The United Arab Emirates plans to maintain diplomatic ties with Israel despite international outcry over the mounting toll of the war in Gaza and hopes to have some moderating influence over the Israeli campaign while safeguarding its own interests, according to four sources familiar with UAE government policy.
Abu Dhabi became the most prominent Arab nation to establish diplomatic ties with Israel in 30 years under the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020. That paved the way for other Arab states to forge their own ties with Israel by breaking a taboo on normalising relations without the creation of a Palestinian state.
The mounting death toll from Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip – launched in retaliation for cross-border attacks on Oct. 7 by the Hamas militant group that governs the enclave – have stirred outrage in Arab capitals.
UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan spoke last month with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. UAE officials have publicly condemned Israel’s actions and repeatedly called for an end to the violence.
In response to a request for comment for this story, an Emirati official said the UAE’s immediate priority was to secure a ceasefire and to open up humanitarian corridors.
The Gulf Arab power, backed by its oil wealth, wields significant influence in regional affairs. It also serves as a security partner of the United States, hosting American forces.
As well as speaking to Israel, the UAE has worked to moderate public positions taken by Arab states so that once the war ends there is the possibility of a return to a broad dialogue, said the four sources, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Sheikh Mohamed met in Abu Dhabi on Thursday with Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to discuss calls for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, amid Qatari-brokered talks for the release of a limited number of hostages in return for a break in the fighting.
“The UAE and Qatar stand firm in urging the need to advance de-escalation efforts and secure a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace in the region,” Sheikh Mohamed said on social media after their discussions.
Despite closer economic and security ties with Israel forged over the past three years, Abu Dhabi has had little apparent success in reining in the Gaza offensive, which has led to the death of more than 11,000 people, according to Palestinian officials. Hamas killed around 1,200 people in its surprise attack on Israel and some 240 hostages were taken, Israeli authorities have said.
Amid the impasse, the UAE has grown increasingly frustrated with its most important security partner Washington, which it believes is not exerting enough pressure to end the war, the four sources said.
Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, said this week that Washington needed to end the conflict swiftly and initiate a process to resolve the decades old Israeli-Palestinian issue by addressing refugees, borders and East Jerusalem.
The UAE has publicly expressed concern that the war now risks igniting regional tensions and a new wave of extremism in the Middle East.
Speaking on Oct. 18 at the UN Security Council, where the UAE holds a rotating seat, ambassador Lana Nusseibeh said that Abu Dhabi had sought via the Abraham Accords with Israel and the United States to deliver prosperity and security in a new Middle East through cooperation and peaceful co-existence.
“The indiscriminate damage visited upon the people of Gaza in pursuit of Israel’s security risks extinguishing that hope,” she said.
A senior European official told Reuters that Arab states had recognised now that it was not possible to build ties with Israel without addressing the Palestinian issue. Israel’s foreign ministry declined to comment for this story.
NO BREAK IN TIES
The UAE continues to host an Israeli ambassador and there was no prospect of an end to diplomatic ties, which represented a longer-term strategic priority by Abu Dhabi, the sources said.
The accord was motivated, in part, by shared concerns over the threat posed by Iran, as well as a broader economic-driven realignment of Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy. The UAE sees Iran as a threat to regional security, although in recent years it has taken diplomatic steps to de-escalate tensions.
Israel and the UAE have developed close economic and security ties in the three years since normalisation, including defence cooperation. Israel supplied the UAE with air defense systems after missile and drone attacks on Abu Dhabi in early 2022 by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen.
Bilateral trade has exceeded $6 billion since 2020, according to Israeli government data. Israeli tourists have thronged hotels, beaches and shopping centres in the UAE, which is an OPEC oil power and a regional business hub.
“They (UAE) have gains that they don’t want to lose,” said one of the sources, a senior diplomat based in the Middle East.
Even prior to the Oct. 7 attack, however, Abu Dhabi was concerned by the failure of Israel’s right-wing government to curb expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and repeated visits by right-wing religious Israelis to the compound that houses the Al Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam. The compound, revered by Jews as a vestige of their two ancient temples, has long been a flashpoint of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
None of four sources ruled out that the UAE could downgrade or sever its ties if the crisis escalated.
Sources said that the displacement of the Palestinian population from the Gaza Strip or the West Bank into Egypt or Jordan was a red line for Abu Dhabi.
James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the National University of Singapore, said the war in Gaza had discredited the notion that economic cooperation on its own could build a stable region. “The new Middle East was being built on very fragile ground,” he told Reuters.
DISTANCED FROM HAMAS
Israel has rejected international calls for an immediate ceasefire: Netanyahu has said there would be no halt to its attack until hostages are returned. His government has pledged to destroy Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
While criticising Israel’s conduct of the war, Abu Dhabi has also condemned Hamas for its attack. The UAE sees the Palestinian militant group and other Islamists as a threat to the stability of the Middle East and beyond.
“Hamas is not their favourite organisation,” said one of the sources. “It is Muslim Brotherhood after all.”
The UAE has led the charge against Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist organisation in the Arab World.
It helped Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi topple Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in a military takeover in 2013 that followed mass protests against his rule. The UAE provided Egypt with billions of dollars in support following Mursi’s ouster.
Abu Dhabi also abandoned Sudan’s former Islamist president Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 2019, ultimately leading to the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on power there after it had dominated Sudanese politics for decades. The UAE had previously pumped billions of dollars into Sudan’s coffers.