Israel and the Gulf

Iran’s rising military assertiveness after the 2003 Iraq War and pursuit of a nuclear deterrent further entrenched the pro-stability agenda that binds Israel to Saudi Arabia.

A NEWS conference with Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, following the annual summit of GCC, in Kuwait City. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A NEWS conference with Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, following the annual summit of GCC, in Kuwait City.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On November 19, Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz announced that the Israeli government possessed covert diplomatic links with Saudi Arabia. As Israel’s economic and defense links with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have been an open secret for years, Steinitz’s announcement was unsurprising. Nevertheless, his statement was symbolically significant as it broke the decades-long veil of secrecy surrounding the Israel-GCC partnership.
Many analysts have described the Israel-GCC partnership as a purely tactical alignment aimed at containing Iran and expanding Israel’s formal diplomatic recognition in the Arab world. This depiction mischaracterizes and understates the depth of the partnership. Israel established security and economic ties with the GCC bloc long before Iran emerged as a mutual threat, and this informal partnership will likely continue to strengthen even if Saudi Arabia and the UAE do not give Israel diplomatic recognition.
The current Israel-GCC security partnership emerged from a common desire to confront sources of instability in the Middle East. The first major example of a joint Israel-GCC stabilization effort was Israel’s 1981 Operation Opera strike on Iraq’s nuclear facilities. This military strike was likely undertaken with Saudi Arabia’s tacit consent, as Israeli pilots flew over Saudi airspace to Iraq without active resistance from Riyadh.
Iran’s rising military assertiveness after the 2003 Iraq War and pursuit of a nuclear deterrent further entrenched the pro-stability agenda that binds Israel to Saudi Arabia. Despite denials from Israeli and Saudi officials, numerous reports pointed to an increase in Jerusalem-Riyadh intelligence cooperation during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tenure as Iran’s president. This cooperation culminated in an alleged 2009 test of Saudi Arabia’s air defense capacity and a covert 2010 assessment of the ability of Israeli planes to pass safely through Saudi territory to Iran in the event of war.
Recent military activities like Israel’s joint air force drills with the UAE in March 2017 build directly on Ahmadinejad-era intelligence sharing, and highlight the persistence of the Israel-GCC stabilizing coalition. The Qatar crisis represents the natural extension of this coalition, as Israel and Saudi Arabia both regard Qatar’s financial support for Islamist groups as threatening to regional stability.
The Israeli government’s August 4 decision to revoke Al Jazeera’s journalism license underscored Jerusalem’s solidarity with Saudi Arabia against Qatar. Israel and Saudi Arabia’s clandestine collaboration to undermine Qatar’s influence in the Middle East demonstrates that the stabilization role served by their alignment is likely to survive even if Iran eventually moderates its belligerent conduct.
The economic dimension of the Israel-GCC partnership has equally deep roots. During the 1990s, Israeli investors expressed interest in developing economic ties with GCC countries, due to their rapidly growing financial sectors and real estate markets. Pressure from Israeli investors and GCC business owners who were interested in gaining access to Israeli capital and technology resulted in the development of state-to-state trade relations. Israel’s landmark 1996 agreement to open trade offices in Oman and Qatar began this process. This agreement was followed by Saudi Arabia’s decision to legalize Israeli capital inflows in 2005.
Even though disagreements over the status of the Palestinian territories abruptly halted Israel’s outreach efforts to Oman and Qatar during the early 2000s, Israel’s informal trade relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have grown rapidly over the past decade. Through trade liberalization initiatives, Saudi Arabia has gained access to Israeli irrigation technology. The UAE’s fledgling renewable energy sector and real estate markets have also received substantial capital inflows from Israel.
The development of person-to-person links between Israel and the GCC through trade initiatives has encouraged the development of informal defense sector cooperation. In 2016, Saudi Arabia began purchasing Israeli drones via South Africa. An October 2017 report revealed that the UAE has a long-standing partnership with Israeli businessman Metai Kokhafi, which has allowed Abu Dhabi to gain access to Iron Dome technology.
Despite these positive developments and Bahrain’s recent expression of support for Israel’s recognition, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are unlikely to establish formal ties with Israel. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir continues to deny the existence of informal cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Officially, Saudi diplomats also continue to adhere to the terms of the 2002 Abdullah Plan, which only allowed for the recognition of Israel if a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was successfully implemented.
Even though the UAE’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority has become increasingly strained in recent years, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed has mirrored Saudi Arabia’s position by maintaining informal links with Israel, while hosting a Palestinian embassy on the UAE’s soil.
The GCC’s reluctance to grant formal recognition to Israel is not necessarily problematic. In my view, Israel’s interests are maximized by maintaining informal links with the GCC, and rejecting diplomatic recognition if it comes on unfavorable terms. An unofficial bargain which makes Israeli military technology-sharing with Saudi Arabia contingent on Riyadh permanently suspending its financial support for Hamas is a suitable alternative arrangement that will amplify Israel’s security, and preserve cordial Jerusalem-GCC relations.
While many analysts have predicted that Israel’s covert partnership with the GCC is a short-term anti-Iran alignment that will unravel if Israel does not receive diplomatic recognition from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Israel-GCC partnership is stronger and more durable than many have predicted. As Arab interest in the Palestinian cause continues to wane, an informal partnership between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will continue to shape the balance of power in the Middle East for years to come.
The author is a doctoral candidate in international relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to The Washington Post, The National Interest and The Diplomat. He can be followed on Twitter @samramani2 and on Facebook @Samuel Ramani.