As the United Arab Emirates prepares to become the third Arab state to establish relations with Israel on September 15, there is a growing consensus among some Persian Gulf states that Iran and Turkey, not Israel, are the biggest threats to their security.
Paradoxically, Iranian and Turkish behavior may push the Gulf states closer to Israel even while the long-running Palestinian issue remains unresolved.
Many officials in the predominantly Sunni UAE and Saudi Arabia view former colonial master Turkey and Shiite Iran, rather than customary Jewish enemy Israel, as major threats.
In an interview with the Atlantic Council on August 20, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said, “Iran’s aggressive rhetoric and posture over the years has made deals like this possible.” Through proxy militias such as Kataib Hezbollah, Lebanese Hezbollah, and the Badr Organization, Iranian influence has increased exponentially in the Middle East since the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in April 2003.
However, after the US assassination of Iran’s top Revolutionary Guard commander, Major-General Qasem Soleimani on January 3 in Baghdad, there is a perception that Iran’s ability to project power has weakened and Tehran cannot prevent Gulf states from moving closer to Israel. This is due to Iran’s own domestic struggles with Covid-19 and stronger economic sanctions from US President Donald Trump’s administration.
Between 2014 and 2018, five secret meetings took place between Saudi and Israeli officials on how to deal with their common foe – Iran. Covert ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia have reportedly been increasing steadily since the advent of the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who sees Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence, has led the shift in policy. Bin Salman also sees high-tech Israel as an essential partner for his domestic agenda, which includes the expansion of cyber surveillance at home and abroad, as well as building a new high-tech and futuristic “smart city” on the Red Sea.
Turkey’s support for Hamas, its involvement in the Libyan Civil War, and recent oil and natural-gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean have drawn the ire of Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Jerusalem. The Saudis and Emiratis see Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy as a neo-Ottoman effort to re-establish Turkey’s pre-World War I empire.
Moreover, with Turkey’s growing presence in mind, the UAE and Greece – the latter a hereditary enemy of Turkey – have increased security cooperation. Over the last three months, they have conducted three joint air-force exercises over the Eastern Mediterranean in order to deter Turkish provocations.
Yossi Cohen, Mossad’s intelligence chief, has reportedly said, “Turkey’s coercive diplomacy poses a different kind of challenge to strategic stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. NATO no longer remains a force that could keep Greek and Turkish relations stable.”
Israel sees Turkey as a growing threat in the region because of its involvement in Libya, Syria and, most recently, in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Under Erdogan, Ankara’s new adventurism has roiled conflict and left Turkey almost friendless in the region. Israel will likely attempt to exploit Turkey’s vulnerabilities by increasing military cooperation with its competitors.
Three days after the announcement of the Israel-UAE peace agreement, Israel and Greece held talks in Athens on military cooperation. Israel sees Greece as ready to build ties with Jerusalem because Athens’ Arab allies are less opposed to such maneuvering than in the past.
In conclusion, while the majority of Gulf states do not recognize Israel – at least, not yet – the peace agreement to be signed between Israel and the UAE may put other Gulf states on a path to doing so. This agreement is the first that Israel will have with an Arab state that it has not fought a war with.
In the midst of the Saudi/Persian Cold War, even without the recognition of the Israeli state, Gulf countries cannot fail to recognize the technological superiority of Israel in the areas of defense, security and intelligence. It is in their best interest to have access to that superiority.
Abdiel N Lawrence is an intelligence analyst for the US Army’s European Command in Stuttgart, Germany. He holds an MA in international peace and security from Korea University. The views in this essay are that of the writer and not of the US Department of Defense.