Joshua Teitelbaum, Bar-Ilan University professor and author, spoke to an October 31st Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the increasingly open relations between Israel and the countries in the Persian Gulf region.
Teitelbaum touted the progress that has been made between the Jewish State and the Gulf countries, noting that the past vitriol expressed toward Jews and Israel by many Arab countries and their leaders is diminishing. He said the United Arab Emirates (UAE), "a pioneer in the relations," has employed "soft power" since it joined the Abraham Accords brokered by Washington under the Trump administration. Describing the UAE's method, Teitelbaum said, "First, they make Judaism kosher, and then they make Israel kosher."
Prior to the Abraham Accords, the UAE was laying the groundwork with talk about "tolerance," which is now bearing fruit. A "massive complex" comprising a synagogue, mosque, and church is being built in Abu Dhabi to show tangible proof of the welcoming approach towards diverse faiths. In addition, recently in Dubai, an expo planned before the accords but delayed due to COVID, featured an Israel Pavilion, and a mall hosted a presentation on terror financing by an Israeli speaker. Business exchanges between Israel and the UAE are "booming," Teitelbaum said, with academic exchanges increasing.
There is also greater cooperation on defense issues after the U.S. moved Israel from its European Command (EUCOM) to its Central Command (CENTCOM), whose responsibility is the Middle East. Israel is now included with Arab countries who no longer object to the Jewish State's presence. Areas of cooperation include intelligence, cybersecurity, and air and missile defense. Teitelbaum mentioned in this regard the Barak 8 air defense system, a surface-to-air missile system designed to defend against any type of airborne threat. Teitelbaum said there are unconfirmed reports of Israeli batteries "being deployed" in the UAE and Bahrain.
Although economic and military progress continues to grow, Teitelbaum said that in the area of diplomacy, even if it votes against Israel at the United Nations, "it's worthwhile to have military relations with the UAE." He pointed out that looking at the changes within "historical context," it is remarkable how quickly positive developments have occurred. After all, it was just a few years ago that UAE clerics spouted hateful rhetoric and incitement against Israel and Jews.
Evidence of this historical shift is also unfolding in real time in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). In the 1950s, Saudi Arabia's founder Ibn Saud forbade Jews from entering the country, and the kingdom considered Israel a sworn enemy. Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War impressed the Arab countries that it was a formidable foe and not easily defeated. Today, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), Teitelbaum said, "Saudi Arabia is taking a page out of the UAE playbook [to] first make Jews and Judaism kosher and then make Israel kosher."
Another example of this historic shift is the change in leadership of the Muslim World League in Saudi Arabia, the organization responsible for propagating the ideology of Wahhabism that spread radical Islamic fundamentalism worldwide and laid the groundwork for 9/11. Today the organization is headed by Saudi cleric and former Minister of Justice, Muhammad Issa, who openly meets with Jewish officials and gives speeches about tolerance. Opposed to political Islam, he denounced Holocaust denial and visited Auschwitz.
Quoting the adage that "countries don't have friends, they have interests," Teitelbaum said such is the case with the UAE and KSA. It is not only the common threat of Iran that drives the Gulf rapprochement towards Israel, but also Israel's economic growth, its technological expertise, and its mastery of water management that have much to offer the Saudi kingdom as it "is trying to wean itself from oil." The many "grandiose" projects MbS has set as a goal for the kingdom's future points towards Israel as a country which can offer a "lot of opportunity for them to learn."
Teitelbaum said that although MbS has no interest in "political liberalization," he has taken steps to advance "social liberalization" for the next generation. An example of transitioning the Saudi population towards warmer relations with Jews and Israel is a recent gathering held in Riyadh. Called "Davos in the Desert," the economic forum gathered world economic leaders, including a spot on the "main stage at the event" for Samer Haj Yehia, the Israeli Arab chairman of Israel's Bank Leumi. Progress in areas as diverse as sports events, one of which featured the first Israeli to compete in a Saudi triathlon, and education, where improved monitoring is removing the toxic propaganda against Israel and Jews in Saudi textbooks, begs the question, "When will diplomatic relations be established?"
Teitelbaum said there was a benefit in Biden's visit in that "flights to Israel are now allowed to cross Saudi airspace." However, even that change had to be "couched" in terms of a Saudi pronouncement that the airspace was being opened to everyone. MbS has made statements referencing a "potential alliance" with Israel, but only if "the Palestinian conflict can be resolved." Teitelbaum foresees that the only way the Saudis will have "cover" to make such a leap in diplomatic relations with Israel is to include a "grand bargain" over the Palestinian issue. He characterized the discussions underway as "how thin to slice the salami, the halal salami or the kosher salami."
While enthusiastically welcoming the warming relations, Israel proceeds with caution. Endorsing a "step by step" approach is beneficial for relations on both sides. The Saudi Crown Prince is not rushing to push for diplomatic relations because those who oppose signing a peace treaty with Israel could create more problems for him. For now, reaping the benefits of the incremental positive social changes currently under way in the kingdom is the prudent path he has chosen.
What the Saudis gain from Israel at present is "clandestine" intelligence vis a vis their common enemy, Iran. Overall, Teitelbaum said there is a beneficial ripple effect from the historical changes being brought forth by the "new trend in Saudi Arabia [and] the Gulf countries." Morocco, "a very important country in North Africa," has signed a peace agreement and defense agreement with Israel, while Indonesia and Oman are eyeing future relations with the Jewish State.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.