Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates: new regional alliances and the Palestinian struggle
Adam Hanieh lists signs of growing cooperation between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the ramifications for Palestine
The 6 December announcement by US President Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the US embassy to the city has thrown Middle East politics into renewed turmoil. Political and religious leaders around the world have condemned the move, with hundreds of protests organised in major cities across the globe. Spiralling demonstrations throughout Palestine itself have been met with violent repression – at the time of writing nine Palestinians have been killed in these clashes, with thousands more wounded or arrested. Palestinian political leaders have pledged to boycott relations with US officials in the wake of the decision, and widespread calls from across the political spectrum are demanding a break with the moribund strategy of a US-sponsored negotiations process. Reminiscent of the Second Intifada of the early 2000s, Palestinian media has presented non-stop coverage of all of these protests and debate. There can be little doubt that the ramifications of the US announcement will be felt for many years to come.
Yet a major issue that has received little attention in commentary around these developments is the wider regional context: most particularly, the increasingly open political alliance between Israel and the two leading Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While not a new development – it has been a longstanding objective of US Middle East policy for decades – it is one that has received a major push in the wake of the Arab uprisings that spread across the Middle East from 2010 onwards. An unprecedented shift in the relations between these three states is evident over the past few years, marked by a growing convergence on the key political questions facing the Middle East region.
Most significant to this emerging political alliance has been the question of Iran. Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have waged an increasingly bellicose campaign against Iran’s regional influence. In the wake of the Arab uprisings, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have sought to project themselves as the key hegemonic powers throughout the rest of the region. The US has provided strong support for this effort, including the endorsement and arming of the Saudi-led war against Yemen that began in 2015, as well as conspicuous encouragement of the Gulf states in their attempts to steer political transitions in other Arab states. All of this has been fully aligned with the orientation of the new US administration.
Reinforcing this political convergence between the two Gulf states and Israel, numerous military, diplomatic and commercial ties have become evident over recent years. In late March 2017, Israeli newspapers reported that Israeli and UAE pilots flew alongside one another during the Iniochos exercise, a joint military training session held in Greece between 27 March and 6 April. This was not the first time such joint exercises took place. In August 2016, Israel and the UAE also met at the US Air Force’s Red Flag aerial combat exercise in Nevada. The public nature of these exercises points to the increasingly brazen openness of military coordination between Israel and the UAE – something that would have not been possible a few short years ago.
Relationships between Israel and Saudi Arabia are also increasingly public. Israeli media reported in mid-2015 that the two countries had held five clandestine meetings since early 2014. In June 2015, the then-director general of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dore Gold, spoke together with retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki in a public event at the US-based Council on Foreign Relations. Eshki, who has served in the Saudi foreign ministry, also led a delegation of Saudi academics and businesspeople to Israel in 2016 where they met with leading Israeli politicians and military figures. Similarly, in May 2016, former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror held a public discussion with the former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Such public appearances could not have happened without the approval of the Saudi ruling family.
Moreover, regional negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia almost certainly took place as part a 2017 decision by Egypt to transfer two islands in the Red Sea to Saudi control. The proximity of these islands to Israel, and the fact that they could affect Israel’s shipping routes, means that the agreement represents – at least at a de facto level – Saudi consent to the 1979 Peace Agreement between Egypt and Israel, which guaranteed Israel full maritime rights in the Red Sea.
Such military and diplomatic relations between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are further strengthened by commercial ties – most notably in the security, surveillance and high-tech sectors. Israeli media and the international business press have documented the sale of Israeli security and military hardware to both Gulf states over recent years, including the participation of Israeli firms in Abu Dhabi’s mass-surveillance system, Falcon Eye, installed throughout the emirate in 2016. Even Israel’s largest private military company, Elbit Systems, is reported to have sold missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia through its US-based subsidiary Kollsman Inc.
Whether these new regional partnerships played a direct role in giving a green light to Trump’s Jerusalem announcement is not yet public knowledge, but they were undoubtedly an important factor within the calculations of US policymakers and Trump himself. The fact that Trump’s son-in-law and special advisor, Jared Kushner, had engaged in months of shuttle-diplomacy between Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Washington in the lead up to the announcement makes Saudi advance knowledge extremely likely. Despite a verbal condemnation, the Kingdom has made no attempt to utilise its considerable financial and political influence to pressure the Trump administration to reverse the decision.
In this context, the widely-reported existence of a new US ‘peace plan’ negotiated with the support of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman presents a major challenge to Palestinian politics. Such a plan is said to differ little from the current territorial status quo – formal recognition of a Palestinian state on parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip currently controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA), denial of the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and continued Israeli control over border crossings and the Palestinian economy. In the current environment it would be extremely difficult for the Palestinian leadership to give their consent to any new deal. Nonetheless, given the considerable political and financial connections between the PA and the Gulf states, we can expect that significant pressure will be brought to bear on the Palestinian leadership to accept any proposed deal. Indeed, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has made almost weekly visits to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states through the latter part of 2017 – presumably linked to the behind-the-scenes negotiations around such a plan.
All of this points to how the emerging Saudi-UAE alliance with Israel will profoundly shape the future of the Palestinian national struggle. The single major obstacle to Trump’s Jerusalem announcement and any attempt to force a deal on the Palestinian leadership remains the aspirations of the wider Palestinian population – including the millions of Palestinian refugees scattered across the Middle East. Whether Palestinian rights are ultimately subordinated to the interests of this new pan-regional alliance remains an open question.
Adam Hanieh is a Reader in Development Studies at SOAS, University of London, and an advisory board member of the Centre for Palestine Studies (SOAS). His most recent book is Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East (Haymarket Books, 2013)
This article appears in the Palestine issue of The Middle East in London.
Hanieh, Adam. ‘Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates: new regional alliances and the Palestinian struggle’ The Middle East in London 14, no. 2 (February–March 2018); 5-6.