The US-brokered Abraham Accords, which President Donald Trump announced on August 13, marked a watershed in Gulf-Israel relations. Now, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel having a formalized diplomatic relationship, the door is open to a wide range of new opportunities for more public bilateral cooperation across a host of domains such as tourism, technology, water security, and other sectors. Yet perhaps one of the areas that could benefit the most from normalization is the UAE and Israel’s growing security relationship.
Throughout the 21st century, the security interests of both countries have steadily become more aligned. In many instances, the leadership in the Emirates and Israel see eye-to-eye on regional threats like Iran and Turkey. With the Abraham Accords, an even closer security relationship between the UAE and Israel is likely to take shape as both countries seek to counter these threats. Yet the UAE and Israel will likely tread carefully in their growing bilateral relationship.
Imagining the UAE-Israel Security Partnership
Major regional developments of the past two decades have pushed the Emiratis and Israelis closer together. The expansion of Iranian influence, the “Arab Spring” revolutions of 2011, and Turkey’s rise as a “neo-Ottoman” power against the backdrop of the relative decline of US hegemony have done much to put Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv in many of the same boats. As Andreas Krieg, a professor at King’s College in London, opined, “ideational synergies” brought the UAE and Israel closer together, with both countries “viewing the growing power base of Islamists after the  revolutions as a major security concern.”
Normalization has now paved the way for a potentially more formal and overt security relationship. James Stavridis, a retired United States Navy admiral, explained, “The new [Gulf-Israeli] coalition could create advanced early warning systems against Iranian missiles; a connected command and control network for missile defense; naval operations in the Red Sea, northern Indian Ocean and Arabian Gulf; shared military technology; and a regular exchange of intelligence.”
Abu Dhabi could benefit significantly from increased security cooperation with Israel. The Emiratis could, for example, solicit Israeli help in protecting the UAE’s critical infrastructure, including its oil facilities, desalination and power plants, airports, and seaports. The Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system could augment the existing Patriot missile systems currently in place. There has been some indication that the UAE could potentially purchase the Iron Dome system in the future.
The UAE could also leverage Israeli support in the domains of cybersecurity and intelligence. Israelis have been supporting the UAE for some time in this domain: even before the normalization agreement, Israeli companies like Aeronautics Ltd. and NSO Group Technologies have provided the Emiratis with products and services to bolster their intelligence and cyber capabilities. Emirati firms such as DarkMatter have reportedly been luring former IDF cyber experts from the military’s secretive Unit 8200 to work in the UAE, offering large compensation packages and beachfront properties to new recruits.
Israel would also stand to gain from closer security relations with the UAE. Situated in the Gulf near Iran’s southern flank, the UAE could provide Israel with a foothold where it could monitor and spy on Iran. Recent reports claim that the UAE and Israel plan to develop a joint spy base on Socotra, a Yemeni Island in the Arabian Sea. Regardless of these reports’ veracity, the UAE’s proximity to Iran and its large Iranian resident population in Dubai could provide Israel access to Emirati intelligence about the Islamic Republic and its regional activities. Moreover, by having formalized ties with the UAE, Israel may find it easier to coordinate regional security affairs with Saudi Arabia, even in the absence of official Riyadh-Tel Aviv relations.
On the geopolitical front, the Emiratis could provide tacit support to Israel in the increasingly contentious Eastern Mediterranean. Driven by a shared desire to push back against Turkish claims for gas rights, Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv will likely collaborate more closely with Greece, Cyprus, and other members of the European Union in taking an increasingly strong stance against Ankara’s geopolitical ambitions.
The Horn of Africa is also a region that could be impacted by the Abraham Accords and greater Israeli-Emirati collaboration. For example, Socotra, Puntland, and Eritrea are areas “where the UAE could facilitate a small Israeli presence to monitor potentially hostile developments,” according to the National Defense University’s Dave Des Roches, a former Defense Department official.
Limits to the Security Partnership
Despite abundant opportunities for collaboration, there remain some limitations to how far an Emirati-Israeli security partnership may go. One controversial dimension of the new relationship pertains to Washington’s possible sale of F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi. While the Emiratis seem to have obtained tacit approval from the Israeli government for the purchase, some in the Israeli security establishment have voiced serious concern.
In an article titled “Why F-35s Should Not Be Released to the UAE and Saudi Arabia”, Shimon Arad, a retired Colonel of the Israeli Defense Forces, wrote: “In the volatile Middle East, circumstances and intentions change far more rapidly than capabilities. Examples from the region’s recent history include the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and the rise and fall of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, and the antagonistic Islamist turn of Turkey.”
Israel must also take into consideration long-term prospects of political stability in the Gulf. As Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based analyst, argued, Israel “knows most of these [Arab] regimes don’t represent the people, which means the moment they go down, the weapons will be in the ‘wrong hands.’” Just as the US sold weapons to the Shah’s Iran, Washington had to contend with such weaponry in the hands of the Islamic Republic after the 1979 revolution. Although the UAE is a stable country in 2020, the future of the country, like all others in the region, is difficult to predict.
Increasingly complex dynamics in the UAE’s relationship with Syria and Iraq may also complicate a closer security partnership with Israel. The UAE is currently seeking to reintegrate Damascus into the Arab region’s diplomatic fold, while Israel regularly targets Iranian-backed, pro-Assad militias in Syria. The same is true for Iraq—a country that the UAE and Saudi Arabia are trying to bring back into the Egypt-Saudi Arabia-UAE bloc’s orbit of influence. The Emiratis may need to be careful not to appear too openly supportive of potential future Israeli military strikes against Iranian-sponsored groups given the state of Abu Dhabi’s relations with the governments in Damascus and Baghdad.
With Emirati, Israeli, and American officials busy hosting high-profile ceremonies celebrating the UAE and Israel’s “peace deal”, there has been much rhetoric about how the two Middle Eastern countries could collaborate to push back against the regional forces that they both view as threatening. In practice, however, many questions remain about how this Emirati-Israeli defense coordination could play out in the months and years ahead.
Brett Sudetic is an advisor to Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. As a management consultant, he has advised government organizations and state-owned enterprises throughout the Middle East.
Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.