On November 27, 2015, Israel opened its first diplomatic mission in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Israel's diplomatic outreach to the UAE gained widespread international attention, as the UAE monarchy has officially refused to recognize Israel's right to exist. Israeli citizens are forbidden to travel to the UAE, with occasional exceptions being granted to athletes in international sporting competitions.
Israel's diplomatic overtures towards Abu Dhabi have been followed by other conciliatory gestures towards the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Israeli defense officials have engaged in covert dialogues with their Saudi counterparts on containing Iran. Qatar has also tried to revive unofficial diplomatic ties with Israel that were severed following the 2008-09 Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip.
The expansion of Israel-GCC security cooperation can be explained by the GCC's declining concern about Palestine and Saudi Arabia's desire to import sophisticated Israeli military technology. This growth in informal cooperation has had profound implications for Israel's security and the geopolitical power balance in the Middle East.
How Declining GCC Interest in Palestine Has Strengthened Israel-GCC Ties
Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israeli policymakers have used pledges to compromise on Palestinian self-determination to neutralize the threat Arab states pose to Israel's security. Israeli diplomats have used the 1994 normalization of relations with Jordan as a precedent for subsequent outreaches to the Arab League. The Jordanian monarchy's recognition of Israel was triggered by Amman's concern that Jordan's interests in Palestine would be excluded during the implementation of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
The thaw in Israel-Jordan relations proved to be an exceptional outcome. The failure of Israeli policymakers to negotiate a workable peace settlement with the Palestinian Authority (PA) prevented a thaw in Israel-GCC relations. GCC countries have also intensely criticized Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip. In response to the 2008-09 Israel-Gaza War, Saudi Arabia urged the United States to militarily intervene to stop Israeli aggression. Qatar suspended informal diplomatic relations with Israel. The UAE's Dubai Emirate cancelled its New Years celebrations in a show of solidarity with Gaza.
Even though Qatar publicly sponsors Hamas, and Saudi Arabia provides extensive financial assistance to Palestinian organizations, the GCC's support for the Palestinian cause has become palpably less enthusiastic in recent years. GCC business leaders have tacitly displayed their frustration with PA corruption. UAE officials have become increasingly circumspect about Hamas's Muslim Brotherhood (MB) linkages, as they view an MB government as a gateway for Iranian influence. The GCC's continued patronage of Israel's strongest Arab ally and the MB's most strident opponent, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, indicate that the GCC consensus on Palestine has shifted dramatically in recent years.
As progress towards a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict has stagnated, the GCC's assistance to Palestinian nationalist movements has become increasingly tactical in nature. Saudi Arabia has exploited the breakdown in the Hamas-Iran relationship over the Syrian conflict. Riyadh has also reached out to Fatah to counter PA President Mahmoud Abbas's increasingly cordial relationship with Iranian opposition factions. These aid provisions demonstrate that Saudi policymakers have made containing Iran a greater priority than creating a viable Palestinian state.
Israel's soft power in the Middle East has been bolstered considerably by strains in the GCC-Palestine relationship. Even though representatives of the Kuwaiti and Bahraini monarchies expressed solidarity with Palestinian nationalists at the July 25 Arab League summit in Mauritania, the absence of Saudi Arabia's King Salman was a striking demonstration of the declining importance of Palestine to GCC countries.
The Gulf monarchies have also tacitly encouraged Hamas to soften its militant opposition to Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories. Israel has encouraged supervised dialogues between Hamas officials and their GCC patrons to ensure that the Palestinian terror organization embraces a moderate course in the years to come. In the eyes of Israeli policymakers, the increased reluctance of GCC leaders to antagonize Israel demonstrates that the Israel-GCC anti-Iran axis is becoming a durable feature of the Middle Eastern geopolitical arena.
Economic and Security Cooperation Between Israel and the GCC
The declining importance of the Palestinian conflict as a wedge issue between Israel and the GCC has caused the Gulf monarchies to engage with Israel in an increasingly pragmatic way. Saudi Arabia has developed clandestine business deals with Israeli companies in recent years, even though Riyadh officially maintains a stringent boycott on Israeli goods. To circumvent the trade boycott, Israeli goods have been shipped to Saudi Arabia under the purview of foreign companies. This circumvention has allowed Israeli IT products and irrigation technology to enter Saudi markets.
Israel has also made progress towards expanded economic cooperation with Qatar. Business elites in Doha have covertly expressed interest in Israeli high-tech products, which have typically been exported to India and Eastern Europe. The Qatari monarchy believes that access to these products could convince Qatari engineers who study from foreign universities to return to Qatar after graduation.
Some Israeli business elites have embraced GCC economic overtures, as they believe that deeper informal engagement with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar will prevent Israeli economic isolation. The Israeli Peace Initiative, founded by London-based Israeli billionaire Idan Ofer, has embraced economic deals with the GCC bloc as a gateway to lasting peace in the Middle East.
Even though the GCC bloc officially regards Israel as a security threat, the Gulf monarchies have greatly expanded their defence and intelligence cooperation with the Israeli military. GCC officials have signed covert deals with the 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.
Small-scale provisions of military technology and security assistance by Israeli companies to the GCC bloc have provided the foundations for expanded Israel-GCC anti-Iran military cooperation. In 2009, Saudi Arabia allegedly tested its air defences to evaluate Israel's ability to use Saudi territory for a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. During a June 2015 Council of Foreign Relations event in Washington, representatives of Israel and Saudi Arabia revealed covert diplomatic meetings between the two countries over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
These dialogues have surprising public support within Saudi Arabia. The Associated Press reported in 2015 that 53% of Saudis view Iran as Saudi Arabia's primary adversary, compared to the 18% of Saudis who viewed Israel as Saudi Arabia's biggest enemy. The amelioration of the Saudi public's belligerent hostility towards Israel has also translated into closer diplomatic linkages.
Israel supported Egypt's handover of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in April 2016. The Israeli Defense Ministry confirmed that Riyadh had given Israeli policymakers written assurances of the continued safety of the Straits of Tiran. As the Saudi monarchy's domestic legitimacy depends on continuing Riyadh's existential struggle against Iran, King Salman is likely to make similar diplomatic compromises to Israeli interests in the years to come.
Israel's strengthened economic and security cooperation with the GCC bloc is closely related to the GCC's growing indifference to the situation in Palestine, and Riyadh's single-minded desire to undercut Iranian influence in the Middle East. Even though GCC countries are unlikely to recognize Israel's right to exist, informal Jerusalem-Riyadh cooperation is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. As the United States continues its normalization efforts towards Iran, Washington needs to pay close attention to the scope and nature of Israel-Saudi Arabia collusion in the Middle East.
Samuel Ramani is a DPhil candidate in International Relations at St. Antony's College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post and Diplomat magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at samramani2 and on Facebook at Samuel Ramani.