In a move that caught many analysts and regional observers by surprise, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced last week that it plans to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel. As the initial shock evoked by this announcement has begun to wear off, commentators and observers have started to interrogate the underlying motives for this change in policy and to speculate on the implications this deal will have for regional relations.
According to the official line put forward by the UAE, it did so to prevent Israel’s planned annexation of large parts of the West Bank. To this reason has been added speculation about the benefits this deal bestows on Israel, the UAE and the US, whose involvement was reportedly key in brokering this deal. For the UAE, it has been argued that this decision is meant to shore up its alliance with the US and is a move directed primarily at regional rival Iran. For Israel and America, speculation has tended to focus on the potential political benefits this announcement bestows on the presidential incumbents in these countries. In the case of Israel’s President Netanyahu, it has been argued that this diplomatic coup will strengthen his domestic political position by enabling him to deflect attention from the many political scandals in which he is embroiled. In the case of President Trump, it is seen as providing a foreign policy triumph that could prove crucial in vindicating his administration’s much-maligned Middle East foreign policy and boosting his chances of re-election come November.
A possibility that does not seem to have received much serious attention, at least to this author, is that this deal and the timing thereof is driven by nuclear interests. Specifically, the possibility that this policy is an Emirati quid pro quo to Israel and the US for assenting to their establishing a civilian nuclear programme. Before following this line of argument any further, it is conceded at the outset that there is a whiff of a ‘conspiracy theory’ attached to this assertion which is likely to get stronger at a time when social media seems awash in ‘fake news’ and the battle to manipulate online media narratives is raging. Critics could also charge, rightfully so, that attempting to explain a past policy decision in terms of current developments is sloppy analysis that is driven by bias rather than guided by objectivity or, less charitably, allege that using the coincidental timing of two separate events as the basis of an argument is nothing more than an attempt to deliberately mislead one’s audience.
Notwithstanding these valid criticisms, there might be sufficient grounds to explore this possibility further, especially coming as this announcement does in the same month in which the UAE celebrated becoming the first Arab nation to harness nuclear energy and against the backdrop of widespread Western fears of ‘rogue states’ in the region acquiring nuclear technology. Firmest of these grounds is the fact that, for all the apparent suddenness of last week’s announcement, the lauded deal between Israel and the UAE is the outcome of years of discreet diplomatic contact between senior Israeli and Emirati officials. Given Israel’s long-held fears about neighbouring countries establishing nuclear programs and the military attacks it has mounted against neighbouring countries’ nuclear facilities based on these fears, it is fairly reasonable to presume that the topic of the UAE’s nuclear ambitions would have come up for discussion during these secret meetings. Consider too that the UAE’s nuclear program was essentially greenlit only after it entered into a bilateral agreement with the US, Israel’s staunchest supporter, that expert observers generally concur imposed the strictest conditions on a country’s nuclear activities. Furthermore, considering the tough line the US has adopted with other countries in the region that wish to establish nuclear programmes, it can be reasonably presumed that US negotiators had seen fit to attach provisions to the deal with the UAE related to its relationship with key allies in the region such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. One leaves it to the reader to decide whether these postulations would hold up to careful scrutiny.
Even if they do not and the timing of the UAE’s announcement of the start-up and operation of its Barakah nuclear power plant shortly before it was announced that it had established formal diplomatic ties with Israel was purely coincidental, the timing of these events could STILL create the impression that the price of a nuclear program is the establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel. To the extent that the reader is willing to countenance the view that perceptions have the potential to actually influence leaders’ nuclear decision-making, it might be prudent to float this ‘conspiracy theory’ and explore the possible implications it could have for nuclear policymaking and regional relations alongside more conventional arguments that are used for the purposes of explaining nuclear policymaking and identifying the options leaders believe are available to them to strengthen their diplomatic positions and are based on the tracking and analysis of factors such as developments in the global nuclear industry, trends in the energy sector and regional politics. More so since changes currently afoot in the energy and nuclear market could simultaneously serve to increase the appeal of nuclear power to regional leaders and convince them that the room in which they have to manoeuvre when it comes to their nuclear dealings is becoming narrower. Needless to add no doubt but in a rapidly changing environment in which leaders feel compelled to make urgent decisions, perceptions and unspoken conditions might play a more prominent role in decision-making than they otherwise would.
Foremost of these changes are growing popular demands in the developed world to reduce dependence on fossil fuels in order to combat man-made climate change. This is likely to threaten the revenue streams which oil-rich countries derive from oil production. Faced with the prospect of steady reductions in oil revenue, regional leaders contemplating embarking upon nuclear programmes might conclude that the time to spend on big-ticket infrastructural legacy projects of a kind that are beloved by autocrats is running out and that they would need to spend now while funds are still relatively freely available to avoid raising too many questions or arousing public anger in future.
A consequence of reduced dependence on oil and forecasted falls in oil revenues is that rulers’ ability to dispense largesse to placate disgruntled members of marginalised groups is curtailed. This may fuel demands for fundamental social and economic change that threaten the domestic status quo and the ruling regimes in these states. Flowing from these domestic fears caused by anticipated loss of appetite for oil, national leaders may conclude that it is critical for their countries to retain their geostrategic importance as the developed world prepares to make an ‘energy transition’ in order for leaders in this latter group of countries to justify the need for continued support of their regimes and to protect them from both internal pressures and regional rivals. Employing such logic might persuade rulers that a nuclear programme is required to invest their countries with strategic value in international affairs, especially now when geopolitical currents are changing, when isolationism appears to be growing in US foreign policy circles, as evidenced by the recent withdrawal of a sizeable number of US troops from Germany, and US foreign policy priorities are shifting to strategies to contain and confront other Great Power rivals.
A nuclear programme might also provide a form of insurance in the event that bigger powers withdraw support for their regimes. Possessing an advanced nuclear technological capacity enables governments that feel threatened by more powerful neighbours to cultivate a stance of nuclear weapons ambiguity. Strategists might rationalise that the ability to exploit this ambiguity would afford them leverage to counter regional threats by inducing larger powers to offer security guarantees which prevent them from showing their nuclear hand, much like Apartheid South Africa did and Israel currently does. The danger of countries adopting this strategy is that it increases the risks that localised conflicts suck external players into the mix, á la the quagmires in Syria and Libya for example.
Turning to external players, pronouncements made by the US Department of Energy over the past year make it clear that the US plans to regain the leadership mantle in the global nuclear industry that it appeared hitherto to have ceded to other countries and utilise its nuclear policy more aggressively to advance its national interests especially in the developing world. This suggests that the civilian nuclear industry is set to become a more active theatre in the contest between the US and emerging global rivals like China and Russia which have made energy policy a cornerstone of their strategies for realising their foreign policy objectives. Increased competition in the nuclear industry caused by the US’s desire to make up lost ground on its rivals might lead regional policymakers to conclude that it would be possible to leverage nuclear plans to create and exploit opportunities to ingratiate themselves into competing rival camps. Should countries in the region that wish to pursue the opportunities presented by nuclear competition deduce that the price of entry into the American orbit is normalisation of diplomatic relations with Israel, a contentious policy position rejected by large sections of the Arab Street and many regional governments alike, recognition and pursuit of the opportunities which establishing a civilian nuclear power programme supposedly presents might destabilise governments, disrupt alliances and hence upset the balance of power in the region. As a result, the potential for conflict would increase.
For these reasons it is contended that the perception that the conclusion of the deal between Israel and the UAE represents a diplomatic quid pro quo on the part of the UAE for the establishment of its nuclear programme could portend a dangerous escalation in regional tensions. To prevent this from happening, it is critical that renewed pressure be exerted on all countries in the region to finalise and ratify the UN-backed proposal for a regional treaty that calls for the establishment of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. Only then would the world be able to hail the bilateral deal between Israel and the UAE as one which genuinely promises to usher in a period of peace across the region.
* Gerard Boyce is an Economist who is employed as a Senior Lecturer in the School of Built Environment and Development Studies at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.