The New York Times recently published an elaborate profile of Mohammed Bin Zayed, the crown prince known as MBZ and the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi. MBZ contrasts starkly with the notorious and controversial MBS – Mohammed Bin Salman – the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.
In the article, Israel is mentioned only briefly, including that Israel had sold intelligence equipment and upgraded US-made F-16 fighter jets to the principality, which is a dominant part of the federated entity known as the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Nevertheless, in the Times piece, an entire portion of the clandestine world of Israeli-UAE relations is unveiled. Together with previous stories, the report sheds light on the extent, depth and nature of the secret relations between Israel and Abu Dhabi. But it also provides a wider perspective on the special developing relations between Israel and other Sunni states.
The article claims that over the last quarter of a century, the 58-year-old prince has turned his tiny fiefdom into a dominant force in the Middle East, but also a source for stirring instability in the region.
The basis for Israeli-Abu Dhabi cooperation emanates from two sets of common interests: one is the animosity toward Iran, and the second is the loathing and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
To achieve his goals, MBZ over the years has purchased weapons and other military equipment worth hundreds of billions dollars, mainly from the US but also from Israel.
His father, the illiterate Sheikh Khalifa, is in poor health, but is officially still the ruler of the country carrying the title of president of the UAE. He appointed as tutor to his son a radical Islamist preacher who tried to brainwash him with militant notions.
The young MBZ rejected the tutor’s sermons, which traumatized him. Instead he acquired a Western education and developed a never-ending hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood. These feelings inform his diplomatic and military policies, and his involvement in creating regional alliances.
He is a bitter rival of Qatar and Turkey, whose leaders support Muslim Brotherhood branches all over the Arab world. But he is a friend of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and to a lesser degree Saudi Arabia, all of which oppose the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who is a strong opponent of Hamas, which is the Palestinian extension of the Egyptian branch of the Muslim brotherhood, considers MBZ a strong ally. In that sense so does Israel, although Israeli policy, as designed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in regard to Hamas, is not straightforward rivalry but rather more complicated.
For Netanyahu, Hamas is a sort of “frenemy” – a combination of enemy but also friend. This is because Hamas, which controls Gaza and challenges the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), unwittingly serves Netanyahu’s ultimate goal: to undermine Palestinian national aspirations, and along the way “kill” the notion of two states, Israel and a united Palestine in Gaza and the West Bank.
The Times story didn’t say which Israeli company upgraded Abu Dhabi’s F-16 fighter planes – both Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Elbit Systems are actively involved in upgrading Russian and US-made warplanes.
In the past, the two companies competed against each other using smear campaigns in their efforts to obtain international tenders. By doing so, they reduced their own chances to win contracts. After an incident in a bidding to upgrade Colombian fighters, the Defense Ministry stepped in and forced them to work together and cooperate on some sensitive cases, such as selling weapons to Arab and Muslim nations – thus making this kind of security and weapons deal less private and more government-to-government (G2G).
One can assume that upgrading Abu Dhabi’s F-16 is a similar case in which the Defense Ministry not only approved it but also imposed a joint venture on IAI and Elbit. No doubt that the deal had to be approved also by the US government. In every deal that involves US-made military systems, Israel needs to receive a license from the Pentagon and the White House. In the case of Abu Dhabi, it was easy to obtain approval since successive US administrations and especially the Donald Trump presidency consider the UAE, Abu Dhabi and MBZ, in particular, friends and allies.
As for the intelligence ties, it was reported in the past that NSO and Verint – two companies based in Herzliya with international subsidiaries – sold their systems to Abu Dhabi. Verint, which defines itself as “a leader in actionable intelligence,” manufactures and sells software for bugging equipment to intercept phone, fax, radio communication and computers as well as analyzing the data obtained.
NSO sold to MBZ – who is also deputy commander of the UAE armed forces – its notorious Pegasus software. The software enables its operators to stealthily infiltrate all kinds of smartphones, steal data, and put the user under constant surveillance, without anyone noticing. Human rights groups around the world have criticized MBZ and his government, police and security services for using the Israeli-made equipment to spy on political opponents and harass human rights activists and abuse dissidents.
NSO was connected, time and again, to aggressive cyber warfare, by selling Pegasus to numerous security services, including tyrannical regimes such as Myanmar, enabling them to persecute human rights activists and political dissidents.
In Mexico, the company name was even linked to the death of a local investigative journalist. One of NSO’s founders and current owner, Julio Shiloh, tries to cleanse his conscience and name by granting interviews to sympathetic interviewers. Yet despite NSO damaging the already deteriorating Israeli image as an unscrupulous supplier of lethal weapons, the Defense Ministry keeps supporting him by approving his request for export licenses.
The ties with Abu Dhabi began under the radar, benefiting from determined efforts by the Israeli security establishment to conceal them and prevent publication in the media. It was Mati Kochavi, an Israeli businessman, who opened the gates for Israeli technology and military products to the small Emirates. Embarking on an ego trip to glorify himself, Kochavi revealed in a speech in Singapore more than a decade ago that he was selling Israeli hardware and software to Abu Dhabi.
Via his Swiss-based firms and his local Israeli company, Logic, he sold homeland security equipment to protect the principality’s maritime oil and gas installations, providing them with both cyber defense shields and physical security for drones.
Kochavi employed senior Israeli military experts and former chiefs of its intelligence and military, such as General Amos Malka, former head of Military Intelligence, and General Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, former commander of the Israel Air Force.
For this heady venture, Kochavi chartered a private passenger plane and ferried dozens of Israeli experts from Tel Aviv circuitously via Cyprus to conceal his dealings with Abu Dhabi. His employees stayed in a secluded posh neighborhood, and worked in rotating shifts of a week to two weeks.
Around 2012, Kochavi’s charm and luck began to run out. Slowly but steadily he, his businesses and influence were dwindling. Avi Leumi, the controversial founder and CEO of Aeronautics Defense System (ADS), an Israeli manufacturer of drones, entered into the vacuum he had created.
Leumi worked with Kochavi, but though Abu Dhabi’s security establishment wasn’t happy with his drones’ performance, he somehow managed to stay in the game. The professional and financial crisis between the two states threatened to damage their strategic cooperation against Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Mossad, Israel’s foreign espionage agency, moved in to salvage the relations.
One of the traditional assignments of the Mossad is to operate as an alternative foreign ministry and manage the secret ties between the Jewish state and the Arab and Muslim world.
Tevel is the special Mossad department in charge of this mission. At the time, the head of Tevel was David Meidan. Nowadays he and Leumi, who moved his business to Cyprus, are partners representing IAI and other Israeli security producers in the emirates.
The big money dazzled some Israelis involved in the deals, and they found themselves fighting each other in legal battles in courts and arbitration, some of which are still taking place.
Another byproduct of the special Israel-Abu Dhabi ties, which is not a coincidence, is that the Emirate’s F-16s, alongside their Egyptian counterparts, have bombed ISIS positions in the Sinai Peninsula.
The IDF, too, is involved in this war on terrorism, according to many reports, by providing the Egyptian military and its allies with intelligence data and sending its air force for air operations.
Further east, the UAE air force is also operating together with Egypt in the civil war in Libya, helping the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, who is trying to take over the entire country and is supported by the US, France and Russia.
Is it another coincidence that the French newsletter, Intelligence on Line, reported a few months ago that Israeli intelligence representatives met with General Haftar?
Netanyahu has repeatedly boasted that Israel has managed to form an anti-Iranian coalition with some Arab states known as the “Sunni Alliance,” together with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan.
While this is true, it is also true that the Israeli contribution to the alliance, which is run under the radar, is mainly selling intelligence and other military hardware. But the chances that the relations will one day surface into the open are very slim, as long as there is no movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front. And such a probability is very low, as long as Netanyahu remains in power.
Yet one has to admit that the secret ties with Abu Dhabi and other Sunni countries have given Netanyahu at least one important dividend, for himself and his ideology. In return for Israeli military technology and equipment, the Sunni states have turned a blind eye to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, neglected the Palestinian question, and practically allowed Israel to do whatever it wishes there.
IAI, Elbit and the Defense Ministry declined to comment. David Meidan said that he is a private citizen, and does not share information about his business with the public.■Yossi Melman is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. He tweets at @yossi_melman
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