Security Ties Between Israel and Gulf States Strengthen, Changing Face of Region
The cooperation comes following the signing of the Abraham Accords normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco
When Israel normalized relations with several Arab countries in August 2020 as part of the Abraham Accords, there was great surprise. Cooperation which was once only practiced behind the scenes was suddenly in the spotlight. Previously unthinkable, ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Morocco were now out in the open.
Surpassing expectations, ties between the countries have strengthened significantly in a short period.
With Israeli leaders hosting US President Joe Biden this week, the issue of regional security cooperation will take center stage. The mere anticipation of a statement on possible progress toward normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia during President Biden’s visit is a testament to the great change in the region.
The Biden White House has repeatedly said it wants to further promote Israel’s integration into the Middle East.
The surge in security cooperation in a wide range of fields, especially between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, is unprecedented and will likely deepen, experts say.
Further pushing the cooperation is the American move to switch its military coordination with Israel from its European command center to CENTCOM, the United States Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes the Middle East, as well as Egypt in Africa, and Central Asia and parts of South Asia. This means that Israeli military representatives are working together with the country’s newly found allies and existing adversaries which do not even recognize the Jewish state, including Saudi Arabia.
Since ties were established, Israel has held several military drills with the armies of Arab states. Last year, Israel, the US, the UAE and Bahrain held a naval drill in the Red Sea. Maritime security is a mutual interest that brings the sides closer together.
The signal to Iran was clear.
Amidst a tumultuous period in the region, the benefits of cooperation for both sides are great.
“The Gulf states have small and relatively inexperienced militaries. Israel can contribute a lot of know-how,” said Dr. Moran Zaga, an expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “For Israel, it means getting geographically closer to Iran. For both sides, the partnership can help against regional threats that are not Iran, such as Iranian proxies or even ISIS and other elements.”
While a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities hinges on many complex factors, alliances with Tehran’s neighbors certainly enhances its abilities.
“For Israel, as soon as it is not isolated in terms of security, this completely changes its position,” Zaga added.
There is sharing of intelligence, sources and methods. For both sides, they will want to be cautious about what they are sharing. However, the Iranian threat makes them more willing to undertake the risk that is involved in security cooperation.
Still, the open nature of the relations is new and both sides are cautious.
“There are a lot of obstacles,” said Professor Joshua Teitelbaum from the department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, “There is sharing of intelligence, sources and methods. For both sides, they will want to be cautious about what they are sharing. However, the Iranian threat makes them more willing to undertake the risk that is involved in security cooperation.”
Israel sees Iran as its arch-enemy. While the threat may be perceived differently in the Gulf, there is also concern in those countries about Iran’s intentions.
Since ties have been made official, there have been scores of mutual visits, both of military and other security bodies. Israel is reportedly set to send a military attaché to Bahrain. The ambiguity regarding the appointment is a testament to the delicate nature of the new relations.
But in a testament to their strength, figures released by Israel’s Defense Ministry earlier this year show that the Abraham Accords countries made up 7% of Israel’s defense exports in 2021.
According to Brig. Gen. (res.) Yair Kulas, head of the International Defense Cooperation Directorate of the Israel Ministry of Defense (SIBAT), “shifting global priorities and partnerships such as the Abraham Accords,” were part of what led to a record-breaking year in defense exports in the previous year.
Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz, have hinted that there will be increased security coordination in the future, especially regarding air defense systems. This could significantly change the way conflict is handled in the region. Drone attacks from Iran and its proxies in Yemen have plagued both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Israel has the technology and experience that could help thwart the threat.
Last month, Gantz called the Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD) “the first element of the vision … that will strengthen the cooperation between Israel and countries in the region.”
While much of the cooperation likely will remain behind the scenes, it already has the balance of power in the region shifting. This comes in tandem with the US seemingly scaling down its involvement in the Middle East, with its attention elsewhere.
“As that happens, countries like Israel become more important in the region,” said Teitelbaum. “As cooperation grows, Israel becomes a more of a player than a country that is just involved in wars. It has what to give these countries at times when the US might not necessarily be so forthcoming.”
“Israel cannot replace the US, but in missile defense and intelligence it can play an important role while also receiving valuable intelligence from these countries,” he added.
As the relations between Israel and the Gulf deepen, this further widens and highlights the gap between Israelis and Palestinians. It undoubtedly drives a wedge between the Palestinians and the Gulf states. It doesn’t promote a solution, there is only regression.
The changing alliances in the region also will impact the decades-long Israel-Palestinian conflict.
“As the relations between Israel and the Gulf deepen, this further widens and highlights the gap between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Zaga. “It undoubtedly drives a wedge between the Palestinians and the Gulf states. It doesn’t promote a solution, there is only regression.”
Still, statements coming out of the Gulf states continue to show solidarity with the Palestinian cause.
“When the Gulf states are looking for cooperation or to purchase new defense systems, it is not the Palestinians they are thinking about, but rather of a myriad of other threats they face,” Zaga added.
The normalization of relations, including talk of thawing relations with Saudi Arabia, are a shift from the paradigm that saw the solution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a prerequisite for any recognition of Israel in the region.
“The conflict isn’t going away, even though Israel is making progress with countries in the region,” said Teitelbaum. “Israel will still face all the ensuing problems that come with the conflict. But the Gulf states will not stand in the way of benefits that they can gain by having relations with Israel.”
Any progress made between Israel and Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks will help solidify the new alliances in the region, making its not so distant past unrecognizable.