Narrowing the Gulf: Improving GCC-Israel relations

It has been a busy week for revelations of contacts between the Arab Gulf states and Israel. On 11 September, Israeli media reported that a member of one of the Gulf ruling families had recently made a discreet visit to Israel for talks with Prime Minister Netanyahu. While the details remained sketchy (may be a Saudi prince, may be a Qatari), the news caused a storm in the region, although more of the teacup size rather than comparable to Irma or Maria. A few days later, a more public rapprochement was set in motion with the King of Bahrain using an event in Los Angeles promoting religious tolerance to denounce the Arab boycott of Israel and lifting restrictions on Bahraini citizens visiting Israel. While the event was public, this move was still low profile and received little publicity. The King was not actually present (but his son was) and news of Bahrain’s policy change was made by representatives of the Wiesenthal Centre rather than Bahraini officials. Tellingly, Bahrain has not issued any denial nor has any other Gulf state commented on the matter.

This detente between the Arab Gulf states and Israel is not a new or sudden development. There is a long history of contact between representatives of the GCC states and Israel despite the Arab League boycott and the lack of diplomatic relations. I have witnessed two of these contacts. Some of this contact has been in public but much more has been discreet and sometimes involved trusted intermediaries. One of the first public contacts between GCC leaders and Israel was in 1993. The Saudi Foreign Minister and other GCC foreign ministers were present in September 1993 at the signing of the Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO on the White House lawn. After US President Bill Clinton had brought Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat together for a handshake and the speeches had been made, Rabin and Arafat made their way through the crowd of dignitaries accepting congratulations and shaking hands. Rabin shook hands with the Gulf leaders present that day.

In the years that followed the Oslo Accord, more substantial relations were built between some of the GCC states and Israel. Qatar and Oman allowed Israel to open trade missions in their countries and hosted Israeli diplomats but stopped short of full diplomatic recognition. Israeli ministers on occasion attended international conferences in the region. These efforts failed to lead to more substantial rapprochement as periodic escalations in tensions between Israel and its immediate neighbours, especially the Palestinians and Lebanese made any further moves politically difficult for Gulf leaders. However, GCC leaders did continue to see economic opportunities in Israel and the Palestinian territories and appreciated the need to co-operate with Israel. In May 2008, the Palestinian Authority held its first Palestine Investment Conference in Bethlehem. Among the attendees was a very senior Qatari minister and member of the ruling family. I know because I was there as well. As I travelled back to Israel’s main international airport, my taxi was overtaken by the Gulf sheikh’s car heading the same way.

Relations between the GCC states and Israel have not followed a smooth upward trajectory. in January 2010, they suffered a serious setback when Israeli intelligence agents travelling under false foreign passports (including British and Irish documents) assassinated a senior Hamas militant in a Dubai hotel room. While Israel was trying to counter one threat, Hamas; the perception of a seemingly more serious threat was growing in both Israeli and some GCC minds. That perceived threat is Iran.

It is the mutual perception of Iran as an existential threat that has brought some GCC leaders and Israel together. In particular, Saudi Arabia shares Israel’s assessment that Iran poses the most serious threat to its security. I am not going to debate the pros and cons of that assessment here. For the purposes of this article, what is important is Saudi and Israeli shared concern about the destabilising role that they accuse Iran of playing in the region. Despite, this shared concern, initial contacts between Saudi Arabia and Israel were tentative and used third party mediation. One of the go-betweens was the UK. I am aware of at least one occasion when a senior British diplomat with strong Saudi connections held discussions with a senior Israeli general in Israel.

The shared security concerns means that the current contacts between Gulf leaders and Israel are likely to be more long-lasting and more substantive than previous engagement over trade. The direct engagement (discreet visits and semi-public announcements) and the tolerance of publicity about these suggest a greater confidence amongst Gulf leaders about these contacts. Gulf leaders are more confident that they can ride any domestic political backlash and any opposition from fellow Arab states. Egyptian president El-Sisi demonstrated the confidence of Arab leaders to engage with Israel with his high profile meeting with Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly meeting this week. This contact with Israel is changing the political narrative in the Gulf towards Israel. This week could mark a turning point in Gulf attitudes towards Israel and the normalisation of relations.

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