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The six kingdoms of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates [UAE]) have viewed Israel as their natural enemy from its founding. The Jewish State’s repression of Palestinians, the numerous wars it fought against Arab enemies, and religious, political, and sociocultural differences virtually guaranteed that, even in the long run, the two siders would remain enemies. And yet, in the last decade relations between Israel and some Arab monarchies have gradually improved and in 2020 a milestone was reached. The signing of the Abraham Accords by Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain heralded a new era of peaceful and cooperative relations. Why now? What explains the timing behind the rapprochement between some Arabian rulers and Israel? 

This essay argues that the reasons are found in four broad areas: foreign policy, the economic and security realms, and domestic politics. In foreign policy, the realization that Iran was the archenemy not just of Saudi Arabia and the UAE – the two most powerful Arab monarchies – but also of Israel. Moreover, the failings of U.S. Middle East policy – the Obama Administration’s missteps during and in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, its 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that was stridently opposed by both the Gulf states and Israel, and the recognition that the Trump White House’s support of its Gulf allies was not unconditional – further induced Gulf-Israeli amity. GCC member states have also come to recognize that the benefits of détente with Israel lay in cooperation in the security and intelligence fields and expanded ties to the only innovation economy in their region. Finally, in terms of domestic policy, for a younger generation of Gulf rulers, Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian minority and its refusal to agree to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API) are no longer the deal-breaking obstacles to a reconciliation that they were for their elders. Following a brief section outlining individual monarchies’ nexus to Israel, I will examine these policy areas. 

 

Gradually Warming Relations

In the past decade most Gulf governments have relaxed their decades-long anti-Israel rhetoric. \ Already in 2005, Bahrain’s King Hamad prohibited the media from referring to Israel as “the Zionist entity” and announced that Bahraini Jews who emigrated to the U.S. and the UK were free to return. Oman has continued its traditional non-conflictual relations with Israel, welcoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in October 2018 for an official state visit.Regarding Israel policy, Kuwait is the odd man out in the Gulf. After 1991, owing to the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s pro-Iraq stance, the Emirate deported over 400,000 Palestinians. Still, Kuwait repaired its links to Palestinians in 2004 and since then many more Palestinians have settled there. The ruling Al Sabah family remains keenly interested in the fate of Palestinians and has been careful not to antagonize its raucous National Assembly and its significant (about 30 percent) Shia minority.

Qatar’s position toward Israel has swayed between provocative and conciliatory acts. Israel had at times allowed Doha to make financial donations to Gaza to help prevent its humanitarian collapse and aid its stabilization. Qatar – along with Egypt and the United Nations – had attempted to negotiate ceasefire agreements between the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas. The seesaw nature of Qatar-Israel relations has diminished but little in the last few years. When in 2019 Prime Minister Netanyahu requested a meeting with the Qatari Foreign Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, he was rebuffed. In 2020, however, former Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani publicly indicated that Israel was on track to sign a non-aggression pact with Gulf states and that Doha was in principle not against this as long as the API also advanced.

In the past two decades the UAE has been the front-runner in the Gulf in developing pragmatic and relatively open contacts with Israel. Cabinet-level Israeli officials made repeated visits to the UAE for various conferences and meetings of UAE-headquartered international organizations. Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah Ibn Zayed was even purported to share “good and personal relations” with his Israeli colleague, Tzipi Livni. Although the UAE has developed far closer relations to Israel than Saudi Arabia, for political and economic reasons Riyadh’s ties with Jerusalem clearly have enhanced geostrategic importance. In the larger Gulf-Israel nexus context, the Jerusalem-Riyadh link remains the forerunner of change. 

 

Foreign Policy: A Common Enemy and a Doubtful Patron

The single most important reason for the gradual warming of relations between the Gulf and Israel is the Arabian leaders’ realization that they share a common adversary and that the support of their principal ally, the United States, was not unconditional. In regional terms, Iran has become more robust, exploiting the sectarian rivalries in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and taking advantage, directly and through its proxies, of the violent conflicts spawned by the Arab Spring in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and, even earlier, Yemen. The Gulf states – especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain – had gradually come to appreciate the value of cooperating with Israel to thwart their regional enemy. 

The Obama Administration’s foreign policy with its reluctance to offer straightforward leadership in the Middle East only pushed the Gulf countries and Israel together. Obama did not see eye to eye with either Benjamin Netanyahu or the Gulf rulers. His administration’s decisions to hastily cut ties with loyal allies of long standing – most importantly Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – in the region during the Arab Spring, and his failure to deliver on his threats to punish Syrian strongman Bashar Al Assad for the atrocities his forces had committed in its aftermath, had severely damaged his credibility in Arabia and in the broader Middle East. But the most essential reason Gulf rulers turned away from him was his policy toward Iran that culminated in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal), negotiated and sealed without due consultation with the parties, the members of the GCC, that Tehran most directly endangered. 

From the Gulf states' perspective, Trump's election was a godsend. Here was an American president who was not only eager to undo the “misdeeds” of his predecessor – from the Iran nuclear deal to “Obamacare” – but who was also enamored with populist and authoritarian rulers from Benjamin Netanyahu and Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte. Moreover, the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner – whom he appointed to lead the Palestinian-Israeli peace initiatives – had developed close relations to arguably the most important present-day Gulf leader, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). Though the Trump Administration was far preferable to Obama’s in the capitals of Arabia, he did not extend a figurative blank check to back them in every conflict. 

From the Gulf states' perspective, Trump's election was a godsend. Here was an American president who was not only eager to undo the “misdeeds” of his predecessor – from the Iran nuclear deal to “Obamacare” – but who was also enamored with populist and authoritarian rulers from Benjamin Netanyahu and Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte.

In many ways, Trump was a transactional, bargain-seeking president: he wanted to sell weapons to the Gulf states whether they needed them or not. He got rid of the Iran nuclear deal because he saw it as a bad deal. But his saber-rattling rhetoric was just that: he stopped short of confronting Iran at every opportunity, let alone committing American troops to combat there. A case in point was Washington’s subdued reaction to the Iranian-sponsored drone strike on Saudi oil processing facilities in September 2019. Tehran’s attacks made Riyadh recognize that their policies vis-à-vis Yemen and Iran made them vulnerable to severe domestic threats where it hurt most. In the absence of vigorous American retaliation Saudi officials demonstrated more openness to a tactic they had not tried for a while: exploring talks with Iran. In short, Obama’s ineffective policy and Trump’s “bottom-line” approach to the region created an awareness in the Gulf monarchies of the strategic benefits of détente with Jerusalem.

The driver of the dramatically improved Riyadh-Jerusalem nexus has been the two countries’ shared enmity toward Tehran. In late 2015 Dore Gold, the director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry in the first interview his organization had ever granted a Saudi news outlet, emphasized the commonality of Israeli-Arabian interests in their region.[1] In 2016 retired Saudi major-general Anwar Eshki met with Knesset members in Jerusalem during a visit that was meant to highlight the Kingdom’s interest in further improving Saudi-Israeli relations. In the following year the Israeli Defense Force’s Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot gave an unprecedented interview with the independent Arab online daily newspaper, Elaph, and asserted that Israel was “prepared to share intelligence with ‘moderate’ Arab states such as Saudi Arabia to ‘deal with’ Iran.”[2] By then experts had known of the long-standing relationship between the two countries’ intelligence organizations; the novelty was the open admission of it by a high-ranking Israeli official. Israeli counter-terrorism experts for several years have participated in a maritime defense and aviation security conference in Bahrain and elsewhere in the Gulf. Both of these issues are vital priorities for the GCC states given Iran’s proximity. 

 

Benefits in Security Cooperation and Economic Relations

For well over a decade now, Israel has been the source of security technology for both the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Jewish State became the world’s eighth most prominent supplier of major arms in 2019 (in 2014-2018 its share in the global weapons exports was 3.1 percent) and with the steady erosion of political obstacles it is well positioned to expand arms sales to the Gulf.[3] Israel has been especially active in cooperation and providing know-how in the areas of high-tech barrier construction (to be used, for instance, on Saudi Arabia’s 600-mile border with Iraq) and surveillance (e.g., tracking and identification software). Israel recently sold its sophisticated “Barak” air defense sytems to the UAE which deployed it for the first time in October 2022.[4] Unlike Jerusalem’s links with other Gulf monarchies, the Emirati-Israeli relationship has even encompassed active defense cooperation, namely, joint participation in military maneuvers, pilot training exercises, and combined force drills in Europe and the U.S.. Expansive trade relations between the two countries have also included Israeli weapon sales and granting access to high-resolution satellite imagery.

Aside from security-intelligence collaboration, enhanced Gulf-Israeli relations may augur significant commercial and trade benefits to both sides. Israel’s is the Middle East’s only highly developed innovation economy. In addition to cooperation in high-tech fields, the GCC states could greatly profit from Israel’s cutting-edge agricultural practices, irrigation technology, and water management. As a result of the regional energy revolution, Israel has become a net energy exporter – it recently signed a $15 billion agreement for the sale of natural gas to Egypt.[5] Thus, for the Jewish State, the most important benefit from heightened commercial relations with Arabia would be not so much access to oil but entry to the large and prosperous GCC market.

Another sizable economic dividend of better relations with the GCC states is overflight rights over Arabia for El Al and other Israeli carriers. This is a major benefit because until recently Israeli planes had to fly around much of the Middle East to reach their destinations in India, Southeast Asia, and China, all of which are large markets for Israeli high-tech companies. One of the results Netanyahu’s 2018 visit to Muscat yielded was permission to fly over Oman, but a quick glance at the map shows that it is of nebulous value without a similar concession from Saudi Arabia. In fact, tensions developed between Riyadh and Jerusalem in the same year because the former granted access to its airspace to foreign carriers en route to Tel Aviv while still barring Israeli aircraft. The dispute regarding overflight rights hinted at the many remaining limits to the Gulf-Israeli relationship. Finally, in July 2022 Saudi Arabia announced to open its skies for Israeli commercial aircraft. 

 

Generational Differences Regarding Palestine

In the past, the main impediment to normalizing Arab-Israeli relations was the situation of Palestinians in Israel. But attitudes in Arabia – as well as the larger Middle East – have shifted toward Palestinians. This development is primarily explained by the bifurcation of attitudes toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Arab societies. By and large, the older generation continues to hold the issue close to their hearts. In contrast, younger people seem to be less interested in it and thus more willing to entertain an Arab-Israeli détente. 

The older generation of Gulf Arabs – by definition more prosperous and politically influential – tend to be more interested in the destiny of their brethren than younger people. The contrast between the younger and older age groups’ views on Palestine is nowhere more evident than in the Saudi royal family.

In a number of Arabian countries – particularly in Saudi Arabia and the UAE – there is palpable frustration with the Palestinian issue. Throughout several decades, the Gulf states have invested billions of dollars in Palestinian causes but feel short-changed by the meagre return. Many Gulf leaders are exhausted by the Palestinian question owing to the political instability, leadership rift, seemingly endless internecine conflicts, mismanagement, corruption in the Palestinian Authority and more broadly, Palestinian politics. Jamal al-Suwaidi, an influential Emirati official and academic whose Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research has long been a conduit for the UAE’s contacts with Israel, recently opined that “The Palestinian cause is no longer at the forefront of Arabs’ interests as it used to be for long decades” and has “sharply lost priority in light of the challenges, threats, and problems that face countries of the region.”[6]

The younger generation of Gulf Arabs do not seem to feel the same way about Palestinians as their elders. Although the median age of the six Gulf countries’ population is not as low as that in many other Arab states (e.g., Egypt 23.9, Jordan 22.8, Sudan 17.9), they are also very young countries. The lowest median age in the GCC is Oman’s at 25.8 years, but even in Kuwait (29.4) and Saudi Arabia (29.9) it is under 30.[7] Many young people in the Gulf – especially those in the less affluent countries – consider the Palestinian issue pragmatically: they think it has received too much attention and resources for too long without any tangible improvement in the situation. Rather than throwing good money after bad, they wish to see their governments more responsive to their concerns. 

In the annual Arab Youth Surveys, “rising cost of living” and “unemployment” are issues that concern young Arabs more than youths more than “The Palestinian Israeli Conflict.”[8] The results of this poll support the widespread “perception that the younger generation in the Arab world worry more about issues pertaining to their daily lives.”[9] Many experts believe that youth support for the Palestinian cause is even more lukewarm in the kingdoms of Arabia.

Generational change in the Gulf’s ruling families has been even more consequential for Arab-Israeli relations. The younger leaders – most importantly MbS, the Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and MbS’s mentor, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), who is not young but has for long represented a pragmatist policy-line – have had a demonstrably different view of the Palestinian issue than their elders. MbZ has repeatedly noted that he viewed Israel as an ally against Iran. In a meeting with American Jewish leaders in 2019, MbS said that Palestinians should accept Trump’s “deal of the century” proposal or “shut up and stop complaining” and “made clear that the Palestinian issue was not a priority for his government nor for the Saudi public. ‘There are far more pressing and more important issues to deal with, such as Iran’,” he added.[10]

The older generation of Gulf Arabs – by definition more prosperous and politically influential – tend to be more interested in the destiny of their brethren than younger people. The contrast between the younger and older age groups’ views on Palestine is nowhere more evident than in the Saudi royal family. MbS’s father, King Salman, has remained loyal to the Palestinian cause. In mid-2017, when Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman saw Qatar’s conflict with three GCC member-states as an opportunity to improve relations with the Saudis, Salman instructed his government to continue to link normalization to the Palestinian problem, something Jerusalem wanted to avoid. In numerous phone calls and meetings with President Trump the king has restated “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital,” often without mentioning Israel.”[11] When MbS reacted mildly to Washington’s decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, King Salman renamed the 2018 Arab League conference in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia “The Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Summit,” announced $200 million aid for Palestinians, and assured his Arab allies that Riyadh “will not endorse any Middle East peace plan that fails to address Jerusalem’s status or refugees’ right of return.”[12]

Kuwait’s elderly rulers have been unambiguous in their steadfast support of the Palestinian cause and opposition to the Gulf-Israeli détente. Kuwaiti officials have boycotted regional meetings with Israeli participation and even lobbied the International Parliamentary Union to expel the Knesset from its membership. Many Kuwaiti politicians insist that there should be no peace agreement with Israel as long as it continues to occupy and appropriate Palestinian lands. The Speaker of Kuwait’s National Assembly, Marzouq Al-Ghanim, scolded Gulf-Israeli normalization advocates, stating, “It is shameful and disgraceful to leave Palestinians to face the enemy alone without support and backers.”[13] At the end of the day, the rapprochement with Israel for many Gulf citizens seems upsetting and distasteful even if no longer unthinkable. This is the reason that the normalization process between the two countries has been kept mainly out of Gulf media outlets.

 

Concluding Remarks

In 2019, Israeli and Gulf officials, drafted a non-aggression pact that was to produce a “historic” deal. The 2020 Abraham Accords effectively meant that after normalizing ties with Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and 1994, respectively, Israel had also made peace with two Gulf Arab monarchies, the UAE and Bahrain. Even so, most citizens of Arabia were until recently unaware of this endeavor because Israeli-Gulf relations are still customarily conducted under the radar. Although relations with Israel is no longer the taboo subject it once was, Arabian media outlets outside of the UAE and Bahrain seldom mention it. From the Saudi perspective, as MbS’s statements suggest, the clandestine cooperation with Israel is acceptable but not to be discussed publicly. Clearly, caution is more important for the Gulf leaders whose citizens are divided about the prospects of détente with Israel. For Jerusalem, a peace accord with the Gulf countries signified a historic breakthrough. 

Although no other Gulf monarchy has joined the Abraham Accords to date, Morocco and Sudan decided to participate. In December 2020 Rabat formalized its ties with Israel by joining the Abraham Accords and establishing full diplomatic relations. The sweetener was Washington’s support for Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara, a long-disputed territory to the south. Khartoum became a signatory in January 2021, in exchange for being removed from the U.S. government’s list of states promoting terrorism and a $1 billion loan from the World Bank. Since taking office in January 2021, the Biden Administration has supported the expansion of the Abraham Accords to other countries in the Middle East. The Palestinian community is seemingly the only necessary party left out of the discussions.

 

 

 

[1] Nathan Wise, “Gold Stresses Common Israeli-Arab Interests in Unprecedented Interview to Saudi Paper,” Jerusalem Post, 28 December 2015.

[2] Joseph Millis, “Israel and Saudi Arabia: The Best of ‘Frenemies’,” RUSI Commentary, 21 November 2017.

[3] SIPRI Yearbook 2019 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019): p. 232.

[4] Joe Saballa, “UAE Deploys First Israeli Barak Air Defense System,” Defense Post, 21 October 2022.

[5] Author’s interview with former Israeli Minister of National Infrastructure and Energy, Yosef Paritzky (telephone 26 March 2020).

[6] Jamal al-Suwaidi, “Dismantling the Palestinian Issue: Manifestations, Causes, and Consequences,” Gulf News, 20 November 2018.

[7] The World Factbook (Central Intelligence Agency, 2018).

[8] See the annual Arab Youth Surveys, in the most recent (2022), 17.

[9] See Jumana Al Tamimi, “Why Palestine Still Matters to Arab Youth,” Gulf News, 2 May 2019.

[10] Cited in Ian Black, “Just Below the Surface: Israel, the Arab Gulf States, and the Limits of Cooperation,” LSE Middle East Centre Report, March 2019: p. 22-23.

[11] Ben Hubbard, “Saudi Prince Says Israelis Have Right to ‘Their Own Land’,” New York Times, 3 April 2018.

[12] Robert Satloff, “Mohammed bin Salman Doesn’t Want to Talk About Jerusalem,” Foreign Policy, 14 December 2017.

[13] “Kuwait Official: ‘Shameful and Disgraceful for Palestinians to Face Israel Alone’,” Middle East Monitor, 13 August 2019.

CONTRIBUTOR
Zoltan Barany
Zoltan Barany

Zoltan Barany is the Frank C. Erwin Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas, where he has taught since 1991. Throughout his career, his research and writing have concentrated on military politics, military sociology, and democratization globally.

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