Israel and the Arab Gulf States: An Undeclared Alliance
In her Washington Post column on May 5, 2013, Jennifer Rubin blasted the Obama administration, opining that “As for the Middle East, when a U.S. president is this passive and unwilling to act in accord with its words, the West and the Sunni states can take comfort in knowing that Israel is there to rein in the mullahs and their surrogates.” It is rather ironic that increasingly, the Sunni Arab Gulf states look to Israel instead of the Obama administration for action against Iran. This has led to a tightening of security and intelligence relations between Israel and several Arab Gulf states.
In the Middle East, more so than elsewhere perhaps, the aphorism “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” rings true. The Arab Gulf states do not love Israel, nor do they particularly hate it. Common interests in opposing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s hegemonic ambitions and dominance in the region, and parenthetically Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, have brought the Arab Gulf States and Israel together. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states may be united under the GCC banner, but their foreign policies are disparate. Thus, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates may have established more moderate and closer links to Israel than Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.The Arab Gulf states are unified, however, under the Arab League’s consensus not to establish open diplomatic relations with the Jewish State until the issues of Palestine is resolved, and “justice” prevails. Still, unlike the case of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and to that extent Iraq, the Gulf States never had a territorial conflict with Israel, nor have they participated in wars against Israel. They are not considered in the political parlance as confrontation states in the conflict with Israel.
While the Gulf States view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as destabilizing, their primary security concern is Iran. The revolutionary nature of the Ayatollah’s regime in Tehran since 1979 has intensified the geopolitical as well as the religious dimension of the conflict between the Sunni Muslim Gulf Arabs and the non-Arab Shiite Muslim Iranians.
The Iran-Iraq war that pitted Sunni-led Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against the revolutionary Shiite Iran, found the Arab Gulf states deeply embedded in the Sunni Arab camp, supporting Saddam and openly antagonizing Iran.
In 1990, Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, betrayed his Gulf allies and brutally invaded Kuwait. The U.S. victory in the First Gulf war, which ended in expelling the Iraqi forces from Kuwait (and coincided with the breakup of the Soviet Union), put the U.S. in the position of a sole super-power. The U.S. then used its leverage to initiate an Arab-Israeli peace process that began at the Madrid Conference in 1991. The Madrid Conference facilitated the Arab Gulf states’ slow rapprochement with Israel.
Other factors, too, contributed to increased contact between the Gulf states and Israel. Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) leader sided with Saddam Hussein against Kuwait, an act which resulted in Kuwait expelling 450,000 Palestinians from its territory, and what has followed was general antipathy that was felt toward Arafat and his revolutionary movement (P.L.O.) by the Gulf leaders.
The U.S.’s successful military action against Saddam resulted in America no longer being seen as a “paper tiger” in the Middle East. Arab Gulf leaders flocked to America and sought to developed relationships with American Jewish organizations. Since both Israel and Saudi Arabia were attacked by Saddam’s Scud missiles, a degree of solidarity evolved between the two in particular.
As a result of the Oslo Accords (signed in the White House in September 1993) the GCC states cancelled their boycott of states and companies that did business with Israel. The direct boycott by the Gulf States was to continue until a comprehensive peace was reached between Israel and its neighbors. On September 23, 2005, following Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza (August 2005), Bahrain decided to repeal its economic boycott of Israel to comply with its free trade agreement with the U.S. Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Mubarak Al Khalifa stated in an interview with the independent Arabic newspaper Al-Wasat in New York that “Bahrain took the decision to end the boycott on Israeli goods because this is one of the conditions of the free trade agreement.”
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassin bin Jabor Al Thani and Israel’s Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom met in New York at the UN Summit on September 15, 2005, and posed for pictures. Separately, Sheikh Hamad urged Arab nations to open up to the Jewish state. He called on the Arab countries “to respond positively to the steps taken by Israel” and then noted that “full diplomatic relations between Qatar and Israel were possible even before a complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories.”Earlier in 2002, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia announced his peace plan between Israel and the Arab world. It was later adopted by the Arab League as the “Arab Peace Initiative,” and promised a warm peace unlike the cold peace with Egypt. Some of the conditions, however, have been unacceptable to Israel, including the adoption of UN Resolution 194, which calls for the “return of Arab Palestinian refugees into Israel.”
In what has been interpreted in Jerusalem as a new and positive step, Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani announced on April 30, 2013 that the “Arab states are open to mutually agreed Palestinian-Israeli land swaps.” Although this is a positive step, according to the Israeli government, it is not enough.
Middle East Newsline reported on July 27, 2010 that Sami Al-Faraj, president of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies declared that “the GCC states have been engaged in consultation and intelligence exchange with Israel, particularly regarding the Iranian threat.” He asserted moreover that “Egypt and Israel were vital to Gulf security as the U.S. leaves Iraq, and prepares to accommodate a nuclear Iran.”
The undeclared alliance between Israel and the Gulf states has been reinforced by events in Syria. That security alliance also includes Jordan and at some point possibly Turkey. The Sunni-Muslim Arab states view the Obama administration as unwilling to back up its rhetoric with action on the ground. As they see it, U.S. inaction in Syria is an omen for what is to become an even greater conflict between Iran and the West. The Gulf states have come to realize after last week’s alleged Israeli bombing in Damascus that while the Obama administration’s “red lines” are mere rhetoric, Israel’s are followed by action. It has prompted the Arab Gulf states to consider Israel instead of the Obama administration as a more reliable actor against Iran.
At this time, the Arab Gulf states’ alliance with Israel is covert and relegated to security alone, but, it holds potential for fuller relations in the future. The capitalistic nature of the Arab Gulf states makes Israel’s advanced technology and know-how attractive enough to pursue the relationship further. And a future agreement or partial agreement with the Ramallah-based Palestinians would serve as an excuse for the Gulf states to assume a fully blown relationship with Israel.