White House ceremony.

What many don’t realize is the source of that vulnerability. Just as Israel frets over demography, so too do the Emirates and Bahrain. And any problem that Israel has pales in comparison to theirs.

The United Arab Emirates has a population only slightly larger than Israel’s, about 9.8 million people. But Arab citizens of the country form only about 12 percent—around a million-plus. The rest are migrants who’ve come to work, but don’t have Emirati citizenship or any prospect of getting it. About 60 percent of the country’s inhabitants are South Asians (Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis); the rest are a mix of Filipinos, Nepalese, Egyptians, and others.

In most Arab countries, zealous nationalist regimes oppressed or threw out religious or ethnic minorities, many of them sources of initiative and wealth. In the UAE, by contrast, the Arabs turned themselves into a small minority. They needed migrants to leverage their massive oil wealth into fast-paced development. Otherwise, their huge resources would have languished in distant banks.

So they imported working hands in the millions, confident that they could manage the influx and preserve their own identity and solidarity. So far, it’s worked.

Bahrain is a smaller-scale version of the same dynamic. The population is only about 1.7 million, of whom less than half are Bahraini citizens. The majority are expatriates, although a substantial portion is Arab.

Bahrain’s citizens are divided between a Sunni ruling minority and a Shiite majority. The latter share religion and sometimes ethnicity with Iranians, and constitute the source of most opposition in the kingdom. So far, the monarchy has held its own against opponents, although it relied heavily on Saudi (and UAE) backing to fend off a popular challenge during the “Arab Spring.”

Both countries look stable, but demography is an abiding concern. The combined citizen populations of the UAE and Bahrain probably don’t come to two million, less than that of greater Tel Aviv. The Jewish population of Israel is three times the Arab populations of the UAE and Bahrain combined. Likewise, there are as many Arab citizens of Israel proper as there are of the UAE and Bahrain. The Arabs of these two countries form only half a percent of the 400 million Arabs in the world. And Emiratis and Bahrainis are but a drop as compared to the 82 million Iranians next door.

The very rich are different from you and me

They’d have reason enough to feel vulnerable if those were the only numbers in the game. But there are more.

Thanks to Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth, the UAE has a gross domestic product of over $400 billion. Much of this flows to the resident expatriates, but it primarily sustains the affluence of the citizen minority across the seven emirates that make up the union. Bahrain, which also relies heavily on oil (as well as banking and finance), isn’t that far behind the UAE. Just for proportions, the combined gross domestic product of the UAE and Bahrain is equal to Iran’s—and Iran has a population of 82 million.

Over the years, not a few observers have declared that such huge disparities of wealth, and its concentration in the hands of ruling minorities, couldn’t be sustained.

A sample of this view can be found in the book After the Sheikhs, whose author (British academic Christopher Davidson) concluded that the UAE’s rulers “have suffered a serious and likely permanent loss of legitimacy,” and that Bahrain’s monarchy has “the bleakest future” of the Gulf monarchies. His conclusion (in 2012): “Most of these regimes—at least in their present form—will be gone within the next two to five years” (emphasis in source).

The end-is-nigh trope is an old one. In fact, the rulers are perfectly aware of their vulnerability, unlike those Arab rulers who were toppled during the “Arab Spring.” So they have perfected survival strategies that work amazingly well.

The most important is to secure and keep the support of the West, and especially the United States, as a counterweight to the forces of envy that surround them.

But it goes beyond that. After all, Egypt’s Husni Mubarak had U.S. support, and it didn’t save him. So the UAE, in particular, has tried to look, sound, and feel like a showcase of the West. True, it can’t embrace democracy, but it’s embraced a degree of cultural and religious tolerance that has impressed the West.

Whether it’s a branch of the Louvre museum (visited by the recent Israeli press delegation to the country), or an outpost of New York University, such talismans are there for a rainy day. Should the UAE get in trouble with grasping neighbors, public opinion in the West will say: “Let’s save them, they’re one of us.”

A friend of a friend

It’s here that normalization with Israel fits in. Yes, Israel has lots to offer the UAE and Bahrain, and they have much to offer in return. But the real attraction of normalization for the UAE and Bahrain is that good relations with Israel are the default of all enlightened Western countries. An Israeli embassy goes perfectly with a branch of the Guggenheim art museum.

Why now? The United States is pulling back from some of its Middle Eastern commitments. From some, but not all—and certainly not its commitment to Israel, which Americans of all stripes see as “one of us,” even if they disagree with some of its policies. Full and normal relations with Israel raise the UAE and Bahrain to a new category: from “friendly Arab countries that sell us oil” to “best Arab friends of our own best friend, Israel.”

Not only does that strengthen the U.S. insurance policy, it also lines up the pro-Israel lobby in America on the side of the UAE and Bahrain. They’ve always had their own hired lobbyists in Washington, but they never had any grassroots support in America. Now they will.

It’s an upgrade, and it’s become a need-to-have in a time of American retrenchment. It’s also an open-sesame for bigger and better arms deals, and a deterrent against would-be aggressors, above all Iran.

Israel reached this landmark because it’s strong. The Gulf Arabs have reached it because they’re vulnerable. Israel seeks to translate its strength into recognition. The Gulf Arabs seek to translate their recognition into strength. Just how the two sides will negotiate this unequal partnership isn’t in their formal agreements. It’s in the politics ahead.

Left to right: Bahrain’s foreign minister, Israel’s prime minister, the US president, and UAE’s foreign minister, signing of Abraham Accords, September 15. Official White House photo.

Cross-posted at Times of Israel.

Memo from Gulfistan

Martin Kramer made these remarks at the 8th Herzliya Conference on January 21.

Lately it has been said that the Arabs are in a panic over the growing power of Iran. We are told that Arab rulers so fear the rise of Iran that this fear has eclipsed all others it’s the sum of all fears. And it’s making a new Middle East

That is what David Brooks, New York Times columnist, wrote last November: “Iran has done what decades of peace proposals have not done brought Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Palestinians and the U.S. together. You can go to Jerusalem or to some Arab capitals and the diagnosis of the situation is the same: Iran is gaining hegemonic strength over the region.” Martin Indyk of the Saban Center used the same language in a November interview. Iran, he said, was making “a bid for hegemony in the region.”

The Sunni Arab states, and… Israel, suddenly found that they were on the same side against the Iranians. And so that created a strategic opportunity which the [Bush] administration has finally come to recognize, and that’s, more than anything else, what’s fueling the move to Annapolis.

If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Just last month, Iran’s President Ahmadinejad was invited to attend the summit of Arab Gulf rulers (the Gulf Cooperation Council) in Qatar. That was the first time an Iranian president had ever attended a GCC summit. Two weeks later, Ahmadinejad arrived Mecca, for the haj pilgrimage, at the invitation of Saudi King Abdullah. It was the first pilgrimage by an Iranian president since Iran’s revolution. And as any travel log of Arab and Iranian ministers will show, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

What game are the Gulf Arabs playing? Pretend for a moment that you are ruler of a mythical state called Gulfistan, and I am your national security adviser. You have asked me to prepare a memo on our strategic situation. Page one:

  • Your Majesty, these are good times, thanks be to God. With oil at $100 a barrel, you are awash in cash. You have built mega-projects, you have bought new weapons, you have put us on the map. An American university and a French museum have opened branches here. Our skyline flashes glitz and prosperity. And there is no end in sight to the strong demand for our oil. The developed countries are addicted, and China and India need us more every day.
  • We are enjoying this boom under the protection of the greatest power on earth. The United States has built a front line of bases right through the Gulf, and not far from your palace. The Americans are here to protect the oil, and as long as we keep it flowing, we need not fear any enemy.
  • But Your Majesty doesn’t reward me with a mansion in Aspen to tell you only good news. True, it never rains in Gulfistan, but you wish to know if I see clouds on the horizon.
  • I see two clouds. There is President Bush, who thinks God has placed him on earth to make peace in the “Holy Land,” and bring so-called democracy to the Arabs; and there is President Ahmadinejad, who believes God has put him here to spread his Shiite perversion, and who wants nuclear weapons to turn Persia into a great power.
  • These are dangerous men who threaten our security. Your Majesty, wisdom dictates that we not chose sides in their quarrel. We need good relations with the Americans: they are our biggest customers, they will defend us against any foreign enemy, and the weapons they sell us make us look stronger than we are. But we need good relations with the Iranians too. Iran is so close, we can feel its breath on our faces, from OPEC to Iraq. Were Iran to subvert us, by inciting our Shiite minority or encouraging terror, it could burst our bubble.
  • Your Majesty, a nuclear Iran is undesirable. The Persians are pushy; nuclear weapons would only make them more arrogant. For a moment, we thought the Americans would bomb them to stop them. A few of us privately urged them to do that. But the Americans can’t make up their minds. Some think Iran should be bombed. Some think Iran has no weapons program. Others share the view of General Abizaid, the former U.S. commander here. “Iran is not a suicidal nation,” he’s said. “Nuclear deterrence would work with Iran.” The Americans would destroy Iran if it touched our oil, which is ultimately their oil. But if Iran is careful, it might get the bomb.
  • In this uncertain situation, we should balance America and Iran. On the one hand, let us reassure Iran that we are good neighbors. Tell the Iranians we will oppose aggression against them, and we won’t boycott their business or freeze their assets. On the other hand, let us reassure the Americans that we are good allies. Tell them we will stabilize oil prices and let them build their big bases off in the desert. We must keep Washington and Tehran equally close and equally distant.
  • Your Majesty, the Americans want you to shake the hands of Jews and give a hand to Palestinians, to support the so-called “peace process.” We are fortunate: God gave us all the oil and no Jews. He gave the Palestinians no oil and all the Jews. If you join the “peace process,” the Jew will be at your door, demanding “normalization,” and the Palestinian, as usual, will repay generosity with ingratitude. The wise course is to keep this an American problem. Say you will help, but set impossible conditions; come to their “peace conferences” but make no commitments. True, many of your people are moved by the plight of the Palestinians. But this won’t weigh on us, so long as they blame only the Jews and the Americans. If we avoid commitment, the blame will never fall on us.
  • If we are wise, we can keep up this game until Bush and Ahmadinejad fade into history. I, your humble servant, will continue to act as your adviser in these sensitive matters. Perhaps, then, I might be rewarded with that small estate outside London? My youngest wife very much fancies it…

Now obviously I’ve simplified things here. There is no typical Arab Gulf state like Gulfistan. Different Gulf states have different interests and different policies. That is why we have Gulf experts.

But this isn’t the place to explore what distinguishes, say, Kuwait from Saudi Arabia. The point I want to make is this:

We all know how little fuel there is right here to keep the Annapolis process going. At this point, Israelis and Palestinians are running on fumes. That’s why Martin Indyk said that most of the fuel for Annapolis would have to come from a grand anti-Iran coalition. But the reality is that the coalition never formed, and now even its premises have disintegrated. Assembling this coalition was bound to be difficult; after the NIE, it has become impossible.

We have been here before. Every few years, a prophet arises to proclaim a new Middle East, including Israel. In the 1990s, peace between Israel and the Palestinians was supposed to turn the Middle East into a zone of economic cooperation including Israel. Then we were told that Iraq’s liberation would turn the Middle East into a zone of democracy including Israel. A few months ago, we were told that the Iranian threat would turn the Middle East into a zone of political and military alliance including Israel.

This latest new Middle East has had the shortest life of them all. Apparently, new Middle Easts just aren’t what they used to be.