Enemies with benefits: How Israel and Gulf monarchies work together
By Dr. Theodore Karasik and Jacopo Spezia Depretto
Amid public pressure, ties between Israel and Gulf monarchies will have to be limited to informal meetings, public denials, middlemen and foreign subsidiary companies.
In 1967, when asked “what sequence of events you would like to see now in the Middle East?” Saudi King Faisal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud swiftly replied, “the extermination of Israel.” Since then, narratives in Saudi Arabia and the other five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states toward Israel have undergone a dramatic change as, in April 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated that “Israelis have the right to their own land.”
Such an upheaval in official discourse has also been accompanied by a gradual and lengthy shift in the policies implemented by GCC monarchies toward Israel. Saudi Arabia contributed with personnel and resources to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the 1967 Six-Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The Arab League introduced the boycott of Zionist goods in 1945 and the “Three Nos of Khartoum” in 1967: no to peace, recognition and negotiations with Israel. The Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) proclaimed an oil embargo against Israel supporters in 1973. All things considered, political relations between the Gulf and Israel have undergone a quiet, yet sweeping, transition.
Although the warming of relations seems to be proceeding at a faster pace only recently, the first clandestine contacts were already underway decades prior. In the 1960s, Israel assisted the Saudis in countering Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s intervention in Yemen, as well as in the 1970s when it supported Sultan Qaboos of Oman’s efforts to defeat a rebellion in the Dhofar province.
Since then, a series of events have incentivized a sharper realignment of interests. The peace process between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), initiated at the Madrid Conference of 1991, led to significant openings: Qatar and Oman established trade offices in Tel Aviv, Israeli government officials visited Muscat and Manama, and the institution of the Middle East Desalination Research Center provided a forum for track II diplomacy among Israel and GCC states.
Progress in Israeli-Gulf contacts suffered a considerable drawback with the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada (uprising) in 2000. Several protests against Israel erupted throughout the Gulf, and Oman closed down Israel’s trade mission in Muscat. Similarly, in response to Israel’s Operation Cast Lead campaign of late 2008 and early 2009 in the Gaza Strip, Qatar also closed the Israeli trade mission in Doha. Saudi Arabia’s then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz turned down an invitation to Washington by pointing out US support for Israel in the intifada.
However, in the midst of Israeli-Palestinian clashes, an impactful generational shift took place within the leadership of GCC monarchies. Between 1995 and 2006, all Gulf monarchs except for Oman were succeeded by younger rulers who gradually demonstrated openness to dialogue with Israel. Subsequently, the emergence of Iran as a regional power in the aftermath of the Iraq War paved the way to further consolidation of contacts and exchanges between the various parties.
In March 2002, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud launched the Arab Peace Initiative (API) at an Arab League summit in Beirut, Lebanon. The proposal offered full recognition of Israel by all 22 Arab League states in exchange for complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and an “agreed upon” solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.
The effort was not successful, but it signaled a preliminary opening and, since then, reports of both official and informal contacts have multiplied at an exponential rate. In 2006, in the wake of the Second Lebanon War, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser, in Jordan to discuss the Shia threat posed by Iran and the Saudis’ ideas for peace.
In 2009, Israel lobbied for the United Arab Emirates to host the newly-established International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in exchange for agreement to Israeli presence. The establishment of the Israeli delegation to IRENA marked the first opening of an Israeli representation office in an Arab country in almost 20 years. In 2015, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly met with Emirati senior officials in Cyprus to discuss the countering of Iranian influence.
Not everyone is opening the door
From 2016 to 2019, Emirati and Israeli air forces have taken part in joint military exercises, along with other countries. Israel has reconnaissance drones based in the UAE. In 2018, Bahrain was reportedly seeking to normalize relations with Israel, while Israeli media reported for the first time that the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) met his Saudi counterpart on the margins of a conference in Washington for commanders of US-allied armies.
Netanyahu, announcing an unspecified breakthrough in Israel’s outreach to Arab states, declared: “What is actually happening with [the Arab states] has never happened in our history, even when we signed agreements. Cooperation between Israel and Arab states exists in various ways and different levels, though it still isn’t visible above the surface, there is much more than during any other period in the history of Israel. This is a tremendous change.”
Undoubtedly, GCC-Israel relations should not be lumped together as a uniform phenomenon. Oman, Qatar and Kuwait have followed relatively autonomous paths in shaping their dialogue with Israel. Kuwait has maintained a remarkably solid position against Israel and has deviated from the undercover openings advanced by other GCC countries. In 2018, Kuwait accused Israel of violating Lebanese sovereignty in its Operation Northern Shield to destroy Hezbollah tunnels, while Bahrain supported Israel instead.
Kuwait regularly condemns Israel for human rights violations in various international fora, while it prevents Israeli citizens from flying on its national airline. Moreover, it ruled out co-hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup together with Qatar, as it would entail allowing Israeli citizens into Kuwait.
The constitutional monarchy presents a relatively more liberal political system when compared to its GCC counterparts, which sometimes grants the Kuwaiti parliament an assertive role. Remarkably, the speaker of the national assembly gathered widespread support when he shouted “child killers” at Israeli MPs attending the Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Besides a vocal parliament, an older leadership, Arab nationalism, less pervasive security apparatuses and a history of Palestinian immigration seem to be at the root of Kuwait’s behavior.
On the contrary, Oman and Qatar have developed considerably closer ties with Israel, in an effort to assert their independence and enhance their geopolitical position as regional players. Oman, in particular, has always tried to maintain a neutral stance in foreign affairs under the leadership of Sultan Qaboos.
Hence, through its traditional modus operandi, Oman has sought a balanced approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has recognized Tel Aviv’s permanent existence in the Middle East. In 1994, Muscat became the first Gulf capital to welcome an Israeli prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin. As a result, the sultanate has emerged as a key regional actor capable of facilitating dialogue and pushing breakthroughs.
Notably, Netanyahu was received by Sultan Qaboos in Muscat in October 2018 to discuss “the achievement of peace and stability in the Middle East.” The visit to the Gulf state was the first by an Israeli prime minister in over 20 years. What is more, it saw the first-known flight of an Israeli leader across Saudi airspace, and it thus involved Riyadh’s approval.
Through its typical balancing game, Oman took advantage of the meeting by presenting itself as independent from Iran and by standing out as a regional broker in the eyes of the US government. Accordingly, Omani Foreign Minister Yousuf bin Alawi later expressed support for the Trump administration’s “deal of the century” for Middle East peace and added, “[W]e Arabs must … try to ease those fears that Israel has through initiatives and real deals between us and Israel.”
Looking at the underlying strategies tying Israel with the other GCC monarchies, a clear logic emerges from the current historical context. Israel, for its part, has been pursuing diplomatic engagement with Arab counterparts even before its own establishment. In 1919, Chaim Weizmann, a Zionist leader and future president of Israel, met with Faisal al-Hashemi, son of the grand sharif of Mecca. Together they signed an agreement, never implemented, in which Arabs would encourage Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine, while the Zionist organization would have recognized a future independent Arab state outside Palestine.
Subsequently, ever since its establishment, Israel has strenuously taken advantage of any opening by Arab countries compatible with its vital interests. In February 2019, the YouTube account of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office released an amateur video showing a closed meeting with top officials from the Gulf dismissing the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, affirming the primacy of the Iranian threat to regional stability and recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself.
The video was quickly removed, but there are few doubts that the publication had occurred by mistake. Clearly, normalization with the most prominent historical allies of the PLO has the implicit consequence of downplaying the question of Palestine and legitimizing the expansionary ambitions of Israeli governments.
Iranian influence in the Middle East
The actual shift in diplomatic posture has come from Gulf monarchies, in light of profoundly mutated domestic, regional and international contexts. The development of Iranian influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, together with the disengagement of the Obama administration from the Middle East, were commonly perceived by the Gulf and Israel, as they discovered each other as potential allies. Specifically, since 2010, unparalleled protests have broken out in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria and Sudan, with relatively smaller turmoil in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
For its part, Iran has openly supported many of these uprisings by playing into its revolutionary narrative to preserve and enhance its interests in the region. In 2011, as the events unfolded in various countries, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared: “This is what was always talked about as the occurrence of Islamic awakening at the time of the Islamic revolution of the great Iranian nation and is showing itself today.” Hence, Arab political instability and Iranian support translate into a serious threat for the geopolitical position of Gulf monarchies and for their very own regime survival.
On the international stage, the uncompromising approach of the Trump administration toward Iran has come a long way in bringing Israel and most GCC monarchies together in their quest to counter Iranian influence. Already during the Obama administration, US Secretary of State John Kerry observed that a “new alignment of interests between Israel and the Sunni Arab countries in the region against Iran presented an opportunity to shuffle the deck.” However, inasmuch as Barack Obama’s foreign policy team was wary of any enthusiasm for confrontation with Iran, the Trump administration today fosters and upholds such hostility by Israel and some GCC countries.
Besides the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, the US government is actively trying to bring Gulf and other Arab countries together to target Iran and reduce US regional presence. Israel is also seeking to partner up, with then-Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman asking: “Who supported Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement with Iran? Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. … it’s time for those moderate countries to ‘come out of the closet’ and start talking openly. Just like there’s an axis of evil, it’s time for the Middle East to also have an axis of moderate countries.”
More concretely, US President Donald Trump has announced the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA). Dubbed the Arab NATO, the initiative would function as “a bulwark against Iranian aggression, terrorism, extremism, and will bring stability to the Middle East.” It would see the participation of the six GCC states, Jordan, Egypt (which has already withdrawn) and the US.
Although Israel’s membership has not been officially brought forward, Netanyahu’s government would enormously profit from Israel’s deeper engagement with its Arab counterparts as an unofficial member by providing, for instance, intelligence support. The opportunity is already being seized as Netanyahu attended the Warsaw conference on peace and security in the Middle East in February, together with delegations from all the MESA participants. Once again, the US sponsored the event in an effort to push its stance toward Iran and to provide a diplomatic forum for Israel and Sunni Arab countries.
Israeli technology in the Gulf
As a result of such developments, the role of enemy has progressively transitioned from Israel to Iran, allowing for considerable realignment between the Israelis and GCC states. However, Israel does not merely represent a resourceful ally to contrast the regional ambitions of the Islamic Republic. Over recent years, Israeli companies have provided Gulf monarchies with world-class technologies for surveillance, espionage and military purposes, thus contributing to their domestic stability.
Since the Arab Uprisings in 2011, Gulf monarchies have increasingly cracked down on dissent by enhancing their surveillance mechanisms, updating their cybersecurity regime and upgrading their security apparatus. Israeli companies are helping because of the mutual requirement to protect the safety of society from the governments’ perspective.
In 2008, Abu Dhabi’s Critical National Infrastructure Authority bought $816-million worth of surveillance equipment from AGT international, a firm owned by Israeli Mati Kochavi, in order to monitor extractive infrastructure and public venues. Later, the same company formed a joint venture with Emirati firms to set up an Emirate-wide mass surveillance initiative called “Falcon Eye.” The project will involve a centralized system receiving live feedback from thousands of cameras and sensors installed across the whole of Abu Dhabi.
Israeli high-tech companies were also entrusted with repairing a breach into 40,000 Saudi Aramco computers allegedly at the hand of Iranian hackers. In 2014, an Israeli subcontractor contributed to the construction of a high-tech barrier along Saudi Arabia’s border with Iraq. Only recently, Israeli-founded Verint is allegedly providing Bahrain with systems to monitor many of Manama’s neighborhoods and outlying towns. The IDF, for its part, played an important role in the development of the Israeli cyber security sector, by functioning as a business hothouse with their numerous intelligence units and advanced training programs.
The Israeli government has also promoted the sector abroad by setting up the National Cyber Security Directorate within the Prime Minister’s Office. On this matter, Netanyahu has noted: “Cyber is a serious threat and a very lucrative business.” Indeed, the rapid expanse of purchasing Israeli surveillance equipment by the UAE only accelerated after the assassination of Palestinian operative Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel by a Mossad hit team in 2010. The Israelis embarrassed the Dubai police and their advanced CCTV and intelligence system at the time, prompting the UAE to recognize the utility of boosting behind-the-scenes cooperation with the Jewish state.
Arab public opinion
Netanyahu, in the aftermath of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018, stressed how Saudi Arabia “is important for the stability of the world, for the region.” His remarks highlight the strategic value of Gulf-Israel ties in spite of their clandestine nature.
However, Arab public opinion remains largely hostile to normalizing ties with Israel. In various surveys conducted by the Arab Barometer between 2006 and 2017, such rejection clearly emerged. In Bahrain, 79% of respondents were against the existence of Israel as a Jewish state in the Middle East, 51% of Kuwaiti interviewees wished for the weakening of economic relations with Israel in the future, and almost half of Saudi respondents were against the recognition of Israel, even after a hypothetical permanent settlement of all issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Notably, a delegation of senior Israeli officials had to formally cancel their participation to the 2019 Global Entrepreneurship Congress hosted by Bahrain between April 15 and 18. Israel’s economy minister, Eli Cohen, was scheduled to attend, while the deputy chief of Israel’s Innovation Authority had been invited to give a speech. However, they had to pull out following formal complaints by the Bahraini national assembly, minor street protests in Manama and the alleged publication of a threatening video by a Shia terrorist group. Later reports instead claimed the visit did take place despite official denials, with Israeli diplomats holding meetings on the sidelines of the conference.
Such developments are highly revealing of the opportunities and constraints of Israeli-Gulf ties. While bottom-up pressures limit the extent of the openings, top-down strategies seek a pragmatic approach by furthering their self-interests. Therefore, the parties will have to keep developing their relationship through informal meetings, public denials, middlemen and foreign subsidiary companies. Such a dual policy of official denial and unofficial contact might seem problematic, but it provides considerable benefits to both sides.
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