Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in a webinar on Wednesday 15 Oct. 2020 for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said: Saudi Arabia had “always envisioned that normalization [with Israel] would happen.” Farhan noted that the rapprochement between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain would help bring Saudi Arabia and Israel to the negotiating table. For Israel the Abraham Accords signed with the UAE and Bahrain in September 2020 is a culmination of decade’s long struggle to normalise its presence in the region. Saudi Arabia, the Sunni leader and the Gulf States not only rejected the creation of Israel, but funded and supported the Palestinians and many of the groups that entered into a protracted struggle with the Zionist entity. But despite this support, the Gulf nations all maintained a different relationship with Israel behind the scenes for pragmatic and commercial purposes and these informal relations are now being made public and represent a major victory for Israel.
Israel has always faced numerous strategic dilemmas in the region. Its small population, lack of revenues and lack of energy resources created immense problems for it. But the Gulf nations had immense energy resources which allowed them to make large capital investments and overcome their strategic challenges. Saudi Arabia was one of the first nations to reject the UN partition plan in 1947 and contributed forces when Palestine was annexed by the Zionists. The Saudi monarchy positioned itself as the leader of the Muslim world and chief supporter of the Palestinian cause. From 1971 when the Gulf nations came into existence they held antagonistic views toward Israel. Through the Arab League the Arab position was in not recognising Israel. Both Jordan and Egypt were condemned at the Arab League for recognising Israel. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, encapsulated the prevailing mood in Gulf Arab capitals when he told the Akhbar al-Youm newspaper that: “Israel’s policy of expansion and racist plans of Zionism are directed against all Arab countries, and in particular those which are rich in natural resources. No Arab country is safe from the perils of the battle with Zionism unless it plays its role and bears its responsibilities in confronting the Israeli enemy.”
Israeli access to markets in the Muslim world was always a strategic challenge and something Israel long sought. Israel believed it was uniquely positioned to provide the goods and services that the Gulf nations needed such as its expertise in the technology required for arid climate agriculture, to surveillance systems which the many of the autocratic regimes rely on to control their populations. The Gulf’s oil wealth was something Israel desperately needed due to its precarious geopolitical reality. If these nations normalised relations with Israel it would help her alleviate her dependence on the West.
By the end of the 1970s, the loss of three wars between the Arab nations and Israel saw a waning of support for the Palestinian cause. With Egypt and then Jordan normalising relations with Israel the wider Arab governments became less concerned with their conflict with Israel and more focused on modernisation and political continuity. If Israel was to reach accommodation with the Gulf States and normalise relations it would need relations to improve with Saudi Arabia due to its influence and position in the Middle East. If Saudi and Israel had normal state-to-state relations, this would give Israeli the much needed legitimacy it desperately seeks.
The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend
Israeli and Saudi officials began realising the potential for collaboration as their concerns converged during Iran’s 1979 revolution. Whilst Israel and Iran were allies under the Shah the new clerical regime came to see Israel as its rival. The Sunni kingdom and the Zionist state were both unhappy with the emergence of the new Shi’ah regime in the region and this is where the first behind the scenes cooperation began between Israel and Saudi and the other Gulf nations. This early cooperation included Saudi Arabia giving a flight path over its territory to the Zionist state in 1981; Operation Opera, saw the pre-emptive strike on an alleged Iraqi nuclear reactor. In an interview in 2017, Steinitz, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, outlined: “We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries, and usually (we are) the party that is not ashamed. It’s the other side that is interested in keeping the ties quiet. With us, usually, there is no problem, but we respect the other side’s wish, when ties are developing, whether it’s with Saudi Arabia or with other Arab countries or other Muslim countries, and there is much more … (but) we keep it secret.”
Relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have only warmed since then, although they are still kept private by Saudi officials. In 2015, the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, met with Israeli officials in Eilat and Jordan. The meeting reportedly opened discussions regarding establishing an economic relationship that would enable El Al to fly over Saudi airspace and for Israelis to do business in the Gulf region. This was all taking place as former Saudi General Anwar Eshki and Drori Gold, Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, were both sharing a platform at the Council of Foreign Relations think tank in Washington. Eshki and Gold shook hands and discussed the nature of Iran’s threat to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as the possibility of eventual peace between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
“We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries, and usually (we are) the party that is not ashamed. It’s the other side that is interested in keeping the ties quiet. With us, usually, there is no problem, but we respect the other side’s wish, when ties are developing, whether it’s with Saudi Arabia or with other Arab countries or other Muslim countries, and there is much more … (but) we keep it secret.”
Iran was the factor that brought the monarchy of Saudi Arabia together with Israel. They have since 1979 shared intelligence and cooperated in operations by providing access and airspace to each other. The Saudi-Israel relationship is the worst kept secret and with Israel now proving to be strategically, commercially and militarily useful against Iran, this has outweighed the Saudi monarchy supporting the Palestinian cause. Israel is more useful to the monarchy in Riyadh now than to the Palestinian people.
The Gulf’s Dirty Little Secret
The Gulf States have long had relations with Israel, but kept these secret due to the public opinion against Israel in the region. In 1995 when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) voted to do away with the secondary and tertiary boycotts against Israel; ever since the Gulf States have had commercial relations with Israel, but have kept these secret due to public opinion in their own nations.
Israel and the Gulf nations have maintained ties through various organisations and economic relations. One example is through the Middle East Desalination Research Center (MEDRC) in Oman. Similar to the MEDRC and on a larger scale, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) based in the UAE remains a key area of cooperation. Both Israel and the UAE have invested heavily in creating research hubs for renewable energy, and the IRENA umbrella offered considerable scope for the two countries to expand further the technological frontier.
The Gulf States have long had relations with Israel, but kept these secret due to the public opinion against Israel in the region
Trade between Israel and GCC states exists although the majority of it is conducted indirectly and channelled through third countries and convoluted layers of shell companies. Figures provided by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics show that, in 2013, the value of Israeli exports to the UAE (through private and intermediary companies) was $5.3m and consisted primarily of homeland security products, agricultural and medical technology and communication systems. “Third-party economic ties’” also exist between Israel and Saudi Arabia and comprise mainly agricultural and technological products that are shipped via Cyprus, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
Most Gulf States have greatly expanded their defence and intelligence cooperation with the Israeli military. GCC officials have signed covert deals with Israeli defence contractors to gain access to the IDF’s prized military technology. In 2011, Israeli companies sold an estimated $300 million of military technology to the UAE. The Emirati government used Israeli military technology to secure the UAE’s oil wells. Israeli media reports have also claimed that the IDF has offered Saudi Arabia Iron Dome military technology to defend Saudi territory from Yemeni rocket launches.
The Abrahams Accords, comprises a diplomatic coup for Israel. The economic, political and strategic necessities for Israel to normalise its relations, with its seemingly belligerent neighbours, has always been critical. From an Israeli perspective normalisation with the GCC offers a moratorium but not a halt to its plan to annex the Jordan valley which would make it an integral part of the state of Israel belying the fact that the whole of the West Bank is already under Israeli occupation. Israel hopes that under US tutelage the Abrahams Accords will become the basis of proximate agreements between it and other Gulf nations allowing it to make public what was always hidden, but more critically that Israel is a legitimate nation in the Middle East.
1. Hassan Hamdan al-Alkim, The Foreign Policy of the United Arab Emirates (London: Saqi Books, 1989), 175.