The Negev Summit, which took place at the end of March 2022, fueled many speculations that a new security architecture for the Middle East was about to be established. Indeed, at first sight, the possibility for a new regional alliance in which Tel Aviv would be fully integrated seemed to stem from the increasing perception – shared by some Arab states, but mainly Gulf countries – of Israel as a potential partner in facing existing threats, including those posed by Iran’s activities across the region.
Aside from the war in Ukraine and its repercussions in terms of food shortages and skyrocketing energy prices, regional security and intelligence cooperation were also among the major topics discussed by the foreign ministers of Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, Egypt, and the United States (US) Secretary of State during the ground-breaking Summit, hosted in Israel. As declared by former Israeli Prime Minister, Yair Lapid: “This new architecture and shared capabilities we are building intimidates and deters our common enemies – first and foremost Iran and its proxies.” Though a formal security architecture was not established during the Negev Summit, the political significance of this forum should not be underestimated, especially for Arab Gulf states.
- First, it has signalled the extent to which Gulf Arab allies are quickly adapting to regional and international changes, increasingly moving away from Washington to guarantee their national interests. The uncertainty surrounding the United States’ long-term commitments to the Middle East and its reliability as a strategic partner has paved the way for a process of recalibration of Gulf states’ international relations.
- Second, it has served as tangible proof of how Israel has bolstered over the last couple of years official ties with key Arab Gulf neighbours in many strategic sectors, spanning from defense to military-to-military cooperation, to maritime security and intelligence-sharing, among others.
- Third, it has demonstrated indirectly that building security relations with Israel has not stopped Gulf Arab countries from maintaining channels of de-escalation with Iran. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, are a case in point given their efforts to maintain an open dialogue with Iran to address issues of joint concern.
An evolving world order: Less Western-dominated and more networked
Though Washington is still widely considered the most important strategic partner for the Arab Gulf states, over the last decade, several US foreign policy choices in the Middle East have caused disappointment and frustration among these traditional Arab allies, raising concerns about the willingness of the US to invest in the future of the region. It is widely known that after the British withdrawal from the Gulf region in 1971, the US gradually replaced the UK as the new offshore and then onshore hegemonic power. The array of Defense Cooperation Agreements (DCAs) between the Arab countries and Washington, signed in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm (1991), clearly illustrates the traditional role of the White House as the only security provider.
If compared to Bill Clinton’s “dual containment” policy (1993-2001), or George W. Bush’s “pre-emptive war” (2001-2009), which paved the way for a heavy American military presence in the region, Barak Obama’s doctrine (2009-2017) together with that of Donald Trump (2017-2021) and Joe Biden (2021-) represented a turning point for US Middle East comprehensive policy. The US’s rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific has indeed been perceived by Arab allies as decreased American willingness to be militarily engaged in the Middle East (e.g., the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011 and Afghanistan in 2021), thus increasing their security concerns.
This resulted in unprecedented misunderstandings, trust at the lowest levels, and mutual resentments between Washington and some of its traditional Gulf Arab allies. One example is the UAE’s frustration over the US’s refusal to re-designate the Iran-backed Houthis as a terror organization, following the first of two Houthi drone and missile attacks against Abu Dhabi’s civilian infrastructures in late January and in early February. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken subsequently apologized to the UAE for the weak and delayed response to the attacks in an apparent attempt to underscore the importance of the US–UAE partnership. Though relations between the two countries have allegedly improved, on the Emirati side, the “stress test” – as the current Emirati Ambassador to the US Youssef Al Otaiba termed it – between the two actors seems to stem primarily from the lack of a clear US strategy for the region that takes account of the new dynamic geopolitical reality and its challenges.
Therefore, within the framework of an evolving world order, which is less Western-dominated and more networked, Arab Gulf states are recalibrating their international relations to achieve their security needs, firstly by strengthening ties with global rising powers, i.e., China, Russia, and India. As stated by the UAE-based professor of political science, Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, in his letter to US President Joe Biden ahead of his trip to Jeddah in July 2022: “The Arab Gulf states have their own national agendas and geopolitical priorities that are different from Washington’s, including the process of diversifying their partnerships.”
To protect their countries’ national interests, Gulf leaders are also committed to forging and maintaining ties with regional neighbors, including former foes. During the second session of the Majlis Mohammed bin Zayed titled “Security and Stability in our Changing World: A UAE Perspective”, Diplomatic Advisor of the President of the UAE, Dr. Anwar Gargash, pointed out this key concept, stating:
In the region, it is necessary to manage matters peacefully with countries that have different policies and views, by working on common grounds and by putting differences aside. […] Iran is a neighbor and we hope to establish best relations with it. We see that Turkey is a partner in our endeavour toward prosperity and we continue to support the prospects of the Abraham Accords.
Israel as a reliable partner: The case of Bahrain and the UAE
The partnering of Arab states with Israel is a result of these regional and international changes, including the uncertainty surrounding long-term US commitments to the Middle East. With particular regard to the Gulf region, the Abraham Accords signed between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain in September 2020 paved the way for Israeli-Arab partnerships in many strategic sectors, impacting on the security and stability of the broader region. In February 2022, for instance, Bahrain signed a security cooperation agreement with Israel – the first of its kind between Tel Aviv and a Gulf country – to advance intelligence coordination and provide a framework for exercises and cooperation between the two countries’ defense industries.
The Israeli-Bahraini strategic partnership is a relevant example to understand the extent to which the Iran threat acted as a catalyst for enhancing cooperation between the two countries in the defense domain. Indeed, Bahrain continues to perceive itself as one, if not the most vulnerable target of Tehran’s power projection across the Gulf region. Collective experiences and memories, such as the rule of the island by the Safavids and Qajars as well as Iran’s continuing territorial claims and alleged influence in the country’s domestic politics, have contributed to increasing its threat perception.
Indeed, Tehran considers Bahrain as Iran’s “fourteenth province” and state media outlets very often revive the question of Bahrain’s sovereignty. Among the most recent examples are the map of Iran including Bahrain, posted on Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s Instagram account (later deleted), and the Fars News Agency’s headline in June 2022: “How is it possible to dismember a part of the land, which for thousands of years has belonged to a state? The British do such things through divide and rule. This is how they managed to separate the dear land of Bahrain from Iran.”
From an Israeli perspective, Tel Aviv’s diplomatic engagement with Bahrain goes beyond the country’s willingness to increase backdoor communications with Riyadh. Considering the approximately 1,800-kilometre distance between Israel and Iran, Manama has gained a strategic role in the Israeli defense doctrine as it has strengthened Israel’s retaliatory response capability against Iran’s asymmetrical military activities – particularly in southern Lebanon and eastern Syria. For this reason, Tel Aviv has a lot of vested interest in placing some of its military units in the small Gulf country.
For instance, Bahrain has allowed Israel to station an Israeli navy officer in the Gulf state (the first one in an Arab country) to serve as a liaison officer for the US 5th Fleet, within the framework of an international coalition “to secure the freedom of navigation in the region,” as stated by the Bahraini Foreign Ministry. Since Iran is often accused by its Arab neighbours of threatening the security of shipping lanes in the Gulf region and the Strait of Hormuz, this move could be seen as a major facilitator of a stronger Arab-Israeli maritime security partnership aimed at countering Iran and its regional proxies.
It is noteworthy that in early 2021, the US transferred Israel from the US European Command (EUCOM) to the US Central Command (CENTCOM). Though Israel-CENTCOM relations started long before they were officially announced, being a formal member of CENTCOM has presented Israel with many benefits, including broadening regional security cooperation through training operations, enhancing military-to-military interoperability among local actors, and providing Tel Aviv with a direct channel of communication with countries that are yet to sign peace accords. In February 2022, for example, Israel had the opportunity for the first time to take part in the US Navy-led International Maritime Exercise 2022 (IMX 2022) alongside Saudi Arabia and Oman, despite lacking diplomatic relations with both countries.
Air defense is another domain that could potentially open the door to Arab-Israeli coordination, in the form of integrated radar systems and information sharing against missiles and aerial vehicles launched by Iran or Iran-backed non-state actors. Especially in the aftermath of the Houthi attacks against the UAE, it became increasingly apparent to the Gulf states that the combination of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and ballistic and cruise missiles pose a great challenge to their multi-layered air-defense systems. Following the Houthi attacks, then Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennet’s statement regarding Israel’s full support to the UAE in the security and intelligence domain raised rumors about a possible major arms agreement between the two countries.
So far, the UAE has largely favored cooperation with Israel in the business, technology and cultural fields, with the signing of a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in late May 2022 as well as agreements in the field of space and technology. In terms of security partnerships, there has been some cooperation between the UAE and Israel, mainly in the drone industry. In 2021, the EDGE Group – the UAE’s advanced technology group for defense – and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) reached a strategic agreement to develop an advanced Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System (C-UAS) designed to detect, track, and ultimately disrupt and destroy unmanned drones. However, given Tehran’s cyber warfare capabilities and its standing at the forefront of the drone industry, an ever-stronger Israeli-Emirati cooperation in the tech and drone/anti-drone industries in the medium-long term could be envisaged.
New inter-regional diplomacy gaining momentum in the Gulf
Based on what has been discussed so far, the question that naturally arises is why local actors seem unwilling to take advantage of the new climate of détente offered by the Abraham Accords and embrace a US-backed defense partnership, including Israel, to counter Iran. The answer seems to be that even though Arab Gulf states still view Tehran as a clear threat to their national security and stability, they have differing attitudes toward Iran.
Nonetheless, even those actors such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE that see Iran as an existential threat have recently sought to ease tensions through diplomatic engagement. Regardless of whether or not the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is revived, new inter-regional diplomacy has gained momentum across the Gulf. As Dina Esfandiary, a Middle East adviser at the International Crisis Group, states:
For the Gulf Arabs, a return to the nuclear deal or no return is more or less the same: They anticipate that Iran will lash out in the region no matter the outcome. […] So, while they continue to watch this carefully, the efforts to improve their ties are more closely linked to their security and threat perceptions than the nuclear deal itself.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh seems to be convinced that only an open dialogue and, therefore, direct engagement with Tehran, will be functional in addressing issues of joint concern (e.g., the Al-Durra/Arash gas field). Perceived in many ways as a departure from overreliance on Washington, this structural shift in Saudi Arabia’s approach toward Iran clearly illustrates the awareness of the al-Saud family of the new and evolving regional dynamics. Since April last year, Saudi Arabia and Iran have held five rounds of direct talks in the Iraqi capital to ease both bilateral and regional tensions. However, the current friction between the two countries – fueled by the recent regional developments, including the ongoing unrest across Iran, the appointment of Iraq’s new prime minister Mohammed Shia’ Al Sudani, and the collapse of the truce in Yemen in October – could revert this path, slowing down reconciliation talks.
While the normalization of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Tehran is just a welcome possibility for now, the UAE has resumed diplomatic relations with Iran. As communicated by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, former UAE Ambassador to Iran Saif Mohammed Al Zaabi has resumed his duties to “contribute to further advancing bilateral relations in cooperation with officials in the Islamic Republic of Iran to achieve the common interests of the two countries and the wider region.” It is noteworthy that Kuwait has also recently restored top-level diplomatic ties with Iran, following the deterioration of bilateral ties in 2016.
The UAE’s attempts to defuse tensions with Iran clearly illustrate a foreign policy based on pragmatism. The country’s diplomatic outreach toward Iran started during the so-called Hormuz Crisis, which emerged in the summer of 2019 after an episode of sabotage off the coast of the Emirate of Fujairah, for which the US blamed Iran. As highlighted by Dr. Ebtesam al-Ketbi, Director of the Emirates Policy Center, the manner in which the UAE reacted to this sabotage “took many observers by surprise.” However, in its “quiet diplomatic response,” the UAE insisted on “the logic of peaceful settlements to prevent crises in the neighborhood from worsening,” thus rejecting military confrontation with Iran. Over the last couple of years, the timeline of UAE-Iran diplomacy has been marked by several high-level official visits by both sides. Especially noteworthy is the trip to Tehran of UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, which took place in December 2021, and the visit of Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s to Abu Dhabi in May 2022 for the funeral of former UAE president Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
In many ways, the process of détente toward Iran, supported by the UAE and Saudi Arabia – under the leadership of the newly-elected President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and the Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, respectively – could be interpreted as a strategic departure by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh from Trump’s “maximum pressure” against Tehran, to embrace a less-risky foreign policy and prevent a military escalation with Iran. Trump’s campaign was based on the axiom that regional security could only be achieved by excluding, rather than including, Iran. This eventually contributed to the worsening of the security dilemma trap in the region, increasing threat perception and mutual misunderstanding among the two banks of the Gulf, and thus preventing local actors from engaging in an inclusive dialogue aimed at turning the region into a more peaceful and secure environment. The misperception among the Gulf countries of the others’ intentions as threatening is the logic underpinning the security dilemma and the main source of the self-sustaining climate of fear characterizing the region.
A shared perception of threat but diverging views on how to tackle it
The Jeddah Security and Development Summit held in July, which was attended by US President Joe Biden and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states as well as Iraq, Jordan and Egypt, illustrates the extent to which the differing views among Arab Gulf leaders and Israel on how to tackle Iran have so far prevented the establishment of a US-backed regional air defense alliance.
In June, the Israeli government announced the country’s membership in a regional military partnership aimed at countering Iran’s missiles, rockets and unmanned drones, but there was no mention of the Arab allies involved in the alleged military partnership. On the other hand, the bipartisan bill “Deterring Enemy Forces and Enabling National Defenses Act of 2022” – also known as the “DEFEND Act of 2022” – which was introduced by members of the Abraham Accords Caucus in the House and Senate, specifically listed the countries included in the bill, namely the GCC states, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Egypt and other “regional allies or partners of the United States.” According to the preamble of the “DEFEND Act of 2022”, the Secretary of Defense is required to:
[…] seek to cooperate with allies and partners in the Middle East to identify an architecture and develop an acquisition approach for certain countries in the Middle East to implement an integrated air and missile defense capability to protect the people, infrastructure, and territory of such countries from cruise and ballistic missiles, manned and unmanned aerial systems, and rocket attacks from Iran, and for other purposes.
According to some sources, security officials from Tel Aviv, Cairo, Amman and some Gulf capitals had already met to discuss the Middle East Air Defense (MEAD) proposal on the sidelines of the tri-lateral summit between Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, then Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennet, and then crown prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, which took place in Sharm el-Sheikh in March.
On paper, this alliance would include the deployment of Israeli early-warning radars to the Arabian Peninsula and the synchronization of regional air defense systems against missile attacks by Iran and its proxies. However, the outcome of the Jeddah Summit did not meet expectations and an alliance is yet to be formed. In the final joint statement, no regional air defense architecture was mentioned, except for the commitment by the GCC leaders to deepen “their defense and joint deterrence capabilities” through enhancing “integration and interoperability.”
Over the past years, several attempts have been made to create a US-backed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)-style joint military alliance, the latest attempt being the 2018 “Middle East Strategic Alliance” between the Arab Gulf countries, Egypt and Jordan, proposed by former US president Donald Trump. In theory, such an alliance would result in a collective security architecture aimed at enhancing interoperability among its allies, filling national defense gaps in the maritime, air, and missile domains to defend against traditional threats as well as new sophisticated and unconventional warfare instruments. From the US perspective, this would eventually allow Washington to reduce its military presence (to be framed in the so-called “burden-sharing” strategy) without losing its strategic footprint in the region
Beyond any consideration for conflicting interests among Arab states in creating such a security alliance, including their reservations about supporting a comprehensive endogenous collective mechanism of defense (NATO’s Article 5), one principal reason why this multilateral security platform is not considered plausible by local actors is the “regional complexity vis-à-vis Iran.” Unlike the Israeli political establishment, which is pushing for the “military option”, Gulf Arab leaders prefer the path of diplomacy rather than constant escalation of tensions with their Iranian neighbor. The logic behind this posture is based on several aspects such as (i) Iran’s geographical proximity to the Gulf states and the threat it poses; (ii) the reservations of Arab leaders about being part of a formal alliance with Israel; and (iii) their reluctance to normalize ties with Tel Aviv – particularly due to the Palestinian issue.
The UAE, Qatar and Oman, in particular, are indeed aware that geographical proximity to Iran matters. The UAE, already one of Iran’s leading trade partners, has expressed interest in increasing investments and trade with Iran to enhance its role as a re-exporting hub in the Gulf region. Doha shares with Tehran ownership of the North Dome–South Pars Field, the world’s largest natural gas field, while Oman – at the forefront of promoting reconciliation and comprehensive understanding among the two banks of the Gulf – is committed to maintaining a cordial relationship with Tehran, primarily to ensure freedom of navigation across the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly a third of global seaborn oil trade flows.
As regards Saudi-Israeli relations, there has been no significant momentum. In fact, the Kingdom’s decision to open its airspace to commercial Israeli aircraft was merely a consequence of the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation’s adherence to the Chicago Convention’s non-discrimination clause on civil airplanes, and did not in any way represent Riyadh’s readiness to normalize relations with Tel Aviv. In an interview with CNN news, Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, stated: “[W]e need to have a process, and this process needs to include the implementation of the Arab Peace Initiative. Once we have committed to a two-state settlement with a Palestinian state in the occupied territories with east Jerusalem as its capital, that’s our requirement for peace.” The Saudi stance cannot be understood without considering the Kingdom’s role as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and, therefore, its leading position in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
The Iraqi government, on the other hand, has taken a hardline stance against Israel. In May, the country passed a bill proposed by the Muqtada al-Sadr-led bloc – titled “Criminalizing Normalization and Establishment of Relations with the Zionist Entity” – which prevents Iraqi individuals and entities from developing “diplomatic, political, military, economic, cultural and any other types of relations” with Israel. In this context, it could be assumed that Iraqi membership in a regional defense framework, as part of an anti-Iran axis, would halt Baghdad’s current regional mediation role.
Gulf states acknowledge the critical role Israel will continue to carve out in the Gulf region’s security equation. Concurrently, Arab Gulf leaders are also becoming increasingly aware that any anti-Iran axis would eventually result in cementing existing divisions as well as reduce prospects of regional diplomatic engagement. Though a full-fledged Arab-Israeli partnership is not likely to materialize in the short-medium term, this does not prevent Tel Aviv and some GCC countries from deepening cooperation in several sectors, including the defense and security domain. Air and missile defense, as well as maritime security, are areas in which the integration of Arab, Israeli and US military assets would strengthen regional capabilities to counter threats.
To conclude, rather than a formal partnership, Gulf states seem to favour a more flexible and, on occasion, “tacit relationship” with Israel. It is in this context that the notion of a “tacit security regime”, as elaborated by Clive Jones and Yoel Guzansky well before the Abraham Accords were signed, could still provide a useful analytical tool in outlining the goal(s), scope and intensity of GCC-Israel ties. New global and regional developments, the perception of Iran’s threat, and Arab Gulf leaders’ uncertainty about long-term US commitments to the Middle East (and its reliability as a strategic partner), have resulted in the strengthening of ties of some of these countries with Israel in a vast array of domains. Israel and some Gulf states are indeed entangled in multiple modes of engagement – some of them open, others more tacit – to achieve major common goals, the most prominent of which are national security and economic prosperity. This, however, does not exclude competition or ideological struggles in other areas. Not static but always a “work in progress”, the tacit security regime is a valid analytical device for capturing the evolving dynamics in the Gulf region and the recalibrations of international relations among the local actors involved.
 Alaa Al-Din Arafat, Regional and International Powers in the Gulf Security (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020): 25.
 Ibid., 37-39.
 Abdul Khaleq Abdulla, “UAE-US Relations Are at a Difficult Juncture,” Mufakiru Al Emarat [Arabic], March 29, 2022, https://mufakiru_alemarat.ecssr.ae/articles/detail/301%20.
 Lisa Barrington, “Israel Defence Minister Signs Security Agreement with Bahrain,” Reuters, February 3, 2022, https://reut.rs/3eqEnZM; “Israel, Bahrain Sign Security Cooperation Agreement in Manama,” Aljazeera, February 3, 2022, https://bit.ly/3wZjVFQ.
 Fabian Hoffmann and Timothy Wright, “The Houthis Present High, Low and Slow Challenges to the UAE’s Air Defence,” International Institute for Strategic Studies, February 4, 2022, https://bit.ly/3ARPfHx.
 Cinzia Bianco, “The GCC Monarchies: Perceptions of the Iranian Threat amid Shifting Geopolitics,” The International Spectator 55, no.2 (June 2020): 97-107, https://doi.org/10.1080/03932729.2020.1742505.
 Cinzia Bianco, Ellie Geranmayeh, and Hugh Lovatt, “Bide and Seek: The Dangers of US Support for a Gulf-Israeli Defence Pact,” European Council on Foreign Relations, July 13, 2022, https://bit.ly/3RnOZa8.
 Government of the United Arab Emirates, “UAE Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Iran Resumes Duties Following Leadership Directives and Prior Discussions,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs & International Cooperation, August 21, 2022, https://bit.ly/3et3Qld.
 Ebtesam al-Ketbi, The UAE Power Building Model: Mohammed bin Zayed’s Vision (Emirates Policy Center, 2022): 125.
 Mehran Kamrava, Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf (Cornell University Press, 2018): 33-57.
 See Degang Sun, “The US Military Bases in the Gulf Cooperation Council States: Dynamics of Readjustment,” Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (in Asia) 4, no.4 (2010): 44-63, https://doi.org/10.1080/19370679.2010.12023167.
 Janice Gross Stein, “Threat Perception in International Relations,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, ed. Leonie Huddy, David O. Sears, and Jack S. Levy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013): 1-55.
 Cinzia Bianco, Ellie Geranmayeh, and Hugh Lovatt, “Bide and Seek: The Dangers of US Support for a Gulf-Israeli Defence Pact,” European Council on Foreign Relations, July 13, 2022, https://bit.ly/3RnOZa8.
 Tamir Hayman and Sima Shine, “Tehran Heightens the Pressure as It Strives to Thwart a Regional Air Defense System,” The Institute for National Security Studies, July 20, 2022, https://bit.ly/3BhZwOE.
 Clive Jones and Yoel Guzansky, “Israel’s Relations with the Gulf States: Toward the Emergence of a Tacit Regime?” Contemporary Security Policy 38, no.3 (February 2017): 398-4019, https://doi.org/10.1080/13523260.2017.1292375,