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Israel eyes improved ties with Gulf states after ‘foothold’ gained in UAE

Israel and the UAE share many policy priorities including opposition to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to Foreign Ministry Director-General Dore Gold (AFP)

Israel hopes that its relationship with Arab Gulf states will continue to improve after ties with countries including the United Arab Emirates have grown in recent years over issues including opposition to Iran, officials and regional experts have told Middle East Eye.

On Monday Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz returned from a “secret trip” to Abu Dhabi where he discussed “shared concerns” over Iran, the Islamic State (IS), and other undisclosed matters, according to Israel’s Channel 2.

The report said the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs is interested in opening an office in Abu Dhabi, following on from the December 2015 announcement that Israel was opening its public office in the UAE at the Abu Dhabi headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

While the IRENA office is no way a diplomatic one, and is instead part of an international energy agency, the announcement raised eyebrows as it is the first time in more than 15 years that Israel has had an official presence on the territory of an Arab Gulf state.

Qatar and Oman opened Israeli trade offices in 1996, but closed them in 2000 following the outbreak of the second Palestinian Intifada.

An Israeli source told Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity that the UAE office is aimed at establishing a presence in the wider Arabian Peninsula.

“The move was entirely led by the Israeli foreign minister and the rationale is very clear – to get a foothold in the Gulf,” the source, who has visited the Abu Dhabi IRENA headquarters, said on condition of anonymity.

The source said that the office will be staffed by three Israeli nationals. One will be a diplomat who will serve as the official representative to IRENA; another will be a renewable energies professional; and a third will be from the Israeli security services.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported in December that diplomat Rami Hatan will move to Abu Dhabi to head the mission as the official IRENA representative.

IRENA states on its website that it is an “international organisation that serves as a platform for international cooperation” on issues relating to renewable energy.

Established in 2009, Israel supported making the UAE the agency’s headquarters, so long as Israeli officials could freely take part in the organisation’s activities.

It was the second time Israel had used international agencies as a tool to pressure the UAE. Israeli officials said that they supported Dubai joining the World Federation of Diamond Bourses in 2004 so long as Israeli members of the organisation could freely travel to Dubai.

The architects behind the Israeli office at IRENA in Abu Dhabi are known to be director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Dore Gold and Special Envoy on Energy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Ron Adam.

Since IRENA’s establishment in 2009, Israeli ministers have intermittently visited the UAE - where Israelis are officially banned from entering - to take part in IRENA conferences.

Former Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau was the first Israeli minister to visit the UAE on an official visit to the IRENA offices in 2010.

However, after a member of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas was assassinated in Dubai that year, Emirati authorities accused Israeli secret service Mossad of carrying out the murder.

By 2014 tensions had eased and the then infrastructure minister Silvan Shalom visited Abu Dhabi to attend the IRENA office.

The opening of an official Israeli office at the IRENA Abu Dhabi headquarters is the latest stage in Israel trying to build a more open strategic relationship with the UAE, which may open doors to relations with other Arab Gulf states, according to regional experts.

“While the future office in the Emirates does not seem to be very valuable at the moment, we could assume that if the Emirates sees that there is no backlash, it will open the door to the next step,” said Dr Shaul Yanai, a researcher at the Forum for Regional Thinking, which focuses on the Arab Gulf states.

It is extremely sensitive for Arab Gulf states, including the UAE, to be seen to have public relations with Israel because their citizens are widely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

In spite of this, behind-the-scenes relations between Israel and the UAE in particular have been growing in recent years.

Israel and the Gulf united against Iran

The potential for a strategic relationship between Israel and the UAE – and other Arab Gulf states – has grown as their regional policy priorities have coincided.

“During the Iran nuclear talks Israel’s intelligence community started having more effective ties with Gulf countries,” Zvi Mazel, Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt, told Middle East Eye.

“The Emirates have ties with us due to our common interests against Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

"You can definitely sense that in certain fields the Gulf countries and Israel are becoming closer,” said Mazel, who is now a research associate at the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs.

Although both prioritise a fight against the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran, the sensitivities of the relationship means little is known about the extent of Israel’s ties to multiple Arab Gulf states.

“In 2009 it was clear that senior professionals in the intelligence and security fields from Israel and the Gulf countries were collaborating but that does not mean that any major diplomatic advancement took place,” said Eran Etzion, former head of policy planning at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“There is a clear cut between the professional and political ranks and Israel is often called ‘the mistress,’ alluding to the fact that these countries agree to have certain ties with it on condition that it all remains under the table.”

While the UAE’s burgeoning relationship with Israel is slowly emerging through announcements such as the IRENA office, ties with other Arab Gulf states remain very much in the dark.

Saudi Arabia, which like Israel views Iran as a regional threat, lobbied hard against the recent nuclear deal that ended sanctions against Tehran in exchange for reassurances that the Iranians are not trying to build nuclear weapons.

Etzion said that Saudi and Israeli officials used the same tactics and information during their lobbying against Iran in Washington.

“In the two years prior to the Iran deal there were definitely cases of coordination,” he said. “An Israeli delegation could come to lobby against the agreement and, coincidentally, a few weeks earlier the Saudi delegation would be there. Both delegations went through similar preparations and used similar books.”

A Wikileaks cable published in 2010 emphasised that the Arab Gulf states believe they could “count on Israel against Iran”.

Israeli Foreign Ministry official Yacov Hadas said: “They [the Gulf states] believe Israel can work magic.”

As the Iran talks neared a deal in 2015, Saudi journalist and editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya wrote a provocative column calling on US President Barack Obama to “listen to Netanyahu on Iran,” in a piece that was viewed as representing the coalescence of policy between Israel and the Gulf on the nuclear talks.

‘Under the table’ trade deals

Israel opening an office at the IRENA headquarters in Abu Dhabi is one step on a path that may end with the two countries establishing diplomatic relations, but this is currently some way off.

The IRENA office merely provides an example of how Israel is able to legitimise its officials and citizens being able to enter the UAE, where trade has quietly been picking up for Israel in recent years.

While Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics says Tel Aviv exported $5.3mn worth of goods to the UAE in 2013, in reality the figures are likely to be much higher according to market experts.

“Most of the trade isn’t official Israeli export, but is being done through private companies, most of which have branches abroad,” said Israeli Dr Nachum Shiloh, an expert on Gulf countries and owner of Gulf Markets Intelligence (GMI).

“The Gulf countries are not considered to be enemy countries and therefore Israeli businessmen are allowed to trade with them freely.”

Shiloh listed agriculture technology, medical technology, communication systems, aerial control systems, and homeland security products as the top exported commodities from Israel to the UAE.

Homeland security is a highly secretive area of trade between Israel and the UAE, but it is a key sector for the two nations and is evidence of their expanding relationship.

In November 2014 Middle East Eye revealed details of a regular private jet flying between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi, and later reported in February 2015 that Israel had sold and installed a mass surveillance system in Abu Dhabi, which is known as “Falcon Eye”.

The private jet flying between Israel and the UAE, as charted by Middle East Eye, included a brief stop in the Jordanian capital Amman.

The reason behind this stopover may have been the fact that much of the trade between Israel and the UAE is conducted through third party countries, including Jordan. Israeli businessmen with second passports carry Israeli commodities to the UAE, sometimes with the help of Jordanian companies.

“Informally, certain Jordanian companies are assisting Israeli businessmen to get to the Gulf, sometimes through the establishment of joint ventures,” said a source from the Israeli business sector familiar with the matter.

Traditionally the Arab Gulf States have imposed a boycott on Israeli goods. However, this was loosened in 1994 when Gulf Cooperation Council members ended a boycott on companies that trade with Israel and said they would only enforce the ban on Israeli companies themselves.

The explosion of multinational companies over the past two decades has led to anyone boycotting Israel – or its companies as with the Gulf – to struggle with identifying Israeli involvement in products that may be produced across multiple states.

“Globalisation of the business world and the nature of Israeli products makes it very difficult to enforce the boycott,” a former senior government official who knows the subject well and visited the Gulf told Middle East Eye.

“Many of the Israeli products are intermediate products which are part of bigger systems, making it impossible to track the manufacture country.”

Getting round the boycott

This difficulty in identifying the source of products has made it easier for Israeli companies to get around the boycott and freely trade with countries including the UAE, with the approval of officials on both sides.

Israel’s involvement in Abu Dhabi’s Falcon Eye surveillance system was muddied through the use of international companies.

Israeli businessman Mati Kochavi reportedly sold the system to Abu Dhabi through his Swiss-based company Asia Global Technology, with the system being developed by his Israeli subsidiary company Logic.

The Israeli security ministry approved the sale of the system, which was followed up in 2015 with former Israeli intelligence officer David Meidan establishing a company to mediate a sale of cyber-security technology to the UAE.

Meidan had been a leading candidate to head up the Israeli security service Mossad and while previously working at the security agency he had led the “Tevel” division, which was responsible for relationships with overseas intelligence agencies.

It is through his time with Mossad that Meidan may have established ties with businessmen and intelligence officials in the Gulf, including the UAE.

The former senior government official said that the mixing of the private and public sectors in the Gulf has made it easier for Israel to build a trade relationship with the UAE and they added that it could pave the way for a full and open relationship in the future.

“Some Israeli businessmen seem to have ties with officials in the Gulf, and the fact that the business and political sectors in these countries are not separated made us hopeful that it will lead the way to normalisation,” the official said.

“But while the Gulf rulers don’t seem to mind trade with Israeli businessmen, everything is still being done under the table through foreign companies or international organisations.”

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