The New Year is a time to reflect on the events of the past year and to focus on the events that the press all but ignored but will capture the attention of historians for decades to come. Consider the Middle East and unlikely events that led to peace in a region where peace long seemed impossible. After the 1967 and 1973 wars failed to destroy Israel, the battle evolved from tank commanders to jet-hopping diplomats. U.N. and other international organizations condemned Israel and Arab borders that were all but closed to trade and tourism.
That contentious paradigm shifted twice at the close of the 20th century. In 1978, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat normalized relations with Israel, breaking the de facto state of war between Israel and the entire Arab world. This historic accord opened the door to Jordan’s King Hussein and Israel’s Prime Minister Rabin implementing the Wadi Araba Treaty in 1994.
Since then there has been a continuation of an uneasy Cold War between Israel and most of the Arab world.
Then, some men of vision decided to take a fresh look at the intractable problem. While former President Donald Trump and his envoy, Jared Kushner, certainly played a historic role, the most profound shift occurred among Arab leaders. Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, is arguably the most powerful ruler in the Arab world. His change of heart helped change the world.
In a historic move, after 49 years, the United Arab Emirates decided to fully normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. This was the first time that an Arab government made peace with Israel in more than 25 years, when Israel’s neighbor, Jordan, signed a treaty with the Jewish homeland.
The UAE shift was dramatic and complete. Not only was Israel diplomatically recognized by the UAE and ambassadors exchanged, but the Emirates opened its doors to Israeli tourists and investors. Soon, the two nations began cooperating on fighting COVID-19 and other health measures. Special student visas allowed citizens to study in each other’s countries. Scholars visited to meet their colleagues and some joint research projects emerged. Trade grew rapidly.
Soon Israelis were celebrating Passover in Dubai hotels, posting their happy pictures on social media.
By bringing together two of America’s closest and most capable partners in the region, which was long seen as impossible to do, this agreement is an important step towards building a more peaceful, secure and prosperous Middle East. Mohammed bin Zayed was one of the main architects of this agreement. It would not have happened but for the wisdom of this brave prince.
The Biden administration would be wise to work with Prince bin Zayed to enlarge and extend the benefits of this historic peace offering.
Certainly, Prince Mohamed bin Zayed is not standing idle. He has made important diplomatic demarches with Israel and Iran: He opened the UAE embassy in Tel Aviv in July 2021, and sent his brother and right-hand man, National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoon, to Tehran to meet with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi.
The UAE was elected to the U.N. Security Council for 2022-23, a post that the UAE plans to use to contain Iran-sponsored violence across the region.
In August, the UAE’s declaration to the U.N. Security Council on maritime safety urged “member states to uphold freedom of navigation as a key principle of international law” and urged all actors “to commit to establishing confidence by opening lines of communication at sea,” thus preventing “calculation errors” and “promoting restraint.” In short, the United Nations should ensure that Iran does not attempt to close or harass the shipping traffic in the Arabian Gulf, which would likely trigger war.
The UAE is creatively using its non-permanent Security Council seat to establish an ad hoc dialogue in order to defuse the maritime tensions around the Straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandeb while also bilaterally engaging Iran and Israel. It is inspired diplomacy that could head off war while promoting prosperity in a world already suffering from supply-chain issues.
In a November meeting between UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the first in nearly a decade, marked a turning point in their bilateral relations—healing a long rift and aligning the two nations on trade and other regional issues.
Mutual economic interests have been the main driving force behind this rapprochement. As Abu Dhabi relies more and more on economic diplomacy to promote its post-pandemic recovery, Ankara is looking for new investments and economic partners at a delicate time for its economy and its fragile currency. The number of cooperation agreements signed between the two countries is surprising and promotes regional peace: UAE’s establishment of a $10 billion fund for strategic investments in Turkey and talks regarding a possible swap agreement between central banks to build up reserves in Turkey to support Turkey’s ailing currency show creativity and initiative. And it has worked. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s recent visit to the United Arab Emirates shows how determined both sides are to move forward on the established path. Erdoğan’s visit, scheduled for February, further underlines this point.
And peace is breaking out in other parts of the Middle East. Prince Mohamed bin Zayed’s courageous actions have helped lead to Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan also thawing the regional chill with Israel to make peace with Tel Aviv.
The UAE has suggested reconciling with Qatar and de-escalating tension with Syria, which has been bedeviled by civil war for more than a decade.
After a decade of military and political assertiveness, the UAE is now shifting to economic initiatives. This, too, will promote regional peace. In war or diplomacy, either one side wins or both sides lose. With trade, all sides win.
Much as the United States used the World’s Fair at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the UAE has launched Expo Dubai to promote peace through shared prosperity. The Expo brings together different cultures and provides a forum to showcase new technology and new ideas. And it has produced some tangible progress. The UAE-Israeli-Jordanian renewable-energy agreement was signed at the Expo as was a major agreement with France, which includes the sale of Rafael fighter jets.
So, what does all of this mean? Peace and regional cooperation are emerging across the Middle East, and America’s two biggest allies in the region—Israel and the UAE—are catalysts in that historic transformation.
The Biden administration—focused on the coronavirus pandemic, inflation and the supply chain—would make an enormous strategic blunder if it abandons America’s interests in the Middle East, as it did in Afghanistan. Events are finally moving in the right direction. No need to jump ship now.
Prince Mohamed bin Zayed’s name should stand beside historic peacemakers Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk, Mikhail Gorbachev and Martin Luther King Jr. (whose national holiday will be celebrated on Jan. 17).
If President Joe Biden is looking for a few foreign successes to get behind, he could phone Mohammed bin Zayed or invite him to the White House. Both the president and the country could use some good news in 2022.
Niger Innis is chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), an 80-year-old human rights organization with consultative status with the United Nations.
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