Opinion: How Israel and the Gulf are cooperating on defense

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According to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, 7% of all arms sales in the country in 2021 went to the Gulf

In partnership with ‘Gulf Business’

When US President Joe Biden arrived in Israel on July 13, the first thing he did was visit an exhibition organized by the Ministry of Defense of its multi-level air defense systems – the Arrow, the David’s Sling, the Iron Dome and more experimental laser-powered systems. Iron Beam – designed to counter airborne threats ranging from ballistic missiles to low-flying drones.

The event looked like a sales exhibition, and in a way it was; but the intended customer was not the United States, which partnered with Israel in the development of many of these systems.

The client in mind that day was the Arab world – specifically the nine countries whose leaders hosted Biden two days later in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at the gathering of what has been dubbed the “CCG+ 3”: the six nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation. Council, as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

By entering this summit, the United States hoped to join these nations in a regional air defense alliance that would in some way utilize Israel’s expertise in the field, thereby helping to further integrate it into the region and extend the diplomatic developments set in motion by the Abraham Accords. Nothing like that came out of the Jeddah summit.

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Although the final statement said the United States would accelerate its “cooperation with Saudi Arabia and other partners in the region to counter unmanned aerial systems and missiles that threaten peace and security in the region” , and that they remain “committed to advancing a more integrated approach and a regionally networked air and missile defense architecture.”

Saudi Arabia has explicitly rejected the idea of ​​an “Arab NATO” and any Israeli component to those plans. Israeli defense technology, in particular, related to air defense, is seeping into the Arab world, with potentially profound impact. This is particularly the case of its two Gulf partners in the Abraham Accords, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

According to Israel’s Defense Ministry, 7% of all the country’s arms sales in 2021, which reached a record $11.3 billion, went to the Gulf.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said just before Biden’s visit that the total figure for Israel’s arms exports to the Gulf since the signing of the Abraham Accords was around $3 billion. While much of this work will continue to remain out of public view, for now the expanding market for Israeli defense industries in the region is certainly no secret.

The unprecedented participation of Israeli defense companies such as Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Rafael, Elbit Systems, Nir-Or, UVision and Tomer, at the Dubai Airshow last November provided these companies with a platform highly visible to display their wares.

Biden’s visit should bolster those prospects. His administration entered office seemingly hesitant to provide the Gulf states with the kind of advanced defense technology they need to counter regional challenges; for example, initially declaring a pause and review of the $23 billion sale of US F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates, seen as a corollary agreement accompanying the Abraham Accords.

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But there has been a clear shift in Washington as the air threat against its allies in the Gulf has become more pronounced, such as drone attacks launched against the United Arab Emirates by Houthi rebels from Yemen. The growing need for increased oil production by the Gulf states in the wake of the Ukrainian conflict and the cut off of Russian energy exports to the West has also made the Biden administration more accommodating in meeting the defense needs of its partners in the region.

Washington’s shift in tone toward military exports to the Gulf has another effect, an Israeli defense industry executive told me; it will also likely make Israel’s Defense Ministry, which in some cases has been hesitant to approve sending certain sensitive technologies even to friendly Arab states, more flexible in this regard.

It also works the other way around, he notes, pointing out that Israeli defense companies are eager to set up joint initiatives with UAE partners, benefiting from both its substantial technology investment and its position as a gateway to other countries in the region and beyond. While political considerations may prevent more of Israel’s Arab neighbors from taking steps towards normalization, the executive believes that commercial ties, particularly in the military sphere, will continue to grow unhindered, both in the discreet sales and in Israeli participation in regional defence. -and-security of exhibitions.

It is an old axiom that in the Middle East, diplomacy advances at the speed of a glacier. The Abraham Accords have proven that it is possible to dramatically break the ice. Security concerns in the Gulf have been a driving force in this process – and it can now be said, without exaggeration, that when it comes to defense cooperation, both governmental and commercial, the sky is literally the limit.

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