Soapbox Sunday: June 12
Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE walk into a bar.
As his coalition crumbles before him and he faces a prospect of yet another election, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett flew to the UAE on Wednesday June 8th to meet with UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan. The following day, US Senator Joni Ernst introduced a bill that requested the Pentagon to develop an integrated strategy of air defense with Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Called the Deterring Enemy Forces and Enabling National Defense bill (DEFEND bill – Americans love their fucking acronyms), it mandates the Pentagon to present a report on a joint air defense strategy to Congress within 180 days. Though both events made little noise in the press and the DEFEND bill is not budgeted, the goal is clear: building a coalition against Iran.
Key to these events is the relationship between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The latter, along with Bahrain and Morocco, officially recognized Israel in the much-publicized Abraham Accords in August 2020. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia continues to conduct business with Israel without formally recognizing it. The ailing King Salman, when he is not talking to plants or counting jellybeans, refuses to countenance normalization with Israel. His son and heir apparent, Mohamed bin Salman, does not share the same hesitation. For a new generation of Gulf royals like bin Zayed and bin Salman, there is no longer a need to even conduct the theatrics of solidarity with Palestine (not that the Gulf royals ever actually cared about Palestine, mind you, but it was long seen as necessary to say the right things and make the right show). Regional security concerns overrule such trivial optics as the rights of the Palestinian people.
In the meantime, bin Salman can use the UAE and Bahrain in particular as middlemen to conduct business with Israel. He has already hosted former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aboard his yacht in the Red Sea. Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain all share the same overarching regional concern: Iran. The Islamic Republic has fueled an impressive level of paranoia among Gulf autocrats and the Israeli security state.
In addition, the Houthi rebels have – with some Iranian help – developed more sophisticated missiles and drones to launch at Saudi in the course of the brutal war the Saudis are waging in Yemen. The Houthis have already struck oil facilities in Jeddah, Riyadh, Najran, Jizan and as far east as Abqaiq and Khurais on the coast of the Gulf. Saudi claims that the Houthis are backed by Iran are wildly exaggerated but remain a driving force in shaping Saudi regional policy.
On the other hand, Israel sees Iran as its most dangerous enemy. Iran openly supports the Lebanese paramilitary and political organization Hezbollah right on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Moreover, Iranian forces have been deeply enmeshed in shoring up Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria against Islamist rebels. Iran has made little effort to hide its animosity towards Israel. In Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Israel has found the perfect partners to contain Iran.
The US is no longer the driving force in the region. Whereas US imperialism once dominated its client states, now the Saudis, Emiratis, and Israelis tell the US political elite what to do and how to do it. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification of the relationship between the US and its clients in the Middle East, but the US no longer commands the authority over such clients as it used to. US President Joe Biden promised during the 2020 election to return the US to the JCPOA, the nuclear deal signed with Iran in 2015 and annulled in 2018 by the Trump administration. Two years into the Biden presidency have yielded little results to that effect. Biden’s team continues to stall, haggle, and stonewall Iran’s (editor note: very reasonable) demands to remove Trump-era sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) and senior political figures in the country. Given that it was the US that withdrew from the deal unilaterally, it makes sense for Iran to demand guarantees and some actions as a sign of goodwill. Nevertheless, there is no deal yet.
At the same time, US legislators are strongly backing the nascent Gulf-Israel alliance. For Israel, it gets two partners flush with cash and closer geographically to Iran: half ATM and half shield against closer Iranian meddling. The Emiratis and Saudis for their part get preferred customer status with Israel’s notorious security/cyber industry. Both countries have already shown a willingness to engage with Israel by purchasing Israeli company NSO’s Pegasus software, a phone hacking system that allows users to track intimate details in a target’s phone.
The Saudis in particular have also signalled a desperate willingness to purchase Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Currently, Saudi uses THAAD and Patriot missiles to shoot down incoming rockets but Biden’s previously icy relationship with Bin Salman and hints of limiting military support to the Saudis have pushed the latter to look elsewhere for security guarantees. Unfortunately for the Saudis, Israel has so far remained defiant in refusing to sell the much-vaunted Iron Dome to Saudi Arabia, especially given the lack of official recognition between them. It remains to be seen whether the Iron Dome would even be effective against a barrage of Iranian or Houthi missiles or low flying drones, but Bin Salman is adamant that Israeli technology will solve Saudi security issues.
Finally, it will be interesting to see how these developments along with Biden’s willingness to travel to Saudi Arabia and beg Bin Salman for more oil will affect previous Saudi-Iranian dialogue in Baghdad. Biden’s explicit denunciations of Saudi Arabia during the 2020 election and subsequent victory had driven the Saudis to hedge their bets and conduct diplomatic talks with Iranian representatives in Iraq in 2021. Saudi Arabia and Iran have cut off diplomatic ties since 2016, and the most recent round of talks in April of this year have shown some optimistic signs of a thaw in regional tensions. If Biden has completely debased himself of any political courage and intends to bend the knee to Bin Salman and if Israel’s relationship with the Saudis continues to develop to the point of weapon sales, it will be difficult to see such talks continue, and that is rather disappointing.