The normalization of relations between countries in the Arab world and Israel is an extraordinary event, and therefore signing the peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain – in Washington under Donald Trump’s hawk-eyed gaze – caused a flurry of comments, analytical articles, reports, and just plain speculation. But there is something that all these materials have in common: the normalization of relations at this stage and how it was done, first of all, in the interests of Tel Aviv, with little concern for the Arab people in Palestine, whose interests for some reason have been forgotten by the United States, although this was discussed at fairly great length.
One Israeli reader of the publication World Israel News (WIN) said about this fairly accurately: “The Israeli-Arab peace agreement is a gigantic achievement for President Trump, who seems to have accomplished what no other president has been able to do in many decades. If anyone deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, it is President Trump. However, despite this important achievement, which also benefits the United States, the left-wing media put a lid on coverage of this world-changing event so that the president would not get any credit. When President Trump calls most of the American press ‘partisan and deceitful media’, he is absolutely right.” And, arguably, it is difficult to disagree with this opinion, since after this event the main dividends were reaped by Israel and the United States, and by no means any Arab countries.
After Israel and the UAE announced the normalization of their relations, Israeli newspapers were flooded on a massive scale with announcements about organizing group vacations in the Emirates. In those, people can find prices, detailed maps with tourist routes, and extremely detailed photos of four- and five-star hotels, and naturally among those the seven-star Burj Khalifa and Burj Arabi hotels stand out. The excitement that Israelis have about the prospect of flying to Dubai and staying in a hotel in the world’s tallest building, and buying things at good deals with big discounts in the megamalls, is understandable. The autumn climate in the Emirates is quite tolerable, and the Palestinians who live in Israel, filled with hatred and deprived of their homeland, can only dream of the beaches with fine sand and spa services in the emerald waters of the Persian Gulf.
But it is only natural that the area where Israel economically benefits most from ties with the UAE is not tourism, but defense, cybersecurity, and cheap deliveries of Arab oil. The UAE’s annual defense budget is estimated at about 23 billion USD and growing, with about 20 billion USD going towards arms procurements from the United States. Just hours after relations were normalized, sources in the Israeli defense industry started talking about the UAE’s potential to compensate for lost sales locally due to the terms in the agreement for the current US aid package. They said the UAE is an ideal partner, with deep pockets and an authoritarian regime that can quickly make decisions about weapons procurement.
For example, the Emirates-based Group 42 has agreed to partner with the Israeli state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems to develop technologies to help fight the novel coronavirus. But much more is happening behind the scenes, and not only from established defense companies like IAI, Rafael, and Elbit Systems, but purely technology-oriented players like Aeronautics Defense Systems (drones), AnyVision (facial recognition systems) and NSO Group Technologies (cyber surveillance).
For its part, the Israeli startup Insights Powering Collective Thinking, for example, provides the community engagement platform that Dubai uses to consult with the public on civic matters. Relatively renowned Israeli businessmen, such as Mati Kochavi, David Meidan, Avi Leumi and Avihai Stolero, have been active in the Persian Gulf for many years, despite the absence of any diplomatic relations between Israel and the Arab states. Using second citizenships that they hold in Western countries, they successfully sell intelligence gathering equipment, drones, reconnaissance aircraft, services upgrading F-16s, and cyber security hacking technologies.
Estimates put exports of Israeli weapons and cyber security technology to the UAE at several hundred million shekels annually, and all of that goes unnoticed given the absence of formal diplomatic relations. Experts affirm that it was thanks to deliveries of Israeli cyber security systems that the Mossad had, and now has, totally unique data on the internal politics that occur in the Emirates and, most important, the degree of interaction between representatives of various ruling groups, allowing the intelligence community to blackmail the Arabs.
At the same time, some experts actually consider the normalization process with the Arab world to represent a new problem, because now everything, including transactions that states would prefer to have stay behind closed doors, will be conducted publicly for the entire world to see. And Israel, as everyone knows, is accustomed to doing everything clandestinely, without divulging any facts to anyone. In this regard, it is sufficient to cite the fact that for several decades now the Israelis have possessed nuclear weapons, and modern equipment to deliver them, but along with that they stubbornly deny everything, and the IAEA, which is responsible for exercising oversight, turns a blind eye to this. Well, then ‘no’ it is. However, most experts still believe that normalizing relations is likely to lead to an increase in the sale of Israeli weapons, cyber technology systems, and government command and control systems to the Persian Gulf.
About five years ago, some governments in the Gulf expressed interest in Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, but were ultimately forced to scrap the deal. Now that the threat of an Iranian attack on oil facilities has turned into something that is quite real, they are beginning to renegotiate the terms for purchasing the Iron Dome system, and other Israeli missile defense systems. Not only the Saudi Arabian authorities, but the entire world remembers well how ineffective Patriot systems were to prevent a powerful strike that was carried out on two of the kingdom’s oil facilities. Even the Pentagon recently procured an Israeli air defense system, so why not the Arabs themselves.
Sources in the Israeli Ministry of Defense stated that a high-level delegation is already being put together that has a long list of armaments it wants to propose when it makes a trip to the UAE. But at the same time, they could not say when this Israeli delegation would go, or even whether it would go. It is quite obvious that much depends on how bilateral relations will develop, as well as on what the Trump administration will say and what position it will take. Israel and the United Arab Emirates are the two largest buyers of US military weapons, and it is clear that Washington will not sit idly by while the two countries strengthen their military ties. It is doubtful that the American defense industry is happy about these agreements, which suddenly create a powerful new competitor in terms of the Americans signing “juicy contracts” with the UAE.
Benjamin Netanyahu, even despite his difficult, precarious position within Israel, attaches paramount importance to this issue, and due to that he instructed National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat to prepare for further, very difficult negotiations with the UAE. But given how complex these issues will be, Meir Ben-Shabbat will have no choice but to involve specialists from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense, although they are both headed by cabinet members from the Kahol Lavan bloc. It is quite apparent that the final version of the Israeli-UAE agreement must be approved by US President Donald Trump, his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and then by the office of the Israeli Prime Minister.
For its part, Israel counts on increasing its shipments of armaments to the UAE, and using new funds to buy cheap Arab oil and ensure its uninterrupted delivery into the country. First, the Emirates has high-quality oil that is well suited for processing at several Israeli refineries, and that generates additional profits. It is with good reason that the website Work in Israel is dominated by ads urgently searching for oil workers to do work in the petroleum refinery located in Haifa. After that, given the close distance between the two countries that the pipeline will pass through, profits will increase substantially. And, besides that, the issue of replacing Saudi oil deliveries with oil from the Emirates is already being studied in detail. And this fact is of no small importance in terms of putting pressure on Saudi rulers and their ability to sign a peace agreement with the Jewish state.
Everything looked fine on paper but, as they say, they forgot about the pitfalls. There are many of those, and they are deep. Military equipment can be supplied not only by the United States and Israel, but by Russia and China at lower prices, and with higher performance indicators. And these two countries, unlike the US and Israel, have excellent relations not only with the UAE, but also with all the other countries in the Arab world. So there is a lot of competition, especially since the UAE is well acquainted with Russian advanced technology systems, and has signed a number of lucrative contracts with the Russian military.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.