For at least the past decade, Israel and the United Arab Emirates have slowly cultivated ties under the radar. In 2010, an Israeli minister attended a conference in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed reportedly met in New York City in 2012. Israel opened a diplomatic mission to a United Nations body in the Emirati capital in 2015, and the Israeli and Emirati air forces took part in the same exercises in 2016, 2017, and 2018.
In the past several weeks, however, the two countries — which both view Iran as a major threat — have taken prominent additional steps to advance their ties. Culture Minister Miri Regev visited Abu Dhabi in late October to attend a judo tournament, where Emirati officials appeared to treat her and Israeli judokas to first-class hospitality. Not only did the officials in the Gulf country permit the sounding of the Israeli national anthem twice in honor of two Israeli gold medalists, but they also brought Regev on a tour of Abu Dhabi’s grand Sheikh Zayed Mosque.
Two days after Regev left the UAE, Communications Minister Ayoub Kara landed in Dubai, where he participated in an international telecommunications conference. Kara, who is Druze, delivered a speech in Arabic to the gathering and spent four days in the Gulf country.
While Israel and the UAE have gradually developed ties, by contrast, Abu Dhabi relations with Ramallah have floundered.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas frequently visits Arab countries across the Middle East. In the past year alone, he has traveled to Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and other countries.
However, the last known time Abbas visited the UAE was in 2011, when he met Emirati Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi.
In addition, the UAE, once a major financial backer of the PA, has stopped sending funds to the Ramallah-based government.
PA Finance Ministry records show the UAE sent an average of $87.8 million annually to the PA between 2008-2013. But since the beginning of 2014, the records indicate Abu Dhabi has not contributed a penny to the PA’s coffers.
Instead, the UAE has sent money to the West Bank and Gaza through the United Nations and other organizations and in certain instances, bypassed the PA. In early 2018, for example, Abu Dhabi sent $2 million to the UN to pay for fuel for Gaza’s hospitals.
More recently, Palestinian frustration with the UAE was voiced by Abbas and other Palestinian officials.
Abbas lashed out at an Arab minister in a televised speech at a Palestine Liberation Organization body in January, accusing the minister of criticizing the Palestinian street’s response to the US administration’s decision to relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The minister, according to Abbas, had said the Palestinian people “did not rise up forcefully” against the embassy move.
The minister Abbas was referring to is Anwar Gargash, the UAE state minister for foreign affairs, three Palestinian officials told the Times of Israel. Gargash made the comments at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in January in Amman, the officials said.
And in a recording of a phone call leaked in November, top Fatah official Jabril Rajoub accused UAE Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed of making efforts to advance the Trump administration’s vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
“The person directing the matter is Mohammad bin Zayed,” Rajoub told Hamas official Husam Badran in the phone call, referring to the US administration’s plan.
The Palestinians have vehemently opposed the Trump administration’s peace efforts and vowed not to even consider any US peace plan.
Why are relations so poor?
But the core of the weak ties between the UAE and the Palestinians relates to Mohammad Dahlan, one of Abbas’s top rivals.
Dahlan, a former security chief who was accused of attempting to overthrow the PA leader, fled the West Bank in 2011 after PA security forces raided his home near Ramallah. He subsequently settled in Abu Dhabi and quickly became a close adviser to the Emirati crown prince.
“The dispute between the UAE and the [Palestinian] Authority relates to the Emiratis adopting and hosting Mohammad Dahlan,” said Jihad Harb, a Palestinain analyst and researcher.
Since settling in the UAE, Dahlan has become one of the most vocal critics of Abbas, lambasting him for his consolidation of authority in Fatah, the PA, and the PLO.
Back in Ramallah, Abbas has grown irate over the role Abu Dhabi has granted Dahlan and increasingly attempted to stamp out his influence in Palestinian politics.
At the last Fatah congress in 2016, Abbas and the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership ensured Dahlan and many of his allies did not participate, essentially excommunicating them and curbing their influence in decision-making positions in the party.
“The ties between the UAE and the PA have been poor since the UAE initially embraced Dahlan,” Ziyad Iyad, a professor of political science at Al-Quds University, said. “But the relations between the two started to substantially deteriorate approximately four years ago when the UAE started opening doors for Dahlan in Egypt.”
For the past few years, the Egyptian General Intelligence Services has welcomed Dahlan. At times, it has also allowed him input on Palestinian affairs, especially those related to Gaza.
In 2017, Egypt even allowed Dahlan to play a part in sending millions of Emirati dollars into Gaza to promote social reconciliation efforts.
“With the UAE’s help, Dahlan has taken on a role in Palestinian-Egyptian relations,” Iyad said. “Abbas has seen the development as intervention in internal Palestinian affairs and part of an effort to promote an alternative to his leadership.”
And with the UAE and Dahlan on the same team, the collapse of Palestinian-UAE ties likely will only get worse.