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.

What about Dubai?

Until last year, I’d never been to Dubai. I’m not a big shopper and I don’t sell anything. But I wound up spending four days there in the spring, and the place surprised me. Dubai is over the top, daringly cosmopolitan, and all about business and pleasure. Across the Arab Middle East, economically productive minorities have been driven out. The Emiratis of Dubai, by contrast, have turned themselves into a minority in their own country, bringing in foreigners of every kind to build up and partake in the boom. Anyone who can do anything better (and cheaper) is welcomed in Dubai. They’ve perfected the Arab version of the American ethos, short on democracy but long on opportunity.

The Arab world has always had privileged nodes through which it has transacted fast-track business with the world. In the colonial period, Alexandria in Egypt served as the great gateway, relying crucially on foreign minorities. Nasser put an end to that. In the immediate post-colonial period, Beirut in Lebanon emerged on top, building upon its long tradition of open exchange with East and West. Extreme brands of nationalism destroyed that. In our time, Dubai is the great entrepôt. It exemplifies that larger shift of power away from the decaying, ideology-ravaged Arab Mediterranean and toward the worldly crust of the Arabian Gulf.

As a whole, the United Arab Emirates is much more of a mixed bag. In Abu Dhabi, the capital, they yearn to be political players in the Arab world, which has led them to buy off bad guys and offer money for Arab or Islamic studies to places like Harvard and Columbia. I don’t look with equanimity upon gifts from governments that don’t respect academic freedom at home. But the UAE’s pushing ideas about the Middle East in classrooms seems a lot more problematic to me than its moving containers in Baltimore.

Whatever happens to the port deal, it’s important to strengthen the tie to Dubai. In time, and beneath the glitz, all sorts of interesting cultural interactions might take place. It will also be a very American-inflected exchange. Alexandria in its heyday revolved around Europe. Beirut tilted both to Europe and America. Dubai seems destined to vacillate culturally between New York and Las Vegas, for better or worse.

One afternoon in Dubai, I had a bit of spare time on my hands, so I went out to the brand new Ibn Battuta Mall, named after the 14th-century Muslim traveler who journeyed from his birthplace in Morocco across North Africa and Asia to China. The mall is set up as a series of arcades, themed around the various highlights on Ibn Battuta’s route: Andalusia, Tunisia, Egypt, Persia, India, and China. The place gives new meaning to the familiar phrase “shopping mecca.” The Persian arcade is a giant dome, itself a work of art on a considerable level, no doubt meant to be admired by the many Iranians who come through Dubai. Smack in the middle of it, as this photo shows, is a Starbucks.

Orientalist kitsch? Definitely. But Arabs have built it. Such cross-cultural play is possible only where people are comfortable with amalgams. To see the incredible mix of people strolling this mall, happily shopping for designer labels and making their choice at the 21-cinema “megaplex,” restores one’s faith in the Arabs’ potential for embracing a global future. It’s no doubt fragile, this odd experiment in our own style of consumerism, on a stretch of hot sand a world away from us. That’s all the more reason not to turn Dubai into a whipping boy for our disappointment with the rest of the Arab world.