Behind the Scenes: Israel and the Gulf States

This timely tome (The Gulf Region and Israel: Old Struggles, New Alliances) by Sigurd Neuberger appeared just as US President Trump’s Deal of the Century was sidelined and diplomatic ties established with several Gulf States.

The formal recognition of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was considered more important than extending sovereignty over a slice of the West Bank. Its publication is well-timed because it provides both the context and the history leading up to these momentous events.

While the conventional reason for this emerging alliance is rightly a fear of Iran and its imperialist proclivities, “the rehabilitation of Israel” was also due to political rivalry between some Gulf States as well as the military weakness of many of them.

Many in this region came to believe that the road to Washington runs through Tel Aviv. Sigurd Neuberger argues that the genesis of this belief began when the state-owned Dubai Ports World acquired the British company P & O, thereby allowing it access to six major US ports. This created uproar in the US Congress because two of the 9/11 hijackers were Emiratis – and they had drawn funds from banks in Dubai before embarking on their murderous venture.

The UAE understood that it would have to recast its image in the Washington Beltway. By 2008, officials of Israel and the UAE had met quietly in the US and established a backchannel between their respective ministries of defense. When the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, head of weapons procurement for Hamas, took place in a Dubai hotel in January 2010, the Israeli trade office was closed down. Yet meetings between diplomats and politicians including Netanyahu continued to take place in Europe.The UAE had differences with other Gulf states, such as Qatar and Oman – and Israeli foreign policy had to take this into consideration.

Israel had helped the Omanis in combating the Dhofar rebellion 50 years ago and the subtle diplomacy of its late leader, Sultan Qaboos, had provided a channel to Tehran. On the other hand, four out of seven of the emirates which comprised the UAE, had formerly been part of the Omani empire. Religiously and culturally, traditional Muscat contrasted dramatically with westernized Abu Dhabi. While Rabin, Peres and Netanyahu have all visited Oman, there are still no formal diplomatic ties.

In contrast, Qatar has performed the role of the maverick amongst the Gulf States, infuriating Saudi Arabia to the extent that it entertained the idea of digging a canal along the border – turning Qatar into an island! Qatar moved out of the shadow of Saudi Arabia in the mid-1990s and followed its own independent path. It became a state for all seasons. It hosted a US airbase at Udeid while maintaining good relations with the Muslim Brotherhood.

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt broke off relations with Qatar. Saudi Arabia expelled its citizens and even promoted a pretender to the Qatari throne. Moreover, the broadcasts of Al Jazeera from Qatar had become a festering sore in the sides of both Israel and the Arab world – although the station was strangely silent when it came to Qatar’s internal affairs.

Arab dissidents found a haven in Qatar. Even so, Israel maintained quiet relations because it imported liquefied gas from this state. It permitted Qatari access to Hamas because it wanted to keep the economic lid safely on Gaza and thereby prevent the eruption of a new conflict. In October 2012, the then Qatari Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, visited Gaza and offered $400 million in reconstruction assistance.Interestingly, the author argues that in the US Congress, Israel effectively stopped the passage of the Palestinian International Terrorism Support Act, reaching the floor of the House in May 2017 because it implicated Qatar. In July 2019, a revamped bill, supported by AIPAC, but omitting any reference to Qatar, was passed in Congress. Sigurd Neuberger suggests that the Israeli interest on this occasion was in supporting the pro-Islamist Qatar over the anti-Hamas UAE. Significantly, Qatar expelled Saleh al-Arouri and Musa Dudin, Hamas leaders, who were held responsible for acts of terror against Israeli civilians. The author comments on Congressional perceptions that “there was an acute lack of understanding of the role Qatar plays in monitoring Hamas, in working to moderate its policies and in pushing for Middle East peace.”

This interesting and well-researched book looks at the hall of mirrors that Israel has stepped into with its new-found friends in the Gulf. Nothing is straightforward as the public relations would suggest. Indeed, the author implicitly draws attention to this by dedicating the book to his friend, Jamal Khashoggi, dissected in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul.The situation is fluid and there are new revelations on a daily basis – even so, normalization and the establishment of diplomatic relations is a giant step forward for Israel. The book provides insight and coloring to this fast-changing scenario.

Jerusalem Post 14 January 2021

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