By Becca Wasser, Program Officer and Research Analyst
Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently created a ‘virtual embassy’ to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in the form of a Twitter account ‘dedicated to promoting dialogue with the people of the GCC region’. This highlights one of the region’s worst-kept secrets: Israel’s relations with Gulf states.
Relations between Israel and members of the GCC – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Kuwait – could be on track to develop further, thanks to a convergence of geopolitical interests and a shared focus on trade. It is conceivable that the two sides’ common fears over Iran’s regional ambitions as well as over the civil war in Syria, and the benefits both sides would gain from US support for the relationship, might trump – in the medium term – existing obstacles and political considerations.
Despite the absence of official diplomatic relations, Israel and the Gulf states have engaged in quiet diplomatic and trade relations since the 1990s. The 1991 Madrid Conference, which discussed peace plans between Israel and its neighbours, marked the beginning of a cautious process of engagement between Israel and the Gulf states, which was reinforced when the GCC states lifted their boycott of companies that did business with Israel after the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. By 1996, Israel had established trade missions in both Qatar and Oman. High-level Israeli officials began to routinely meet with Gulf officials, both in the region and on the sidelines of international forums, though often out of the public eye.
The Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed in 2002 and backed by the Gulf states, was a public overture to Israel – proposing an Israeli–Palestinian peace plan that also offered full recognition of Israel if it gave up all land seized in the 1967 Middle East War. Israel rebuffed the initiative on the grounds that it was too conditional and limited in scope. While this stymied any public recognition of the relationship, quiet economic and diplomatic initiatives continued.
Commercial ties between Israel and the Gulf states are far from robust, but they are stronger than many realise, with trade conducted through third parties and shell companies. Security equipment and technology are the top two exports from Israel to the Gulf. An Israeli trade delegation visited Doha in May 2013, prompting discussion of Qatari investment in Israeli hi-tech firms and of a potential visit to Israel by a high-ranking Qatari official. Both parties would benefit from increased economic ties, diversifying trade partners, increasing revenue and exchanging technology and energy sources.
Of course, there are limits to Israel–Gulf relations. Ideological constraints and potential backlash from domestic populations make it difficult for Gulf states to enter more public and substantive dealings with Israel. Meanwhile, Gulf support for the Palestinian cause, and in some cases, Hamas – the Palestinian Islamist organisation with an associated military wing – has kept Israel from pursuing greater relations with the GCC.
Relations have ebbed and flowed with political developments and regional tensions. Gulf states view Israel’s actions on the Palestine issue as a destabilising factor in the region. Israeli trade missions in Doha and Muscat were closed during the second intifada in 2000 and again in 2009, when Israeli–Palestinian violence was at its worst. Additionally, Israel’s relationship with the UAE was strained after the assassination of Hamas security chief Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in 2010.
However, mutual interests and potential benefits of cooperation could overcome some of the obstacles. Both sides are concerned about Iran’s regional ambitions. The Gulf states seek to contain Iran’s quest for regional hegemony, which they believe would receive a big boost from its acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability, and Israel sees a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat. Israel and the Gulf states have allegedly shared intelligence on Iran: in a leaked diplomatic cable, dated from 2005, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain spoke of his country’s intelligence and security ties with Israel. Increased communication between Israel and the Gulf states would enable a more effective discussion of security concerns. It is also telling that Israel, which prizes its military edge in the region, has not opposed recent arms sales from the United States to the Gulf states.
Both sides are also worried about Iran’s influence in Syria – with which Israel shares a border – and the Syrian civil war’s regional implications, particularly with the involvement of proxy groups such as Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia militant group. Recent steps taken by the Gulf states to blacklist Hizbullah – due in part to its activities in the Gulf – could also boost Israeli and Gulf cooperation. Gulf states are also concerned that as a result of its ‘rebalance’ to Asia, the United States will reduce its role in the Middle East, and cooperation with Israel on Iran may provide added security should the United States fail to contain it.
The United States has also provided incentives for a further thawing in ties. For example, the United States asked Bahrain to end its economic boycott of Israel as a requirement for setting up the US–Bahrain Free Trade Agreement in 2006. Increased cooperation with Israel would win Gulf states favour from Washington.
Other recent developments indicate a rapprochement of sorts, and an opportunity for stronger relations. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2013–14 economic plan noted that Israel had opened a diplomatic office in an unspecified Gulf State. The revival of the Arab Peace Initiative in April 2013, followed by the announcement by then-Qatari Foreign Minister Hamid Bin Jassim Bin Jaber al-Thani supporting mutually agreed land swaps between Palestine and Israel, also signalled a renewed attempt to bolster relations. The recent alignment of Israel with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in terms of their support for the military in Egypt is yet another opportunity for greater Israeli–Gulf cooperation.
In the past, tangible developments in the Israeli–Palestinian relationship have preceded improved relations between Israel and the GCC states. It could be that the new round of Israeli–Palestinian negotiations, recently brokered by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, will create favourable conditions for deeper ties, and that the benefits of cooperation could outweigh the limits of the Israel–Gulf relationship.