Three decades to get here: Israel’s leading expert looks back at Gulf ties

“The Gulf is a special place. In many ways – economy and history and culture – it is more related to the Indian subcontinent and Asia."

Israeli model May Tager, holding an Israeli flag, poses with Dubai-resident model Anastasia, holding an Emirati flag, during a photoshoot for FIX's Princess Collection in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, September 8, 2020. (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)
Israeli model May Tager, holding an Israeli flag, poses with Dubai-resident model Anastasia, holding an Emirati flag, during a photoshoot for FIX's Princess Collection in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, September 8, 2020.
(photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)
Around twenty years ago, there were few experts in Israel on the Gulf and a paucity of knowledge about the monarchies and the countries that stretch from Oman to Kuwait. Israel had spent most of its formative years in conflict with powerful states like Egypt in the 1950s, and the Jewish state had relations with countries like Iran and Turkey.
Now things are a bit reversed: Iran is a major threat, Turkey is hostile and the Gulf states offer the promise of peace and prosperity.
Among Israel’s leading experts on these states is Yoel Guzansky, a senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies. Twenty years ago, he felt the need to concentrate on the Gulf, he says in an interview. There were just a handful of researchers then, mostly gathered around Yossi Kostiner at Tel Aviv University. 
“I fell in love with the Arabian Gulf. And I was fortunate enough when I left the [Prime Minister’s] Office that I could start going to the Gulf. I was invited many times with my Israeli passport and it wasn’t a problem – and for a decade I went back and forth, and I met Gulfies in the US and Europe,” he says.  
According to Guzansky it’s important to make a distinction between diplomatic and security ties. Israel has had connections in these countries going back many years, but most of this was not public.
For instance, he recounts a story relating to Oman where Omanis thanked him for Israel’s support. “I said what are you talking about? I knew about some of the connections,” but not the depth of the ties. “Israel helped Sultan Qaboos and others, and even the Saudis in the war in Yemen, so the connections are long term,” he says. After the Oslo Accords, a new era began and Israel had limited open ties in the 1990s.  

THIS WAS true with Qatar as well, which later became a key funder of Gaza and has links to Turkey and support for the Muslim Brotherhood. In the end, Israel made peace with the UAE and Bahrain, two countries that are close to Saudi Arabia and broke relations with Qatar in 2017. Now Riyadh and Doha may be patching things up. Israel, as always, must navigate between these complex relations in the region.  
“The security dimension got stronger with the rise of Iran – and I would say there was a big push, actually during the Obama administration. The fear that Obama would turn to the Iranians changed the situation of the US in the region and brought the Saudis and Emirates together,” he says. This helped bring Israel, the UAE and Bahrain closer together and also into consensus with Riyadh.  
“The Gulf is a special place; in many ways, its separated from the region. In economy and history and culture, it is in many ways more related to the Indian subcontinent and Asia; most of the population in the Gulf is not native but is from Asia, and it is fascinating,” notes Guzansky. This means that while the Gulf is important to the Arab and Muslim world, it is also closely linked to what is happening further east. It is not the traditional heart of the Middle East – like Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad.  
The expert points out that Israel appears to be rushing quickly into these new ties. This is partly because the Middle East has been a lonely place for Israel in recent years.
Israelis are excited. But are they moving too fast? “We must understand it comes with a caveat: There is a price to pay and there are sensitivities," he cautions.
"Let me remind you of a very interesting thing: this is an absolute monarchy and it’s hard to know what people think," Guzansky says. What this means is that the relations today are pragmatic and about interests, not just about the positive headlines that appear to be glowing with stories of coexistence and new friendships.  

THERE ARE many challenges ahead. First of all, the question of whether Saudi Arabia might also normalize ties with Israel is one issue. Discussions at the recent Manama dialogue conference in Bahrain showed that there are two sides to that Saudi equation. In addition, there are the F-35 sales that the UAE expects from the US as well as expectations for movement on the Palestinian issue.
Many issues could jeopardize the relationship. It appears that Turkey, for instance, is maneuvering to encourage Israel to be lured away from new ties with Greece and the UAE.
The question in the end is whether the peace will become stronger or end up like Israel’s peace with Jordan and Egypt. So far there are many positive signs. But Israelis should learn about these new countries and appreciate the sensitivities in the Gulf.  
Economics will help underpin the new ties. Guzansky pointed out that some "250 Israeli companies were there [in the Gulf] and we sold weapons before the accords.” This means that what we are seeing now is more about companies able to operate openly, rather than a totally new phenomenon.