The secret affair between Israel and the Gulf states dates back to the early 1990s. At that time, Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi started to meet around a shared concern : a certain sense of regional insecurity that demanded to be treated as a priority. Security and strategic policies also increasingly met on shared ennemies: Iran, and the Muslim brotherhood, which maintained strongholds across the region.
With time grew a deeper friendship. At the turn of the 2000s, a shared sympathy for new technologies and surveillance systems became clear. In public, relations were reduced to a handful of limited contacts. "One of the first open cooperation, in 2015, was an Israeli diplomatic mission within the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) based in Abu Dhabi," said Elham Fakhro, an expert at the International Crisis Group and a Gulf specialist.
Yet behind the scenes, the informal narrative tells a different story. Backstage rumors are pointing to one precise sector: military cooperation, which have flourished over the past decade between the states. "Israeli companies, under the supervision of the defense ministry, have reportedly sold advanced weapons to the United Arab Emirates, mainly detection missiles," Fakhro said. In 2009, a secret agreement for the purchase of Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by the United Arab Emirates allegedly failed, thwarted by the Israeli defense ministry at the last minute. Media also reported a meeting between Saudi and Israeli leaders in 2018 in Washington, DC, and rumor has it that Saudi Arabia sought to purchase Israeli drones through a South African intermediary.
Officially, however, nothing filters through. "There is no piece of information that can be used to prove arms trade between these states," said Aram Nerguizian, senior advisor on civil-military relations and specialist on Arab countries at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Why does the rumor sound so credible, despite the lack of confirmed evidence? Precisely because it echoes what everyone already knows : the concordance of each of the countries’ separate agenda makes the alliance all too familiar.
Tel Aviv's industrial and military ambitions are a perfect fit for the Arabian Peninsula's thirst for weaponry and new technologies. Security preoccupations meant that arms, defense and technology turned into top priorities for Gulf states, which are among the largest arms importers. In Saudi Arabia, which has the fourth largest military budget in the world, military growth and arming are an inclusive part of the “Vision 2030” framework that sets the path ahead. The United Arab Emirates, whose defense budget increased by 41% in 2019, is the region's rising military power. For these two states, it is about securing cutting-edge equipment for several purposes : a territorial deployment capacity for internal defense and an ability to reach out foreign land in potential external interventions. "The Gulf has a clear demand for short-, medium- and long-range defense missiles, as well as anti-UAV systems," Nerguizian said. “In addition to cyber defense, these are areas in which Israel has invested a lot of time and capital."
The growth and progressive specialization of the Israeli defense industry makes it the eighth largest arms exporting powers. Its volume of arms trade increased by 77% between 2015 and 2019. The main recipients certainly remain Asia Pacific, Europe and North America. But there is little doubt that Gulf countries carry great potential for companies in the sector given their policies and budget. "Like any defense industry, the Israeli industry is looking for opportunities and attractive markets. The support of governments can only facilitate this access," Nerguizian said. "All these different approaches to cooperation find new potential when formal bilateral links exist."
Within the Israeli industry, the speedy evolution of the cybersurveillance sector provides an offer that is specifically fitting the demands of the Saudi and UAE regimes. The latter are able to pour large amounts of money into strengthening surveillance systems and hunting down any form of dissent. This year, the Jewish state was standing at the sixth position in a global ranking by the Global Startup Ecosystem Report. In 2019, its exports of cybersecurity-related products and services amounted to $6.5 billion.
Here again, the Israeli offer meets a known aspiration from Gulf monarchies to have the upper hand in surveillance technologies. In two decades, the rise of social networks and smartphones, followed by the Arab Spring, changed the game by relocating the public square onto the virtual sphere. Online networks have been used as a tool against authoritarian regimes, granting the population newfound freedom to express themselves and, above all, to discreetly organize protests in small groups or through private messaging that ignore national borders.
But there is a flip side to the coin. These governments, perceiving growing popular dissent as a threat to their regime, thereby acquire or consolidate their capacity to track down political opponents through spyware. "This new era has been marked by widespread online surveillance and selective filtering of information over networks by authorities using the most sophisticated technologies imported from a variety of sources, including some democracies in the European Union, or Canada," said Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights.
"Cooperation between Israel and Gulf states well predates the Arab Spring, which is not the reason why cooperation started in the first place. Instead, it may have been one of the factors that enabled it to strive," said Sarah Aoun, director of the technology department at the Open Technology Fund, a US nonprofit organization that promotes online freedom. The "smart" surveillance system called "Falcon Eye" set up in the city of Abu Dhabi is for example the result of a partnership between the UAE and the Israeli company 4D Security Solutions in 2007. Saudi Arabia also requested the assistance of Israeli companies specialized in cybersecurity in 2012, following a cyber attack by the Shamoon virus against the national oil company Saudi Aramco, attributed to Iran by US intelligence.
Bahrain, for its part, was offered the services of Verint Systems, an Israeli company whose systems are used by monitoring centers to collect data on social networks. According to sources mentioned by Haaretz, Israeli teams traveled to the kingdom under foreign passports to train government officials in the use of their products.
In the surveillance sector, the Israeli company NSO is now one of the most popular at the regional level, partly thanks to its Pegasus software. The program, which can be operated remotely, provides access to a multitude of data in a device: photos, videos, calls and applications. It can recover passwords or even trigger an audio recording. "NSO Group has been known to have some of the most sophisticated spyware technologies, and has had no qualms selling it to governments willing to use it to target human rights defenders, activists, or dissidents," Aoun said. NSO, for its part, has repeatedly stated that it has no control over how its monitoring systems are used by their customers.
According to the daily newspaper Haaretz, the Israeli state is thought to have mediated and facilitated contacts between NSO and Gulf states. Israeli officials are said to have participated in business meetings between Arab intelligence officials and the surveillance company, sometimes on Israeli soil. The Gulf branch of the company features Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain and the Abu Dhabi and Ras el-Khaimah emirates among its clients. It is also the most profitable one, with sales revenues of hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
The tools offered by NSO are not only used against dissidents. According to The New York Times, they have been used by Abu Dhabi to try to intercept data of members of the Qatari royal family, including emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, or of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, for example. However, some cases will remain emblematic of the use of Pegasus by regimes in the region such as the case of Emirati activist Ahmad Mansour, who was tracked down by his country's authorities between 2013 and 2014 and is now sentenced to 10 years in prison for criticizing the government online; or that of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, watched by Riyadh and murdered in his country's consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The day before his assassination, the multidisciplinary center Citizen Lab linked to the University of Toronto confirmed that the phone of Saudi activist Omar Abdelaziz, who was granted asylum in Canada in 2014, had also been targeted by Pegasus through an operator linked to Saudi Arabia.
Ties between Gulf countries and the Jewish state have been kept out of sight but are expected to come to the forefront in the wake of the normalization agreement. "The Gulf has been riding on a new wave of digital surveillance to track citizens in the past several years, like Oyoon (Eyes) program in Dubai, based on artificial intelligence and used by the police," Aoun said. "The agreement will facilitate and normalize this type of business relations, given that Israel is one of the world's leading exporters of surveillance technology," she added. "We have serious concerns that normalization will lead to more restrictions on online activists and that collective surveillance of all citizens is going to be imposed on nations across our region," Ibrahim said.
The recent normalization agreement has fed into the controversy surrounding Abu Dhabi's purchase of F-35 warplanes. It also reignited a debate on the future of military cooperation in the region. While the agreement might imply that a greater offer of Israeli weapons is made available to Gulf States, the arming of Arab states by Israeli companies is not to everyone's liking. Some Israelis are still reluctant to the idea, mainly by fear that too much intimacy will mean that Tel-Aviv relies on authoritarian Arab regimes for its own security.
But with just weeks to go before the US presidential election, many also feel daunted by the idea of a bipartisan consensus advocating for Washington's withdrawal from the Middle East. Proximity between Tel Aviv and Gulf capitals would represent, in this context, a safety net and a backup system on the long-term. It remains to be seen how far this cooperation may go. Is the day coming where Israeli bases will be set off the shores of Abu Dhabi?
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 28th of September)
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