Analysis |

Biden's Mideast Visit Could Advance Israel-UAE-Saudi Air Defense Alliance

As part of its efforts to fix its Gulf ties, Washington expects Israel to help by moving forward on arms sales to the UAE and showing more openness to Saudi Arabia

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
U.S. President Joe Biden and US Coast Guard officials in Washington, DC, on Wednesday.
U.S. President Joe Biden and US Coast Guard officials in Washington, DC, on Wednesday.Credit: SAUL LOEB / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The planned visit of U.S. President Joe Biden to Israel and the Persian Gulf later this month may bring about a significant advance in defense ties between Israel and states in the area.

The need to strengthen ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and perhaps even with Saudi Arabia, has already been raised in discussions between Jerusalem and Washington.

One of the main operative directions this is taking is the formation of a regional defense system to help the area’s states cope with the developing threat from Iranian ballistic and cruise missiles, and drones.

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Biden is expected to visit Israel in three weeks. His schedule hasn’t been made public. It could be affected by political developments in Israel, including questions about the coalition’s stability.

One of Washington’s main goals is to improve relations with Riyadh. The 2018 murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey and reports of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in it, roiled the Democratic Party’s relations with Riyadh. The Saudi reaction to Biden’s election reflected that. But the United States needs the Persian Gulf now more than ever, in view of rising world oil prices and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

As part of its efforts to fix its Gulf ties, Washington expects Israel to help by moving forward on arms sales to the UAE and showing more openness to Saudi Arabia. Thus, the idea that has often been mentioned in the past year is now being seriously discussed – the establishment of a regional security architecture focused on improving defenses against Iranian missiles and drones.

Iran was behind scores of drone attacks on oil facilities and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The most serious was an attack on a Saudi Aramco compound in September 2019. Since then, the Gulf states have been busy upgrading their defenses against similar assaults. Some of the attacks were staged by Houthi rebels in Yemen, who get considerable military aid from Tehran.

Iranian Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri and Commander of the Army Gen. Abdolrahim Mousavi visit an underground drone base, on Saturday.Credit: AP

In an address at Reichman University two weeks ago, Defense Minister Benny Gantz raised the issue of the threat of drones and long-range cruise missiles. “In Iraq, there are hundreds of them. Scores more will be added this year,” he said. In Yemen, the number has grown, and the Houthis have scores of them, despite the embargo imposed on them. In Syria, efforts continue to manufacture and transfer precision-guided arms. Israel will continue to block these efforts and prevent any threat to its citizens and to the region.”

Israel has a lot to contribute to the region in terms of defensive systems, technological developments, intelligence-gathering tools and the ability to integrate these systems. In contrast to what is being reported in the media, however, this doesn’t include the sale of Iron Dome anti-missile systems.

Zohar Palti, a former head of the Defense Ministry’s Political-Military Bureau, told Haaretz two months ago that no such system had been sold to any state in the region.

On the other hand, linking to Israeli early-warning systems could greatly increase warning times available to Gulf states in the event of an Iranian attack. That advantage works both ways: The placement of radar stations in the Gulf would give Israel earlier warning of Iranian missile launches.

Over the past two years there have been reports of Iranian attempts to have Shi’ite militants fly attack drones hundreds of kilometers in the direction of Israel. In at least two cases, the drones were intercepted.

In one instance they were shot down by U.S. fighter planes. In the other, Israel intercepted the drone. It can be assumed that since the signing of the Abraham Accords in September 2020 that the states of the region have deepened their cooperation with Israel, including on an operational level. In the past two months websites that monitor air traffic have reported numerous cargo planes arriving in Israel from the UAE and returning to their home base in the Gulf.

The strengthening of relations with the Gulf is connected with a parallel U.S. initiative to transfer responsibility for working with the Israel Defense Force to the U.S. Central Command, whose purview is the Middle East, instead of the European Command. Senior Israel Defense Forces sources told Haaretz that the move had significantly improved day-to-day coordination between the two sides.

Last month, a Centcom chief visited Israel for the first time. Gen. Michael Kurilla met with Gantz and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and observed the General Staff’s large-scale Chariots of Fire exercises. The IDF will soon assign a permanent liaison officer from the Israel Navy to the U.S. Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet. The fleet’s headquarters is in Bahrain, with which Israel normalized ties in the framework of the Abraham Accords.

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