Oman, UAE, Bahrain, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia open about diplomatic relationship with Israel

Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t have diplomatic relations and never have, but two countries revealed at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington that they’ve been covertly conducting diplomacy to discuss Iran over a series of five meetings since 2014.

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The reveal came from Anwar Eshki, a former Saudi general and ambassador to the U.S., and Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the UN. While both of them are currently think-tankers, Gold is set to become director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs this weekend, the top position below the foreign minister. Since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds that portfolio, Gold will effectively be running the office.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S. March 20, 2018. Photo REUTERS

Whatever may be happening behind the scenes, a complex system of public signalling is under way between Saudi Arabia and Israel. And Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent comments to US magazine The Atlantic should be seen very much in this light.

Asked if he believes that the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland, the crown prince – in effect the day-to-day ruler of Saudi Arabia – said: “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.

Both countries have been rattled by worries that a deal negotiated by the U.S., Iran, and several other countries to curb Iran’s nuclear program could give Iran too much leeway and pave the way for it to get nuclear weapons. They’re also worried about Iran’s growing strength as a regional power. In addition to backing Hezbollah, a constant antagonist of Israel, for years, Tehran has become involved on Saudi Arabia’s southern border in Yemen in recent months with its backing of the Houthi rebels who ousted Yemen’s president in January. Given Saudi military action against the Houthis, Yemen’s civil war has elements of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The Swiss newspaper Basler Zeitung reveals that the Saudis have shown interest in Israeli military hardware, including an anti-tank missile system, the Trophy Active Protection System and the Iron Dome missile defense system

The United States stands to see impressive progress on a longstanding foreign-policy wish this month.

No, not curbing Iran’s nuclear program—though negotiations on a deal with Tehran remain on the front burner as a June 30 deadline approaches. But the American-helmed effort to reach a deal with Iran has so rattled the Middle East that it has had the effect of hastening rapprochement between Israel and Arab nations.

Eshki’s prepared remarks offered a potted history of the Middle East, laying out what he viewed as Iran’s imperial plan. And he offered a seven-point plan for peace in the region, kicking off with peace between Israel and Arab nations and, next, regime-change in Iran. (The plan also includes the creation of a new state of Greater Kurdistan including parts of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.)

Eshki and Gold also shook hands on stage.

The CFR event isn’t the only sign of some friendliness between Israel and Saudi Arabia. There have been reports about secret collaboration for years, often denied by both governments. A 2009 report said that Saudi Arabia had offered to let Israel fly over Saudi territory to attack Iran, a report Israel knocked down. Another report claimed that Israel had offered its “Iron Dome” missile-defense technology to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen in the proxy battle. A survey released Thursday found that Saudi citizens are far more concerned about Iran than the Zionist state. “The poll found that 53 percent of Saudis named Iran as their main adversary, while 22 percent said it is the Islamic State group and only 18 percent said Israel,” the AP noted.

None of this should be taken to understate the enduring enmity between Israel and Saudi Arabia—despite U.S. attempts over the years to bring about better relations between its two most important regional allies. Not only have the countries never had diplomatic relations, but there’s been enduring tension between them for decades. The Saudis and Egyptians long jostled for primacy in the Arab world, and Riyadh resoundingly rejected the Camp David Accords establishing peace and diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt. Saudi Arabia remains party to an Arab League boycott of Israeli goods.

But Saudi Arabia is wary of Hamas, and it remained notably quiet during Israel’s bombing campaign against the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip last year. The Saudis have tried to make their Arab Peace Initiative the centerpiece of regional deal, which Netanyahu has declined to do.

It’s a little ironic that Iranian progress toward a bomb has driven Saudi Arabia toward Israel. While Saudi Arabia does not have a nuclear-weapons program, it has flirted with the idea repeatedly over the years, citing Israel’s widely known but never publicly acknowledged nukes. In a recent interview with my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama projected confidence that Saudi Arabia wouldn’t seek its own bomb. “They understand that ultimately their own security and defense is much better served by working with us,” he said.

But if this rapprochement is real—and Elliott Abrams, who chaired the CFR session, offers some reasons to be optimistic but tempered—it may be that the Saudis would rather cast their lot with Israel than with a U.S. government they think is giving too much away to Iran. And that points to the remaining barriers the U.S. has in selling the nuclear deal to its allies. Washington may finally be seeing an opening in Israeli-Saudi relations, but it just goes to show that you should be careful what you wish for—or at least be careful about how you get it.

Saudi Arabia-Israel Business Deals

Saudi Arabia had long ago recognised that Israel’s technological prowess could make for a useful ally.

In 2012, the world would witness the worst hack ever seen. Hackers managed to breach the computer system of Aramco, the Saudi national oil and one of the world’s largest oil companies. In matter of hours, 35,000 computers were partially wiped or totally destroyed and Israeli businesses were called in to help unlock the jam.

Through offshore or front companies in Europe, USA and South Africa, Israeli business are operating in Saudi Arabia, on desalination, infrastructure protection, cybersecurity, and intelligence surveillance.  

Though, caution is thoroughly employed when it comes to weapons sales. At the New Hampshire plant of Elbit System of America, a subsidiary of Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest private defence contractor has been involved in covert sales deals with Saudi Arabia, without anyone noticing.

In January 2015, a mysterious incident occurred – a missile system technician, going by the name Christopher Cramer, was sent to help the Saudi army with a series of live-fire demonstrations and the sale of a TOW, an American anti-tank missile.

Carmer worked for Kollsman Inc, a subcontractor of Israel-based defence electronics company Elbit Systems. The reason this case came to some media attention was because Cramer was found dead in Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi authority claiming that he had committed suicide by jumping off the third floor of his hotel room in the city of Tabuk.

In May 2019, the crown prince approved a plan that would allow Israeli Arabs to work and live in Saudi Arabia. In addition to this, the authority is now distributing special entry permits to employees of Israeli businesses, allowing them to enter the kingdom without showing a passport.

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There is no available foreign trade data on any direct trade between Israel and Saudi Arabia or any Gulf state, but according to a report released in 2018 by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, it has estimated to be worth $1 billion a year. Other studies claim the amount is much higher as most Israeli connected businesses operate via companies registered in the EU, US or South Africa.

Most definitely the relationship between Israel and the Gulf monarchies have evolved significantly. But according to Professor Mekelberg the relations will continue to be limited as long as no significant concessions are made to the Palestinians. 

American Influences

The developing ties between the two countries were given another major boost with Trump’s arrival to the White House.

Access to the White House means greater potential of influence and both the Saudis and the Israelis enjoy a privileged access in Washington.

This was further bolstered with the rise of MbS, who has a close relationship with President Trump and the latter’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

Netanyahu happens to be an old family friend of the Kushners and there has been some speculation that Jared Kushner and MBS were introduced through Netanyahu. 

Pakistan-Israel Covert Diplomacy

Pakistan’s obsession with religion and paranoia over an India-Israel-US nexus makes this alliance a political suicide domestically – a risk no political party in Pakistan has been willing to take. For a long time, the Iran factor and Pakistan’s fraternal ties with the Arab world, specifically its most important ally Saudi Arabia, curtailed Pakistan from considering any positive change in its Israel policy.

Since Saudi-Israeli relationship is in public domain and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman acknowledges that Israel has the peaceful rights to co-exist with Arab countries, Pakistan has no foriegn influence stopping them establishing diplomatic and military relationship with the state of Israel. In the recent years, Israel sold missiles, guided munitions, electronic warfare and radar to India. Pakistan doesn’t want to stay back when Israel supplies high-tech military equipment to rival India.

While acknowledging discussions over the establishment of Pakistan-Israel diplomatic relations, Pakistan spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor some weeks ago admitted that this actually happened in November 2019. Pakistani journalist Kunwar Khuldune Shahid wrote about the country’s diplomatic-military decision-makers considering the need for ties with Israel in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz on September 3, 2019, which marked 14 years of the first official meeting between the two states.

On 1 September 2005, the then Pakistan and Israel foreign ministers Khurshid Kasuri and Silvan Shalom met in Istanbul. Former president Pervez Musharraf had orchestrated the rendezvous to end decades of diplomatic stalemate between the two countries. However, nothing concrete materialised between them. Rumours surface from time to time, but the two states continue to maintain diplomatic silence. But their story is not as bland. 

Pakistan lacks a direct conflict with Israel but has never established open diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Pakistan does not officially recognise the state of Israel, and its green-coloured passport clearly mentions “for all the countries except Israel”. Islamabad has repeatedly reiterated its position against Israel in the UN and other international fora. However, their bilateral silence cannot be equated with absence of ties. Their diplomats have interacted with each other in foreign capitals for several decades since the early 1950s. According to Professor PR Kumaraswamy, a West Asia specialist, “Influential Jewish leaders like Edmund de Rothschild have privately operated, and at times funded efforts to further Pakistan-Israel normalisation.” And there are signs of change. There is an emerging feeling in Islamabad that since its Arab allies have diplomatically engaged with Israel, they too could do so.

In October 2018, when an Israeli jet landed at Rawalpindi surfaced in the media, it created an uproar in Pakistan. Similar outrage was witnessed when Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, in an interview, expressed an interest to normalise ties with Israel on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in February 2019. 

Pakistan and Israeli covert diplomacy is continuing to grow as political leaders in both countries find a way to finalize a formal diplomatic presence in both countries.

Thus, New Delhi might have to brace for hyphenation of Pakistan and Israel ties in the near future, much to its discomfort.

Israel and UAE opens diplomacy

The UAE, Bahrain and Oman have gone more public with their relations with Israel, while the Saudis have been more cautious. However, in 2018, the Saudi authority started to allow Air India to use its airspace for flights between India and Israel. Soon after, MBS explicitly recognised the right of the Jewish People to have their own nation-state.

Israel is to open its first diplomatic mission in the UAE, Israel says, despite the absence of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Israel’s foreign ministry says its office will be part of an international energy organisation based in Abu Dhabi.

Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, middle, shakes hands with Mohamed Bin Tha’loob Al Derai, President of UAE Wrestling Judo & Kickboxing Federation, after one Israeli player won the bronze medal during the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Judo tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP/Kamran Jebreili)

On October 2018, three Israeli judokas won bronze medals in Abu Dhabi Saturday, competing in the United Arab Emirates under their national flag for the first time.

Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev, middle, shakes hands with Mohamed Bin Tha’loob Al Derai

Gili Cohen, Baruch Shmailov, and Timna Nelson Levy all finished third in their weight classes at the Abu Dhabi Judo Grand Slam, as Sports Minister Miri Regev looked on.

A fourth Israeli athlete at the Abu Dhabi meet, Gefen Primo, finished fifth.

Israeli Baruch Shamailov embraces his coach after he won the 66kg bronze medal during the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Judo tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP/Kamran Jebreili)

Athletes from 62 countries are participating in the competition, which runs until Tuesday, with Israel represented by six male and five female competitors.

Regev is the first Israeli minister to visit the UAE in an official capacity, as the countries have no official diplomatic relations.

Israeli Baruch Shamailov embraces his coach after he won the 66kg bronze medal during the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam Judo tournament in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP/Kamran Jebreili)
Israeli gold-medalist judoka Tal Flicker stands on the podium at the Judo Grand Slam in Abu Dhabi, where the local judo authorities banned the display of all Israeli symbols, on October 26, 2017. (YouTube screen capture)

Israel-Oman Diplomatic Relations

The first (pictured) is of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, being received by Sultan Qaboos of Oman at his palace in Muscat on October 26th.

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos with former Israeli Prime Minister.

The second, taken three days later, is of Israel’s culture and sports minister, Miri Regev, with Emirati officials at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Responses to the photographs ranged from positive surprise to angry bemusement. Arabs, though, should get used to such scenes.

Two muslim countries, Oman and Turkey procure Israeli weapons. Although, Israeli Elta Systems supplies military equipment to Saudi Arabia but Saudi Arabia never displays those weapons in public or used in Yemeni conflict. The maintenance team of Elta Systems regularly travel to Riyadh to maintain and upgrade those equipments.

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, left, receives Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat, Oman on Oct. 26 2018. Israel and Oman do not have diplomatic relations.(AP Archive)

Mr Netanyahu’s visit was the first by an Israeli prime minister to the Gulf in over two decades. Israel has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan.

But its ties with the Gulf have been improving for years. A common enemy, Iran, has brought it closer to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The issue of the Palestinians, which long divided them, has been pushed to the back burner.

Israel and the Sunni Gulf States have recently found a convergence of interests over Shia Iran, which both sides see as a growing threat.

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