UAE, Israel and the F-35: Prospects for a Strategic Alliance amidst Growing Threat Perceptions

This article was authored by Dina Saadallah, Security Analyst.

On 13 August 2020 a joint statement between the United States, Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) publicly announced the intentions of Israel and the UAE to normalise diplomatic relations. This agreement – also known as the ‘Abraham Accord’ – marks the third peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state (Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994). The peace agreement was described by the President of the United States as a ‘a truly historic moment’ and celebrated as a ‘pivotal step towards peace and security in the Middle East’. This raises questions surrounding how normalisation might impact the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and what role the region has in finding a solution.

This article will explore how cooperation between Israel and the UAE will fulfil the UAE’s growing security needs in the realm of advanced weaponry, keeping in mind Israel’s long-held strategy of maintaining qualitative military superiority in the Middle East. It will conclude with three indicative scenarios that illustrate what other future pathways may be viable for the UAE.

A ‘cascade of normalisation’

The UAE is a small oil-rich Gulf state and the first state in the Middle East to approach public normalisation while not sharing borders with Israel. As part of the announcement, the UAE and Israel have declared that normalisation will encompass a ‘broad range of areas including tourism, education, healthcare, and security’. This marks what is expected in the coming months to be a ‘cascade of normalisation’ between other Arab states and Israel.

Suspicions of this cascade of normalisation were confirmed on 11 September 2020, when the United States, Bahrain and Israel announced in a joint statement their ambition to establish full diplomatic relations between Israel and Bahrain. Analysts have suggested the Arab states most likely to follow are Morocco, which began low-level ties in 1993 after the Oslo Accords were struck; Oman, which welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on an official visit in 2018 wherein he met with the late Sultan Qaboos; and Mauritania, which had full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1999 only to be severed due to external pressure.

This cascade of normalisation highlights a significant alliance shift in the Middle East, wherein Arab states and Israel feel increasingly threatened by Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile development programme. The perceived threat posed by Iran is exacerbated by a lack of American military will to curb Iranian influence and proxies in the region. Ultimately, the increased concerns over a future nuclear-armed Iran have side-lined Arab states’ historic criticism of, and lack of formal relations with, Israel in order to fulfil pressing strategic and security needs. This includes the procurement of military technologies, intelligence sharing, and coordinated efforts to contain the Iranian threat. History has proven that enemies can turn to allies if they share a common threat perception.

Israeli military superiority

The UAE also announced its intention to proceed with an arms sale from the United States to obtain fifth generation F-35 aircrafts, considered to be the most technologically advanced fighter jet. More recently, it has been divulged that the package also includes EA-18G Growler jets and MQ-9 Reaper drones. Following the announcement of the agreement between the UAE and Israel, the UAE publicly stated that it had Israel’s blessings over the procurement. Were this to be true, this would have been a major departure from Israel’s long held core military strategy of independence and qualitative superiority (i.e. by maintaining one generation ahead of any regional neighbour in military technology).

From Israel’s perspective as a small state located in a region of conflict and unpredictable changes, any alliance could falter, and former allies could threaten Israel. For example, Israel has in the past not permitted Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to acquire efficient cutting-edge military equipment that could rival its own. Even if Israel were to build stronger diplomatic and economic relations with all Arab states it would still be wary of abandoning its military superiority in the region. Contradicting the UAE statement, Israel declared its opposition to the sales of F-35 aircrafts to any state in the region that might threaten the regional power set-up.

Due to the prevalence of US-Israel agreements designed to maintain Israel’s military edge in the Middle East, the probability of the US Congress approving the sale is doubtful. However, there is a possibility that President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu will bypass Congress in order to improve the chances of securing the sale. Notwithstanding the fact that Israel historically errs on the side of caution when it comes to the military balance in the Middle East, there is precedent for the authorisation of arms sales in its neighbourhood. In 2019, a report stated that Prime Minister Netanyahu had authorised the sale of advanced German submarines to Egypt in 2014 and 2015.

This begs the question: should the UAE prove unable to procure advanced military technologies from the US to assuage its increasingly pressing security needs, what are the other potential strategies open to the UAE to obtain qualitative military protection against what it views as the growing threat of an emboldened and a potentially future nuclear weapon armed Iran? And what could Israel and the United States do to assuage the UAE’s fears?

Looking towards the future

This article will explore three indicative paths forward.

Scenario One: US Security Umbrella Over the UAE

In May 2015, summit-level talks at Camp David between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States concluded with a pledge of US support to the GCC to deter and confront any external threats. In light of this, the US administration could consider strengthening its commitments to Gulf states, specifically addressing growing concerns in the region over the United States’ wavering military involvement and recent scaling back of its military presence. A formal treaty would solidify this pledge and overcome doubts expressed by some officials in the Gulf. Even though disquiet has been expressed, there is an acknowledgement that US support to Gulf states is invaluable and exceeds support received by other states.

The current US administration has reversed course on former President Barack Obama’s proactive engagement with Iran and its attempts to balance the US’ relationship with the Gulf Arab states against its relationship with Iran. Instead, the Trump administration has strengthened its alliance with Gulf Arab states and curtailed efforts to build bridges with Iran. The Trump administration’s strong multilateral relationship with Gulf Arab states might lead the US to formalise its security commitments to the Gulf Arab states in the form of a legally binding commitment or a treaty. This could include a ‘nuclear umbrella’.

However, if the Democratic party wins the November 2020 US election, then it is anticipated that a US administration under Joe Biden would reassume the mantle of the Obama era and be less likely to formalise a security umbrella with the UAE and Gulf Arab states. Joe Biden’s policy advisor Anthony Blinken has stated that a ‘future Biden administration would return to the 2015 Iran deal with Iran if the Iranian government did the same’.

Scenario Two: A NATO-like framework for the Middle East

The benefits of a NATO-like framework for Arab states would include long-term strategic defence planning, the ability to manage crises collectively, a clear command structure in the case of foreign threats, necessary protection to its nuclear facilities, and options for cyber defence.

There is some precedent for a NATO-like framework for the Middle East. In recent years, several examples of security cooperation frameworks took place in the region. For example, in 2015, Saudi Arabia launched the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, an alliance between 41 Muslim-majority state to combat radical Islamism, DAESH, and counterterrorism. In 2017, the Middle East Strategic Alliance was created by the Trump administration and unites all states of the GCC as well as Egypt and Jordan behind the goals of ‘expanding regional consultative mechanisms’, deepening interoperability, reducing US regional presence, and targeting Iran.

In spite of these successes, attempts to create a NATO-like framework for the Middle East have failed. The prerequisite conditions for such an arrangement to succeed would include converging security needs and interests, a sense of commonality, and a degree of trust. Without these, the actualisation an effective military and defence cooperation is unlikely.

Scenario Three: Israeli Security Umbrella to the UAE

The least likely scenario of the three would be if Israel agreed to provide the UAE with a conditional security guarantee in the event of an Iranian attack. This would most probably take the form of a confidential agreement between the two heads of states in order to avoid public scrutiny. This would mean that in the event of a threat to the UAE, the Israeli Air Force would provide air coverage to defend the UAE in order to contain the threat and simultaneously defend Israel before the threat can reach it.

Since the UAE does not have access to the advanced military technology that Israel does, an equal party bilateral defence pact (i.e. one in which both states would agree to defend one another in the face of an attack) would not be acceptable to Israel. Leaks to the media (whether intended or unintended) on this agreement would be one way to send a cautionary message to Iran and other common threats. Yet a public commitment or a treaty would be unprecedented and highly controversial.

Conclusion

An opportunity exists for states in the Middle East to cooperate with the goal of building trust and confidence among themselves to cover regional security concerns. In particular, there remains shared interests in the region to offset Iranian influence. However, as has been explored in this article, the prerequisite conditions for comprehensive regional security cooperation have not been fully meet and longstanding tensions continue to undermine Arab-Israeli relations and cooperation. For example, Israel’s strategic aim of maintaining qualitative superiority in the region is unlikely to change anytime soon and will hinder the procurement of advanced military technologies to Arab states in the region.

This article showed how a security framework with Israel and a Western power could fill the security technological gap. At the same time, there remain strong incentives for Israel to offer some form of security cooperation. An approach among Arab states to cover regional security concerns and join frameworks that increase confidence building measures will strengthen their diplomatic relationships in the region. 

Time will tell whether normalisation between Israel and Gulf Arab states will diminish or exacerbate their shared threat perceptions, and how Iran will react to this new strategic reality.

N.B.: This article was written by a BASIC collaborator. Views expressed  belong solely to the original author of the article and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of BASIC.

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