Israel and the Gulf States – From Covert Security Relations to Overt Diplomatic Ties

At the Munich Security Conference held in February 2022, Bahrain’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, confirmed that the Israeli intelligence was operating in the Gulf state. His remarks reflected the longstanding relationship that has been established with Israel over the years. About a decade ago, WikiLeaks documents revealed that the King of Bahrain had admitted having intelligence contacts with Israel and instructed that Israel should no longer be called the “Zionist entity” in official statements.

Since receiving independence from the British in 1971, Bahrain has maintained close ties with the Kingdom of Great Britain, especially concerning the field of security. A decade after Bahrain’s independence, some believe that Israel may have established a path leading to security ties with Bahrain that led to broader cooperation with the kingdom. Countries that succeeded in creating intelligence and security cooperation in the Middle East, even if they were formally defined as enemy states, subsequently achieved formal recognition.

In 1994, the first Israeli minister visited Bahrain (Yossi Sarid, the minister of the environment at the time) following the Oslo Accords of 1993. Since then, unofficial ties between the countries have been maintained with the expansion of civilian cooperation. In October 2009, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister called for direct talks with Israel, and in September 2017, the King of Bahrain called on Arab countries to establish direct ties with Israel and end the Arab embargo. All GCC member states have stopped enforcing secondary and tertiary boycotts on Israel today. Meetings during 2020 between the heads of Israel’s security establishment and the Gulf states were published in the media. According to reports, the head of the Israeli Mossad has visited Bahrain in recent years to discuss “issues of mutual interest.”

Over the past few months, the two sides have established a clear and mutual front in order to emphasize the military alliance between the two countries. Among other things, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz led a senior security delegation to Bahrain and reciprocal visits by senior Bahraini officials in Israel. These meetings were held while in the background, Israel and Bahrain held joint naval exercises that helped increase security cooperation between the nations. A few months ago, Israel’s national security adviser, Eyal Hulata, met with the Crown Prince of Bahrain, the Prime Minister of Bahrain, and the National Security Advisor of Bahrain.

These contacts culminated in late February 2022, when the first official visit by an Israeli prime minister to Bahrain was held. These historical and diplomatic measures were extensively reviewed in the media out of a clear recognition of cooperation and a desire to emphasize the common political policy.

These diplomatic efforts are also beneficial to the United States and its broader needs in the region. U.S. officials continue to emphasize the importance of Bahrain and the need to maintain their longstanding relationship with it, especially regarding the naval base that Bahrain provides for the U.S. Central Navy Force NAVCENT. The undeclared mission of these forces is to protect U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf and protect oil/gas exports from the Gulf against Iranian threats.

Bahrain’s advantage is its location in the Persian Gulf with a deep-water port and suitable access to airports. Compared to other countries that can provide useful and geographically centralized facilities, Bahrain is one of the few places that has served the Americans faithfully for many years. Bahrain provided operational bases for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and the operation to oust Saddam Hussein. Bahrain also sent land and air support to Kuwait in 2003.

Bahrain International Airport includes a large terminal for military logistics flights designed to operate throughout the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Another airbase, the Isa Air Base, serves as an essential hub for coalition aircraft operating in the area. In addition, the Americans have recently invested in building a special operational force in the Gulf state.

Bahrain’s defense sector includes an unknown number of private security consulting firms, many of which provide consulting services for the maintenance of key infrastructures such as oil, gas, industrial plants, airports, and large seaports. Some have expertise in cyber and electronic warfare. The Bahraini government does not publish data regarding security procurement. From indirect publications, leaks, and other security analyses, we can learn that Bahrain continues to increase its circle of partnerships. These unofficial sources also reveal Bahrain’s reassessment of its relations with Syria and the U.S. “Caesar Act,” which imposed heavy economic sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria.

Israel has a clear interest in strengthening the military alliance with Bahrain and expanding the existing coalition of Gulf states that conduct public contacts with Israel in preparation for possible future recognition between Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Currently, mutual visits by the heads of the intelligence agencies reflect the strengthening of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In November 2020, the Israeli media reported a meeting between the Israeli prime minister and the heir to the Saudi throne held in Saudi Arabia. In a recent informal agreement, Saudi airspace has been opened to Israeli commercial aircraft, and there is growing evidence of Israeli-Saudi cyber cooperation. When hackers hacked into the Saudi oil company “Aramco” in 2012, an Israeli company participated in the breach detection and defense efforts.

Over time, these examples of cooperation and recognition of the common interests of Israel and the Gulf states developed. The Saudis have shown great willingness in sharing intelligence with Western countries thwarting attack attempts, including attacks using complex explosives that are difficult to detect. Saudi authorities have repeatedly acted as partners in the intelligence and operational objectives led by the Americans and the British in the Arabian Peninsula, such as operating UAV bases on Saudi territory. Some U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia operate under the cover of the Saudi armed forces. According to some studies, the U.S. operates UAVs out of dozens of U.S. facilities/bases in the Middle East that are not official and are known as a “footprint” or a “forward presence.”

Recently, there has been an increase in attempts by the “Iranian UAV Army” to infiltrate Israeli territory. These threats are relevant to Israel and all the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. Over the past five years, some 900 UAVs have been launched towards Saudi Arabia directly by the Iranians and the Houthis.

The potential benefits of fruitful cooperation with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, through “Foreign Intelligence” (Forint), may be similar to the benefits of the Israeli-Egyptian cooperation in the Sinai Peninsula over the past decade. With its existing capabilities and extensive experience, Israel will be able to operate UAVs from the Gulf states to carry out operations against specific targets.

Such potential cooperation may have implications for strengthening normalization processes with Israel throughout the Middle East and beyond, including cooperation with Pakistan, Oman, Mauritania, and Indonesia. Such cooperation will also be able to expand the cycle of normalization that will provide greater peace and stability to the region.

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Dr. Nir Levitan

Dr. Nir Levitan

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