Salaam, Shalom, Stratagem? Witnessing a Watershed in the UAE’s Foreign Policy

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Do you know what all Semitic languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew, have in common? All their words are built around three letters (the words’ root) that translate into an umbrella term allowing you to create numerous words out of that root. A genius invention to build entire languages on a rather simple algorithm. Had I had that insight right at the beginning of my two years of Arabic class instead of some weeks before the final exam, my life could have been a whole lot easier.

Anyway, I am not telling you this to bore you with some random tale but to show you one thing: The Arabic word سلام (salaam) and the Hebrew one שלום (shalom) stem from the same root (s(h)-l-m). Accordingly, they have the same meaning: peace. Let me spare you the hours-long lecture my Arabic teacher would have given me – no offense –listing all those words tracing back to the same root. You got the point.

The reason I am telling you (apart from showing off with my non-existing language skills, obviously) is that last week a plane had both shalom and salaam, together with the English translation (for no other reason than pleasing lingo noobs like me, I humbly assume), written at its cockpit. A rather rare occasion, especially given that this marked the first-ever direct flight between Tel Aviv, Israel, and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE).

In covering many headlines, the topics came close to an old hat in that articles focused mainly on Israel and the US. As for Israel, we were kindly reminded by commentators that the Netanyahu administration did not give in on any compromises regarding the settlements on Palestinian territory, either framed as opprobrious or inevitable, depending on the respective observer’s stance in the more than controversial matter. Concerning the United States, journalists and academics were typing their fingers to the bone by discussing whether or not this historic event, arranged by Trump’s son-in-law, had an impact on Mr. Grab-‘em-by-the-pussy’s so-called peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, more importantly for many in the West, what this means for the multi-billionaire’s chances for reelection.

Instead of adding fuel to the fire, let me add something more obvious to the debate: Where is the critical reflection on the UAE in the matter? While reading through the news cycle makes one doubt the purely peaceful intentions of Israel and the US, is there truth to the salaam part of the story?

Such a consideration must lead us to revisiting the UAE’s relations to its closest ally Saudi Arabia. It seems that the Gulf state clearly stepped out of Riyadh’s shadows.

It needs to be added, however, that the Emirati’s deal with Netanyahu was not the first, but the most salient step in emancipation from the Saudis. The times in which the UAE appeared to be nothing but a loyal subordinate to the Saud family – if ever this assessment was correct at all – are long gone. Signs of an alliance like the blockade of Qatar or accusations of Iran are only one side of an evidently strategic foreign policy. A distinct agenda from Riyadh in Yemen, a pro-Assad engagement in Syria and appeasement towards Iran are part of this strategic reorientation as well.

The United Arab Emirates, slowly but steadily, seem to become an increasingly assertive player in the region, and therefore possibly more than a backer or a kingmaker on the Arabian Peninsula. Ascribing the small state at the Persian Gulf claims to regional great power status, for now, certainly goes too far. But there is truth to the insight that Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy decision-makers, especially Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), dedicated themselves to a new pragmatism most recently materialized in their behavior towards Iran and Israel.

Since the Shi’ite and the Jewish state are (not only) united in a deep distrust towards Sunni Saudi Arabia, the remaining question is: How will the Saudi family react to the UAE’s move in the long run? They now explicitly endorsed Abu Dhabi’s step, bountifully and for the first time offering their airspace for the Israeli plane to head to the Gulf state. On the bigger picture of Arab-Israeli reconciliation, though, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and his staff remained remarkably quiet. Is it that Riyad silently agrees to the new pragmatism and waits for seizing its opportunity in the gradually shifting regional balance of power? Or is MbS simply sharpening his political knives for a comeback on his (ex-)ally MbZ?

Interesting questions with, so far, no satisfying answers at hand. Only one thing is for sure. Sadly, salaam will not come upon the region any time soon.

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