Israel’s foreign minister has begun a historic trip to the United Arab Emirates, the highest level visit to the Gulf since the two countries normalised relations last year and a sign of commitment to the relationship despite Arab anger over last month’s conflict in Gaza.
Yair Lapid is the first Israeli minister to visit the Gulf state since the so-called Abraham Accords, brokered by the previous US administration, ended decades of diplomatic isolation of the Jewish state by the UAE and Bahrain.
The visit follows an 11-day volley of rockets and air strikes between Israel and Gaza that rivalled the fierce battles of the last war in 2014. At least 250 Palestinians died, local health officials say, nearly half of them women and children. Twelve people were killed in Israel.
The UAE condemned the violence but analysts said the conflict made clear that it had little leverage over the Jewish state despite enthusiastically embracing closer ties. Emiratis took to social media during the war to express solidarity with the Palestinians in a rare moment of free expression in an autocracy that rarely tolerates political dissent.
Ahmed Al Sayegh, a minister of state at the UAE foreign ministry, on Tuesday welcomed Lapid, for the inaugural opening of the Israeli embassy in the capital of Abu Dhabi and the consulate in the commercial centre of Dubai. Lapid is the architect of the new coalition government and due to become prime minister as part of a rotating premiership. He will also meet his Emirati counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, sign an economic co-operation agreement and visit the site in Dubai scheduled to host the delayed Expo 2020 world fair later this year.
The UAE, which shared concerns with Israel over the regional ambitions of common foe Iran, saw normalisation as a means to enhance its security while co-operating in sectors such as defence, technology, healthcare and agriculture.
Most deals have been generated between government-owned companies, including a joint venture on artificial intelligence between state-owned Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and G42, a firm linked to Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. UAE sovereign fund Mubadala is also poised to buy a stake in an Israeli gasfield for $1.1bn.
The opening of direct flights between the Jewish state and the UAE last year also triggered a surge of Israelis visiting Dubai, a popular tourist destination.
For the UAE, the visit is a chance to forge a settled relationship with the new Israeli government led by Naftali Bennett, which ousted Benjamin Netanyahu after 12 years in power. The rightwing Bennett has advocated annexation of the West Bank and championed Israeli settlement.
“The UAE sees this as a good opportunity to kick start a strong relationship with the new government and forge ahead with economic partnerships as planned,” said Elham Fakhro, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for the Gulf states.
Several planned visits by Netanyahu and other ministers were abandoned earlier this year because of Covid-19 restrictions and diplomatic spats. UAE officials had been annoyed that Netanyahu exploited Emirati inward investment into Israel to bolster his position at the polls.