On Aug. 14, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreed to normalize diplomatic relations in exchange for a suspension of Israeli annexation plans in the West Bank. International reactions to this historic deal were sharply polarized, but the two main strategic rivals of the United States, Russia and China, responded cautiously to the announcement. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not endorse the deal and instead released a statement emphasizing that the Middle East’s stability depends on resolving the “Palestinian problem.” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Zhao Lijian did not explicitly answer a question posed to him about the Israel-UAE normalization but rather emphasized China’s unwavering support for Palestinian self-determination.

Russia and China’s cautious responses to the Israel-UAE normalization reflect their commitment to balancing favorable relations with all major regional powers while also revealing their ambivalence about the implications of the so-called Abraham Accord. Russia views the normalization as an opportunity to bolster its regional standing but is concerned by the deal’s implications for the military balance against Iran. Although China welcomes Israel-UAE coordination against Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, Beijing is uncertain about the stabilizing impact of the normalization deal and its potential implications for Chinese economic interests in the Middle East.

The Russian response

Although the Abraham Accord’s proponents hail it as a triumph of U.S. diplomacy, Russia sees geopolitical opportunities emanating from the Israel-UAE normalization deal. Former Russian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Andrei Baklanov argued that the normalization would boost Russian exports to both countries and asserted that the Abraham Accord was a partial triumph for Russian diplomacy as Moscow hosted the first Israel-Gulf dialogue summit in January 1992. Since the normalization deal was unveiled, Russia has taken steps to raise its diplomatic profile in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov pledged on Aug. 21 to convene an intra-Palestinian dialogue summit as soon as COVID-19 abates. On Aug. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the peace process. If the U.S. is unable to frame itself as an honest broker in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Russia could reiterate its offer in May to spearhead a revival of the UN-backed Middle East Quartet talks.

Notwithstanding the economic and diplomatic opportunities that Russia could accrue from the Abraham Accord, the Kremlin views a hardened Israel-UAE axis against Iran with considerable unease. Russia welcomed the growing frequency of UAE-Iran dialogue over the past year and has promoted its collective security plan in the Persian Gulf to Emirati officials. An Aug. 17 article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a leading Moscow-based newspaper, stated that the Abraham Accord would prevent the UAE from acting as an intermediary between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and predicted that the normalization deal would lead to a “sharp cooling” of UAE-Iran relations. If the U.S. proceeds to sell F-35s to the UAE and offers Israel sophisticated weaponry to preserve its qualitative military edge, Iran will likely pressure Russia to sell it defensive weapons systems, such as the S-400. If Russia’s regional balancing strategy causes it to reject Tehran’s request for military technology, the marked strengthening of Russia-Iran relations over Moscow’s support for the removal of the UN arms embargo could be jeopardized.

The reaction in China

China’s perspective on the Israel-UAE normalization is similarly ambiguous. On the one hand, China welcomes the potential for enhanced Israel-UAE military cooperation against Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean, as it views Ankara as a destabilizing force in the region. Prominent Chinese experts, such as Zou Zhiqiang from the Shanghai International Studies University, have expressed concerns about the destabilizing impact of Ankara’s November 2019 maritime security agreement with Libya. Although China echoes Turkey’s support for the UN-recognized Government of National Accord, some members of the Chinese expert community view Ankara’s military intervention with unease and regard it as an escalation of its geopolitical rivalry with Saudi Arabia. As China’s ultimate goal is to preserve a stable balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean, it welcomes the consolidation of the Israel-UAE axis as a deterrent against prospective Turkish expansionism.

In spite of its tacit support for Israel-UAE coordination against Turkey’s regional ambitions, some Chinese experts are doubtful that the deal will result in regional stability. Liu Zhongmin, an expert at the Shanghai International Studies University, argued that the Abraham Accord could sharpen divisions in the Arab world and potentially lead to Hamas becoming “more radical.” Li Shaoxian, the dean of the Chinese Academy of Arab Studies at Ningxia University, claimed that the deal would not “bring a new era of peace in the Middle East,” as he was convinced that Israel would eventually resume its annexation of the West Bank. As the expansion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the Middle East depends on regional stability, Beijing will keep note of polarizations resulting from the agreement.

Beyond the potential destabilizing impacts of the deal, Chinese officials are concerned by its potential to crowd out commercial opportunities. The relationship between Dubai-based port operator DP World and China has been fraught with competition in the past, which was reflected in their 2019 dispute over Djibouti, and the synergy in timing between this deal and China’s port construction ambitions in Haifa could sharpen that rivalry. Furthermore, the reassertion of U.S. diplomatic influence in the Persian Gulf resulting from this deal could cause Washington to pressure both Israel and the UAE on their commercial links with China. On the same day that the normalization agreement was made public, U.S. officials also announced that they were on the verge of a deal to exclude China from Israeli 5G networks, and progress in this direction is alarming for Beijing.

Although Russia and China have reacted cautiously to the Abraham Accord and their state-aligned media outlets have often downplayed the deal as an election campaign ploy from President Donald Trump, they have numerous opportunities to win and lose from a normalization between Israel and the UAE. If this deal results in F-35 transfers to the UAE or in more Arab countries following in the UAE’s footsteps, Russia and China will continue assess opportunities and liabilities stemming from this agreement in the months to come.

 

Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East. He can be followed on Twitter@samramani2. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

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