Why Egypt Didn’t Profit From Peace With Israel As the UAE Will

The Emiratis are not burdened by the legacies of war that handicap Egyptians. 

Why Egypt Didn’t Profit From Peace With Israel As the UAE Will
A pedestrian walks by an Israeli national flag flying alongside a United Arab Emirates national flag in Netanya, Israel. (Photographer: Kobi Wolf/Bloomberg)

The agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize their relations, described by some as a “peace” deal, seems to have hit a snag over weapons purchases. The UAE is keen to  join the exclusive club of nations allowed to buy F-35 fighter jets; in exchange for allowing the transaction to proceed, Israel is seeking additional American weapon systems.

For those with a long memory, this all sounds very familiar. Egypt’s 1979 treaty with Israel was also attended by questions over weapons purchases. Indeed, President Anwar Sadat’s decision to make peace helped pave Egyptian access to American arms and military aid after he had downgraded ties with the Soviet Union and expelled Soviet military advisors. The two deals have something else in common: They have reduced pressure for a peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

But the echoes between them don’t travel much farther than that. While normalization between Israel and the UAE is expected to lead to substantial trade between both countries, there was no such windfall for the first Arab nation to officially recognize Israel. Four decades after the historic peace treaty, economic relations between the signatories are mainly limited to some high-profile natural-gas deals and Israeli tourism to Egypt.

This contributes to the common characterization of Israeli-Egyptian relations as a “cold peace” rather than a genuine friendship: cooperation and engagement between them has been limited. The reasons for this can be traced back to the historical trajectories and motivations that brought about the 1979 treaty.

The two countries had been at war with each other four times in the three preceding three decades. Egyptian and Israeli families had lost loved ones in the fighting. On each side, military and security agencies were used to regarding the other as a potential threat. The treaty allowed both countries to secure increased financial support from the U.S. while ending any serious risk of another war, but it never fully dissolved the distrust between them.

Throughout the negotiations and following the signing of the treaty, Egypt deepened its economic relations with the West, securing growing sums of aid, loans and investments. While Egyptian and Israeli governments developed robust security cooperation, there was little interest in building deep economic ties.

The U.S. tried to address this by establishing Qualified Industrial Zones in Egypt in 2004 that allowed duty-free access to the American market for goods produced with at least 10.5% Israeli input, but the output of the QIZs has never reached the expected levels.

Nor has there been much by way of people-to-people exchange. Hundreds of thousands of Israeli tourists visit Egypt each year, most of them heading to the beaches and dive sites of the Sinai Peninsula. But virtually no Egyptians cross the other way. The few who dare are often required to endure, upon their return home, extensive interrogations by suspicious security officials. (The main exception to this is a small number of Egyptian Christian pilgrims who visit holy sites in Israel and Palestine, in defiance of the Coptic Church which has banned such visits.)

Could the Israel-UAE agreement hurt the limited Israeli-Egyptian economic ties? That’s unlikely. Israeli-Egyptian gas deals, built on the logic of geographic proximity and existing pipelines, will not be affected. And although some Israeli sun-seekers will avail themselves of direct flights to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, those megacities are too expensive to represent a significant threat to the Sinai resorts.

But the absence of a history of war and greater economic compatibility between them will allow the UAE to develop a much deeper relationship with Israel than Egypt has managed in the past 40 years. It helps, too, that the UAE is much more open to foreign businesses and investments than Egypt.

Israelis are not alone in finding the Egyptian marketplace inhospitable. Both Egyptian and foreign investors have often been put off by onerous, opaque and inconsistent regulations, coupled with political intervention in the market, that disadvantage private-sector businesses. Foreign direct investment outside the energy sector has been a trickle; indeed, Egypt’s non-hydrocarbon private sector has shrunk for much of the past 5 years.

Emirati market regulations are far more business-friendly, and contract enforcement in the UAE is significantly more reliable. For perspective, the World Bank ranks the UAE 9th in the world for contract enforcement; Egypt is ranked 166th.

After four decades of peace, the annual volume of Israeli-Egyptian trade is still measured in the hundreds of millions. Only on occasion has it expanded beyond that, thanks to energy deals such as the new effort to turn Egypt into an export hub for natural gas, especially Israeli gas. The Emiratis can expect a much greater return for their agreement. Already, Israeli trade delegations are visiting the UAE, and Israel’s finance ministry expects bilateral trade to quickly reach $2 billion a year, rising eventually to $6.5 billion. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy Kaldas is an independent risk adviser and nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. 

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