The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel recently reached a deal that will lead to full normalization of diplomatic relations between the two Middle Eastern nations. According to reports, UAE decided to recognize the Jewish country after a phone call between United States President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
In accordance with the decision, UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan abolished a law approved by the Muslim country in 1972 that had banned trade relations with Israel. On Monday, a historic first flight operated between the two countries, with members of a US delegation taking off from Tel Aviv and arriving in Abu Dhabi to much pomp and celebration in the emirates.
Iran and Turkey, powerful players in the Middle East, have come out strongly against the Emiratis in response to the recognition of Israel. However, the criticism seems a little hasty in light of the complex histories of the two nations with the Israeli state. The Iranians, under the Shahs, and the Turks, under the Kemalists, enjoyed trade and diplomatic ties with the Jewish country long before any other Muslim nation had accepted Israel.
The complicated Iranian, Turkish relationship with Israel
Both Tehran and Ankara had been close to the West, especially to Washington, when Israel was officially recognized by the United Nations as an independent nation in 1948. Since Israel was a key American ally, Iran and Turkey were among the first countries to recognize a sovereign government in Tel Aviv. Iran, however, broke off all relations with Israel after the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that led to the overthrow of the Shahs.
The new rulers of Iran were staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause, and against Israel from the outset. They accused Israel of being a Zionist state and condemned it for treating the Palestinians like sub-humans. Iran also consistently condemned the Israeli annexation of Palestinian lands over the years. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently accused UAE of ‘betraying’ Muslim world by recognizing Israel.
Turkey established diplomatic relations with Israel in March 1949. According to certain scholars of Turkish history, the decision reflected the sense of betrayal that the Turks felt towards the Arabs after the end of the great war. After the war, Arab leaders all over the Middle East had revolted against the Ottoman rule. Instigated by a British intelligence officer known as Colonel Lawrence, otherwise referred to as Lawrence of Arabia, the Arabs formed several independent kingdoms, cutting off Ankara from politics in the Middle East completely.
Since the events that followed the great war, the Kemalists, under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk, have held a deep distrust of the politics and people of the Middle East, and in particular Saudi Arabia. The legacy that Ataturk left behind sought to build a better relationship with the western world. It also cautioned Turks to stay away from the politics of the Muslim world, especially the Middle East.
However, the Kemalists, after controlling Turkey for the best part of the 20th century, were defeated in elections by the AKP party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the new millennium dawned. Erdogan championed a new foreign policy, openly identifying with the Palestinian cause and regularly issuing statements against the Israelis over human rights violations in Gaza and West Bank. Diplomatic and trade relations of Turkey, though, remain largely unaffected by the politics of the AKP.
Turkey, Israel have deep trade ties
Turkey has averaged trade close to $300 million with Israel over the past decade. More recently, this relationship has strengthened, with the Israeli Chamber of Commerce claiming that Israeli exports to Turkey have increased 39 percent to $937 million and imports to Turkey have seen a 16% increase in the past 12 months and now stand at more than $1 billion. Turkey is, according to government figures, the sixth-largest destination of Israeli exports.
Turkey is also a very important member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). International relations experts believe that Turkey is playing a balancing act between popularity in the Muslim world and its carefully calibrated foreign policy. Many observsers of the Middle East, including UAE officials, are surprised at Turkey being critical of the decision of the UAE to normalize ties with Israel.
It is believed that UAE’s gesture is the first step through which other GCC countries, led by Saudi Arabia, will try and build a diplomatic relationship with Israel so that they can gather support of the West against the influence and domination of Iran. Previously, the Arabs only feared the rise of Iran as a challenge in the Middle East, but now the rise of Turkey across the Muslim world has also sent alarm bells ringing. Turkey, already the most popular Muslim country in South Asia, is fast becoming popular in the Middle East too.