Israel-Saudi relations have come a long way

by Paul Iddon

At the Munich Security Conference earlier this year Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman “accused Iran of trying to undermine Saudi Arabia” and accordingly called on “moderate” Sunni Arab monarchies to fight “radical” forces in the region. According to him, Tehran is seeking to “undermine stability in every country in [the] Middle East […] their main destination at the end of the day is Saudi Arabia.” He declared, “I think that [for] the first time since 1948 the moderate Arab world, Sunni world, understands that the biggest threat for them is not Israel, not Jews and not Zionism, but Iran and Iranian proxies.”


Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir avoided a question at that conference about the prospect of an overt Israeli alliance aiming to counter Iran and normalize relations in the process. Nevertheless Lieberman’s comments are the latest to indicate that Israel and the Sunni Arab states are seeing eye to eye when it comes to their opposition to Tehran’s actions in the region.

Back in 2015, retired Saudi General Anwar Majed Eshki and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Dore Gold revealed, at an event of the Council on Foreign Relations, that their countries held five secret meetings concerning Iran. Such interactions coupled with a perceived common threat show both sides now possess an unprecedented level of common interests.

These behind the scenes interaction do not begin and end with consultations over Iran. Bloomberg reported back in February 2017 that, “[t]rade and collaboration in technology and intelligence are flourishing between Israel and a host of Arab states, even if the people and companies involved rarely talk about it publicly. […] The Arab embargo of Israel, nominally in force since the Jewish state’s founding in 1948, necessitates that all business between Israel and most Arab states remain strictly off the books, cloaked by intermediaries in other countries,” the report outlined. “But the volume and the range of Israeli activity in at least six Gulf countries is getting hard to hide.” The report also says that “Other Israeli businesses are working in the Gulf, through front companies, on desalination, infrastructure protection, cybersecurity, and intelligence gathering.”

These engagements are not unlike Iran’s own pre-revolutionary low-profile relations with Israel. This included selling Israel Iranian oil (see the Eilat-Askelon pipeline) and Israel covertly helping Iran develop its modern military, then among the largest (Iran had the fifth largest army in the world at the time) and certainly the most technologically advanced in the Persian Gulf region.

Anwar Majed Eshki and Dore Gold shaking hands at an event of the Council on Foreign Relations in 2015.

Anwar Majed Eshki and Dore Gold shaking hands at an event of the Council on Foreign Relations in 2015.

While Saudi Arabia never formally accepted the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 it did not nevertheless perceive it as a major strategic threat. In the late 1930s the fledgling Saudi kingdom drove the Hashemites out of the Hejaz region – which includes Mecca – beginning decades of rivalry between it and Jordan (David Wurmser, “Tyranny’s Ally: America’s failure to defeat Saddam Hussein“, The AEI Press, 1999, p. 112). When Israel emerged the Jordanian kingdom found itself wedged between two rivals. In the mid-1990s Amman-Riyadh rivalries were finally done away with, incidentally around the same time Israel and Jordan signed their own peace agreement, and they presently enjoy cordial relations.

Saudi Arabia did play small, albeit more symbolic, roles in the background of the major Arab-Israeli wars. Even though it feared the fiery revolutionary rhetoric of the regime of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt it couldn’t feasible have itself perceived as opposed to, or even ambivalent about, the Arab states in their fight against Israel. The Saudis agreed to use the “oil weapon” in support of Nasser’s successor’s, Anwar Sadat, war against Israel to reclaim the Sinai Peninsula. The Saudis initiated the infamous oil embargo shortly after Washington overtly beefed up Israel’s conventional military late in the October 1973 war – known as Yom Kippur War in Israel and the Ramadan War in the Arab countries.

The US built-up its current relationship with Saudi Arabia during this period. Washington’s own bilateral relations with Riyadh have come a long way from the days of the Nixon administration, when they were preparing secretive contingency plans which included taking military action against Abu Dhabi in response to Riyadh’s embargo.

As part of the periphery doctrine established early in its existence Israel maintained cordial relations with non-Arab states in the wider region, notably Turkey and the Shah’s Iran. Even after the Iranian Revolution Israel favored Iran over Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the eight year Iran-Iraq War. They began voicing their concerns about Iran in the early 1990s following the decimation of Saddam’s military in the 1991 Gulf War. Today Israel’s old periphery doctrine seems to have shifted from the periphery to include major Sunni Arab powers in the region against Iran, a major non-Arab state.

A Royal Air Force Boeing Sentry AEW.1 (E-3D serial ZH103) from No. 8 Squadron, RAF Waddington, deployed to the U.S. Air Force 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares to take off for a mission from Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, on 22 March 2003.

A Royal Air Force Boeing Sentry AEW.1 (E-3D serial ZH103) from No. 8 Squadron, RAF Waddington, deployed to the U.S. Air Force 363rd Air Expeditionary Wing, prepares to take off for a mission from Prince Sultan Air Base, Saudi Arabia, on 22 March 2003.

Back in the early 1980s Israel vehemently opposed the nascent Reagan administration’s decision to sell five hi-tech E-3 Sentry surveillance planes to the Saudi kingdom. The planes, with their powerful radars could detect Israeli jets taking off and possibly eliminate any element of surprise, of the kind which famously won them the June 1967 war, Israel would need in a future war. Nevertheless the deal went ahead, much to Israel’s consternation. In November 1981 Israeli warplanes reportedly violated Saudi airspace in the northwest near the kingdom’s Tabuk airbase, perhaps to warn Riyadh against challenging their military supremacy in the region.

As a newspaper report from the time observed that incident came “at a time of increased tension in the Mideast over Saudi defense. On Oct. 28 [1981] the US Senate, over the vehement protests of Israel, approved an $8.5 billion arms package to the oil-rich kingdom, which provides 20 per cent of American imported oil. Israel regards possession of sophisticated arms by a hard-line Arab nation as a threat to the security of the Jewish state.”

For over 50 years now US administrations supplying arms to Arab powers always sought to assure Israel that they will uphold their military’s technological edge over these states. The Obama administration sought to placate Israeli and Saudi opposition to the Iran nuclear deal by offering them more lucrative arms deals.

The Saudi military’s build-up in the last decade is both vast in scale and the technology involved. According to a report seen by Reuters the Obama administration offered the Saudis more than $115 billion worth of weapons since coming into office which constituted, “the most of any US administration in the 71-year US-Saudi alliance.” The offers “included everything from small arms and ammunition to tanks, attack helicopters, air-to-ground missiles, missile defense ships, and warships.”

Mute opposition from Israel on this – although they did say they are “not thrilled about it” – is noteworthy, especially considering that as recently as 2003 Riyadh relocated many of its advanced American-made F-15E Strike Eagle jets to Tabuk, allegedly to counter any Iraqi attacks during that years war, where they could reach Israeli airspace in a mere six minutes.

Israel is clearly no longer, at least publicly, concerned about the Saudi military’s expanding capabilities. The Israelis do publicly say, repeatedly, that their primary concern is Iran’s growing power in the region. Undoubtedly these stated concerns and their acquiescence to the Saudi military’s manic build-up indicate that they hope Riyadh can one day bolster the Israeli military by afflicting significant damage on Tehran were a war to break out.

This entry was posted in English, Israel, Paul Iddon, Saudi Arabia, Security Policy.

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