Voice

Israel Is the Arab World’s New Soft Power

Arab countries are increasingly competing to deepen ties with their former enemy.

By , a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East.
An Emirati man wears a protective mask with the flags of the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, on Aug. 31, 2020.
An Emirati man wears a protective mask with the flags of the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, on Aug. 31, 2020. NIR ELIAS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Shmuel Bar, a former Israeli intelligence officer, was pleasantly surprised when he received a WhatsApp call from Saudi Arabia. It was completely out of the blue, he said, and also an affirmation of the incremental progress Israel was making building ties with historically hostile Gulf countries.

Bar had served in Israeli intelligence for 30 years and later founded IntuView, a company that sifts through social media content for terrorism threats. Intelligence agencies and law enforcement bodies in Europe, the United States, and India were among his clients. Now, the Saudis were interested in hiring the Israeli data expert to help with its counterterrorism policies and more.

Shmuel Bar, a former Israeli intelligence officer, was pleasantly surprised when he received a WhatsApp call from Saudi Arabia. It was completely out of the blue, he said, and also an affirmation of the incremental progress Israel was making building ties with historically hostile Gulf countries.

Bar had served in Israeli intelligence for 30 years and later founded IntuView, a company that sifts through social media content for terrorism threats. Intelligence agencies and law enforcement bodies in Europe, the United States, and India were among his clients. Now, the Saudis were interested in hiring the Israeli data expert to help with its counterterrorism policies and more.

Officially, the Saudi government denies it conducts any business with Israel. It maintains that normalization is dependent on Israel agreeing to the Arab peace initiative, which calls for a separate Palestinian state. But behind closed doors, cooperation between the Israelis and several Gulf nations is thriving.

Relations witnessed a sea change after then-President Barack Obama signed the nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 and lifted sanctions on Tehran in 2016. Iran suddenly had more money, and it increased the funding of its militias in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, where it was expanding its regional influence. This represented a clear threat to Israel and to Iran’s regional Sunni rivals, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, which is majority Shiite but ruled by a Sunni king. A year later, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election and proved to be a godsend for the United States’ traditional allies. With his encouragement, Israel succeeded in signing the Abraham Accords, a normalization deal with the UAE and Bahrain. And even though the Saudis have not yet signed a treaty, they are firmly on board the anti-Iran wagon.

Now, as U.S. President Joe Biden speaks of rejoining the nuclear deal with Iran, Israel is strengthening a once-unthinkable alliance with its Arab partners through strategic, technological, and business cooperation. Just last month, Israel called for the formation of a defense alliance with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, with Iran in its sights. It signed various deals with the UAE, the second-largest economy in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia, in tourism, health, agriculture, and the water sector. According to an initial estimate, bilateral trade between Israel and the UAE is expected to increase from $300,000 to $500 million a year.

Israel also agreed to enhance economic ties with Egypt, with which it signed a peace treaty in 1979 and has carried out sporadic security cooperation with ever since. Late last month in a rare visit, a senior Egyptian minister visited Jerusalem, despite its disputed status, and signed an agreement connecting the Mediterranean’s Leviathan gas field to Egyptian liquefied natural gas facilities through an underwater pipeline to export gas to European countries. Israel is trying to soften the attitudes of countries still hostile to it too. It purchased Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, ostensibly under a prisoner-exchange deal, for Syria, an Iranian ally and a member of the so-called “axis of resistance,” to Israel.

Bar said hiring his firm was just one example of the massive change in Israel’s relations with Gulf nations over the last few years. He received the Saudi call in 2018, but other Gulf nations have joined the list. “Viable strategic cooperation is usually bottoms-up,” Bar said. “When there are business interests, the economic elite signals to the political leadership that the country has a vested interest in these relations.”

Israel is enhancing strategic cooperation by creating lobbies with a vested interest in the relationship through feel-good business ties. Business constituencies increase the stake in peace and reduce the chances of a conflict. Israel understands that and hopes that instead of being seen as a “war nation,” as has been the case, it can prove its worth as an ally—and not just against Iran. Israel is ready to cooperate in fields that even U.S. companies wary of the Gulf’s human rights record might not be—for instance, social media monitoring.

An additional reason for cooperation is the general fatigue of Arab countries with the Palestinian cause and the rise of national identities over a united Arab one. Analysts say many countries in the Gulf, or at least sizable segments of their populations, don’t wish to be held hostage to the Palestinian issue any longer and see relations with Israel as essential to diversifying their economies.

Neom, a $500 billion futuristic city that is the centerpiece of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2030 economic plan, is being built close to the Israeli tourist resort town of Eilat, along the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. In November 2020, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office leaked reports of a secret meeting with him, the Saudi crown prince, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo near Neom, which gave rise to speculation not only as to how they intended to cooperate against Iran but also that Israeli companies might play a role in building the city.

Aziz Alghashian, an analyst on Saudi Arabia’s relations with Israel, said Neom is considered the new arena where the two countries might cooperate next. “In general, Saudi is heading towards transforming its economy and making it more technological-based rather than oil-based, and Israel can help with that,” he said. “What Neom signifies is that the incentive for Saudi Arabia and Israel to cooperate openly is increasing. It also indicates that if Saudi Arabia and Israel would have normal relations or open relations of some sort, it will be motivated by Saudi prosperity rather than countering Iran.”

Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, said while many deals are still classified, relations are now more out in the open than before. “Israel is getting legitimacy, a kosher stamp if you like, from the Gulf,” he told Foreign Policy. “Israel is now in the Gulf. It does not have to hide like it used to.”

Moreover, Biden’s animus toward Mohammed bin Salman over the killing of the Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and in general over human rights violations in the kingdom as well as the UAE and Egypt, is actually cementing ties. “Tense relations between Washington and Riyadh are leading to a new quartet—Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain. We might see them get closer whilst Biden runs the White House,” Guzansky added.

The Middle East is currently split among this Saudi bloc, Iran, and Turkey. Israel is not particularly at odds with Turkey but is irked by its support for Hamas, a Palestinian movement and militia. The Saudi bloc is perturbed by Turkey’s support for the political Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has local branches in the Gulf and, those countries’ leaders fear, enough potential popularity to subvert their monarchical rule. Israel is set to benefit from this rivalry too.

“Israel’s policy focuses on degrading capabilities of radical enemy forces—starting from Iran to Hezbollah, Hamas and more,” said Koby Huberman, co-founder of an Israeli think tank working on regional cooperation. “In addition, Israel, together with other Arab states, aims to block the negative impact of the Muslim Brotherhood movements and forces, supported and funded by Turkey and Qatar.”

But while Netanyahu would love to sell Israel’s improving ties as his own achievement in the upcoming elections on March 23, the fourth in the last two years, there is a risk of too much cooperation, too soon, backfiring.

Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat currently living in exile in the United States, said while Arabs are happy to see Israel take on Iran, they still see Israel as an enemy state that stole their land. Ahmad is a dentist in Damascus, Syria and from an area that witnessed the worst of the coronavirus. Speaking to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity, he said he did not think much of Israeli largesse in purchasing Sputnik V, Russia’s coronavirus vaccine, for Syrians. “First Russians bomb, and now they give us vaccines. Who is going to trust them?” he asked rhetorically. “Israel is bombing Syria too, but the regime says nothing to them. This is all their deal-making. People can see through it. In fact, the vaccines must be coming for regime officials.”

Other Israeli analysts said they worried Israel may lose its leverage in the Gulf under Biden’s presidency. For decades, Arab nations have eased ties with Israel to seek U.S. pardons for their excesses at home. But as Israel itself is under the Biden scanner now, it can hardly put in a word for them.

Israel hopes to present itself as a soft power in the region, a worthy but unobtainable goal as long as it continues annexing Palestinian lands. Within the Israeli expert community too, some of the government’s policies are criticized, especially when they entail aiding the suppression of dissent in Arab nations. Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy, said Arab companies will be hesitant of purchasing Israeli products mainly because they would not want to “alienate customers.” She said business cooperation thus far has been in surveillance technologies, which might grow but at a cost. “It will further increase the repressive capabilities” of Gulf nations, Tsurkov said, “and their ability to track dissidents and surveil their private communications. Therefore, Israeli-Gulf cooperation will likely be quite detrimental to political freedoms.”

Bar said he is quite certain his company’s services were not misused to crush dissent in Saudi Arabia. However, he would be more comfortable conducting business with a country like Sweden.

Despite the challenges, Israel’s relationship with the Saudi and Emirati bloc seems to be on the up and up. And as they present a united front against Iran, Biden’s attempt to rejoin the nuclear deal will only become harder.

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra