As analysts covered the fast-moving political alignments associated with the Qatar crisis, another closely related story has begun to gain traction in regional and international media: the increasingly close relationship between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Israel emerged as one of the earliest endorsers of the Saudi-UAE actions against Qatar, echoing its growing convergence with the two Gulf countries on many of the key political questions in the region. Despite an official ban by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on direct relations with Israel, it is clear that numerous political, commercial and military ties exist. Over the past two years the evidence for these links has become incontrovertible, and they hold very significant implications for Palestinians and the Palestinian struggle.
Just three months ago, Israeli and UAE pilots flew alongside one another during the Iniochos exercise, a joint military training session held in Greece between 27 March and 6 April. Iniochos also saw the participation of US, Greek and Italian air forces, and according to a US Air Force press release, the exercise sought to strengthen “relationships, maintain joint readiness and interoperability, and reassure our regional Allies and partners.” This was not the first time such joint exercises took place. In August 2016, Israel and the UAE also met at the US Air Force’s Red Flag aerial combat exercise in Nevada, along with Pakistan, Spain and Jordan. The public nature of these exercises points to the increasingly brazen openness of military coordination between Israel and the UAE, something that would have seemed unthinkable only a few years ago.
Another indication of warming relations was the November 2015 announcement that Israel would open a diplomatic mission in the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi. Although the mission was not formally assigned to the UAE but to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), it marked the first Israeli diplomatic presence in the Gulf state. Israeli officials have described this as a “diplomatic breakthrough,” the ground for which was prepared in 2009 by Israel’s vote for Abu Dhabi as the site for IRENA’s headquarters (against the other contender, Germany). An explicit condition of this vote was that Israel would be permitted to establish an official and publically acknowledged presence in the UAE. In February 2017, Bloomberg reported that the office could act as an embassy for Israel’s expanding ties in the Gulf.
Similarly, ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia are increasingly public. Israeli media reported in mid-2015 that the two countries had held five clandestine meetings since early 2014. In June 2015, the then director general of the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs, Dore Gold, spoke together with retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki in a public event at the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2016, Eshki, who has also served in the Saudi foreign ministry, led a delegation of Saudi academics and businesspeople to Israel where they met with leading Israeli politicians and military figures. In May 2016, former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror held a public discussion with the former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It is unlikely these meetings happened without the approval of the ruling family.
Moreover, regional negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia almost certainly took place as part of Egypt’s recent agreement to transfer two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi control. The proximity of these islands to Israel, and the fact that they could affect Israel’s shipping routes, means that the agreement represents, at least at a de facto level, Saudi consent to the 1979 Peace Agreement between Egypt and Israel, which guaranteed Israel full maritime rights in the Red Sea. Indeed, a White Paper from the Israeli-based Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies noted that “the very fact that Saudi Arabia now undertakes to uphold in practice the obligations assumed by Egypt under the peace treaty means that Israel’s place in the region is no longer perceived by Arab leader Saudi Arabia as an anomaly to be corrected.”
Such diplomatic relations are further reinforced by commercial and economic ties, most conspicuously in the security, surveillance and high-tech sectors. A significant example of this is the Israeli participation in Abu Dhabi’s mass-surveillance system, Falcon Eye, which was installed throughout the emirate in 2016. Consisting of thousands of linked security cameras and other surveillance devices, Falcon Eye was reportedly sold to Abu Dhabi in 2011 by Swiss-based firm Asia Global Technology (AGT). AGT is owned by Israeli-American businessman, Mati Kochavi, and the system itself was developed by AGT’s Israel-based subsidiary Logic Industries. A spokesperson for Logic Industries told Haaretz in 2008 that all the firm’s activities “are carried out in coordination with and under the guidance of the [Israeli] Defense Ministry and all its divisions.” According to Bloomberg, Kochavi has sold more than $6 billion in security infrastructure to the UAE.
Likewise, Israeli firms involved in surveillance and security are also marketing their services to Saudi Arabia. Israel’s largest private military company, Elbit Systems, has sold missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia through its US-based subsidiary Kollsman Inc., a fact that came to light in early 2015 following the mysterious death of a Kollsman employee while trouble-shooting one such system in the Saudi town, Tabuk. The world’s largest oil company, Saudi Aramco, has also purportedly contracted Israeli firms for cybersecurity and, according to Shmuel Bar, the founder and CEO of the Israeli-owned company Intuview, the Saudi royal family has used his company for public opinion research. Bar is a former intelligence officer in the Israeli army, and has also worked in the Israeli Office of the Prime Minister.
The relationship between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel is a very dangerous development for the Palestinian struggle. The open and increasingly public nature of these ties shows that Israel is moving closer to attaining its goal of normalizing relations with the Arab world, a central aim of the 1990s Oslo process and a guiding principle of US policy in the region for many decades. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are happy to facilitate this process to serve their regional interests. If this process continues to move forward, Palestinian rights will undoubtedly be sacrificed to the converging interests of Israel and the Gulf’s main axis of power.