Once top secret, a multinational meeting of military leaders in March formed the basis for discussions that US President Joe Biden is planning for his imminent visit to the Middle East.
For three months, a clandestine get-together of US, Israeli and Arab military chiefs remained secret. Then on June 26, The Wall Street Journal printed an exclusive, revealing details of a meeting hosted by the US in Egypt’s Sharm e-Sheikh the previous March, which had apparently included military leaders from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. They had met in secret, according to the report, to explore ways of coordinating a joint response to Iran’s growing missile and drone capabilities.
As the WSJ pointed out, these talks marked the first time that such a range of ranking Israeli and Arab officers had met under US military auspices to discuss how to defend themselves and each other against a common threat.
A glance at the participants suggests that something else is new on the regional scene – the positive effect that the Abraham Accords is having in expanding the concept of normalization across the moderate Arab world. No longer does the idea of sitting round a table with Israelis seem inconceivable, even though Qatar and Saudi Arabia have no formal diplomatic relations with Israel. On the contrary, it is becoming increasingly obvious to Arab leaders that linking up with Israel’s hi-tech capabilities across a multitude of fields brings them huge benefits not otherwise available.
For example, Arab countries appear increasingly keen to access sophisticated Israeli air defense technology, following a succession of recent drone strikes on oil facilities and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, perpetrated by Iran or its proxies. One such, carried out in September 2019, was claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
It hit an Aramco compound in Saudi Arabia, shutting down about 5% of global oil production and caused chaos in financial markets. A three-drone strike directed by Hezbollah against Israel’s Karish oil rig in the Mediterranean on July 2 was shot down by the IDF.
During his visit, Biden is due to attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), to be augmented by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. It will no doubt include on the agenda the regional threat to security posed by Iran and its proxies. Collaborative counter-measures arising from the Sharm e-Sheikh meeting in March might be reviewed.
Media reports claim that the participants in the March meeting discussed which country’s forces would intercept drone, ballistic or cruise missile attacks. They agreed in principle to coordinate rapid notification systems when aerial threats are detected, but apparently agreed that for the present a US-style military data-sharing system would not be set up, but that alerts would be sent via phones and computers.
Presidential visits invariably generate intense media speculation, and the word is that during his time in Israel and Saudi Arabia, Biden will announce further steps in the warming relationship between the two nations. There is talk of Biden brokering a new Saudi-Israeli agreement, which is believed to include allowing Israeli commercial flights over the kingdom, and Israeli approval of a plan to transfer Egypt’s control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.
In 2017, against much internal objection, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ratified a treaty to hand over Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. The uninhabited islands figure in the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, which promises safe passage to Israeli civilian and military ships through the narrow waterways of the Straits of Tiran. The transfer was never finalized, and requires Israel’s consent. That now seems forthcoming.
Visits by US presidents to Israel might almost be considered routine (six did so, some more than once), but Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia was long weighed in the balance. The fact that it is going ahead is a mark of the importance that Washington attaches to it. Liberal opinion in the US declares itself outraged at the idea of Biden shaking hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), in the light of the Khashoggi affair.
On the afternoon of October 2, 2018, journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of MBS entered the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul, never to emerge. Having listened to purported recordings of conversations inside the consulate made by Turkish intelligence, a UN special rapporteur concluded that the journalist had been “brutally slain” inside the building by a 15-strong team of Saudi agents, and that his body was then dismembered.
Khashoggi’s murder sparked worldwide outrage. US intelligence agencies concluded that the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, had approved the operation. MBS denied playing any role. A year after the killing, a Saudi court found five people guilty of directly participating in the killing and sentenced them to death.
The sentences were later commuted to 20-year prison terms. Three others received lesser sentences for covering up the crime. While Turkey has signed off on its involvement in the case, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and MBS have exchanged visits, liberal opinion in the West refuses to accept the Saudi judicial outcome, and continues to charge MBS with responsibility for the assassination.
It is against this background that Biden sets foot in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, hoping to achieve a clear commitment by Saudi to increase oil production over time, thus fostering a drop in prices. With renewal of the Iran nuclear deal now unlikely, he will be seeking to expand cooperation between the Gulf states, other Arab countries and, as far as possible, Israel, to counter the threat from Iran.
High on Biden’s list of objectives will be to advance regional normalization, but especially the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Media reports claim that Washington is working on “a road map to normalization” between the two countries, and that during his visit, Biden will discuss a “vision for integrated missile defense and naval defense” with his hosts. In other words, the secret meeting at Sharm e-Sheikh in March 2022 virtually set the agenda for this month’s presidential visit.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land 2016-2020. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com.