Israel’s relations with Arab countries of the Persian Gulf continue to develop, quietly. And that’s how it should be, says Gulf expert Simon Henderson.
How Israel’s possible extension of sovereignty to some Jewish settlements on the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and the Jordan River Valley might affect such ties is not clear, Henderson told approximately 200 people on a Jewish Policy Center teleconference call July 8. That’s because while the rulers may focus on national interests, the Palestinian cause remains popular with their publics.
Such support results from “decades of education and information depicting Israel as evil.” But decision-making in the six Gulf Cooperation Council members—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman—is top-down. Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy, Henderson said “leadership of these countries … often just the top man” sets policy. They “don’t talk to the people about what they don’t think is the people’s business to know.”
When the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there from Tel Aviv, the belief the Arab world would explode proved mistaken. If Israel does extend sovereignty to parts of the West Bank and a big, negative reaction results, Henderson said he would look at Jordan, the “East Bank” state with a majority Palestinian Arab population.
He also pointed out that Yousef al-Otaiba, UAE’s ambassador to the United States, in an unprecedented column in Israel’s largest Hebrew-language newspaper, acknowledged growing Arab-Israeli relations but warned Jerusalem it could have “annexation or normalization.” Yet not long after, companies from the UAE and Israel signed agreements to cooperate on coronavirus research. “If you want consistency … and an end to ambiguity” the Gulf is the wrong place to find it, Henderson said.
GCC states may not have much leverage on Palestinian leaders, he added. The latter used to rely on the oil and natural gas-rich states for funding, “but that is no longer the case.”
Trade Greases Wheels
Qatar, which with Israeli approval continues to provide money, including for coronavirus relief efforts in the Gaza Strip, tightly controls the aid. It is supposed to go to individual families, not the Strip’s Hamas rulers.
GCC-Israel “diplomatic recognition will be elusive for a while,” Henderson said. But even without it up to now, “Israel’s relations with Gulf states have developed very well” and been “very rewarding to both sides.” Remaining less than formal may allow them to continue to grow.
Ties between Israel and most members of the council existed five years ago, and “are even further down the road” today. Shared fears of Iranian subversion and aggression are not the only reason for active if low-profile ties.
Trade is another. Despite the Arab League’s economic boycott of Israel, established even before the country won its independence in 1948, the Arab Gulf states eventually charted a different approach, said Henderson, who started covering the Middle East in the 1970s as a journalist with the BBC and Financial Times.
After GCC countries—hereditary Sunni Muslim sheikdoms reliant on petroleum extraction—established strong economies in the 1970s, they “have been interested in trade with Israel,” he noted. In Jerusalem in 1995 for the funeral of assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, one of the mourners was a senior official from Qatar, “in traditional Arab dress,” Henderson said.
The steady growth of commercial relations is “an untold story … probably best to remain untold … not to put anyone at risk,” he added. The nature of Israel-GCC countries ties should be painted in shifting shades of gray, rather than simplistically in black-and-white, Henderson stressed.
The status of Israeli-Emirati diplomatic relations remains “unclear. … But watch this space” Henderson said. The United States has told both countries that, since they are allied to Washington, they should be talking to each other.
Iran Fears Prod Cooperation
Saudi Arabia, the largest and leading GCC state, also is involved with Israel, according to Henderson. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler, “made it clear, almost publicly … that as far as he’s concerned developing relations with Israel is important” and perhaps “the only way forward for his country and the region.”
“Kuwait is the slowest” of the six GCC countries to connect with Israel, but Henderson said Kuwaiti sources tell him “there are contacts.”
“Israel’s anxieties about a nuclear Iran overlap … at least at the military and intelligence level” with those of the Gulf Arab states, Henderson said. When events like the recent mysterious explosion in Iran’s centrifuge assembly factory in Natanz occur, those states tend to see Israel as a strong counterweight to Tehran, he added. This may be particularly the case when the United States appears to them as a somewhat uncertain protector.
They think America “talks about taking action” while “Israel takes action.”
In addition to Natanz, explosions and fires have occurred at other Iranian nuclear-related facilities. Henderson noted that Benny Gantz, Israel’s alternate prime minister and defense minister, ambiguously cautioned that his country is not responsible for everything that happens in Iran. Regardless, Henderson said Iran’s ability to enrich more highly the uranium needed for nuclear weapons has been “delayed months if not years.”
Henderson said Saudi Arabia has failed so far in its proxy war against Iran in Yemen and wants to leave, “but only on terms in can depict as victory.” Even if foreign powers depart, Yemen—suffering a widespread humanitarian disaster because of internal fighting, outside intervention, food shortages and illness—“probably will be a mess” years from now.