The Association of the Gulf States with IsraelBy Michael Curtis
Calls for a BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) against Israel continue to be voiced among mainstream churches, mainstream media, celebrities like Alice Walker, teachers' unions such as that in Ireland, anti-Israeli politicians, and the narrow-minded academics who are paid to be supposedly open-minded. It is refreshing to learn from recent revelations, largely ignored by mainstream media, that the boycott by Arab nations against Israel is more honored in the breech than in the observance.
Arab nations, mainly the oil-rich majority-Sunni countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council GCC), have become increasingly aware that the danger to them and to their existence comes not from Israel, but from Iran, with its aggressive Shia leadership and nuclear threat, and from Islamist extremists becoming more prominent in a number of countries. Indeed, the very existence of the GCC stems from initial appreciation of that threat. It was founded in May 1981 by six countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, [UAE], and Saudi Arabia) in the context of concern about the Shia Islamist extremists coming to power in Iran and by the Iran-Iraq War.
Though technically the GCC is a loose political and economic alliance based on similar political and cultural identities of the six countries, a common concern was the need to provide a better security framework for them. In spite of publicly stated differences with Israel, the GCC countries have secretly exchanged with it security and intelligence information and options for policy concerning that threat. Israel has been asked by the GCC to be one of its links to the United States.
In general, the GCC has over the years adhered to an anti-Israel position and even to anti-Semitic utterances. Yet that position was sometimes qualified not only by moderation for practical reasons, but to a considerable degree by dislike of the GCC for Yasser Arafat for the support he gave to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, who had invaded Kuwait, and by their disquiet when Iraqi scud missiles fell on Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, as well as on Tel Aviv. Some small normalization of relationships took place after the signing of the Oslo Accords and the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestinians in September 1993, and again after Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The Gulf States promised to end the secondary and tertiary Arab boycott against Israel.
The GCC can be considered less hostile to Israel than are other Arab countries. None of them has waged war against Israel, though Saudi Arabia did send token forces in the Arab-Israeli wars. None of them has territory contiguous with Israel or has any practical reason for conflict with it. However, since the members of the GCC can conduct their own foreign policies, their relationships with Israel are not identical, and some of them are more cordial toward Israel than others.
An unexpected and unintended consequence of the increasing Iranian threat has been the opening of some sort of dialogue between the Gulf countries and Israel. This has taken two forms: the creation of a "virtual embassy;" and secret relations between the countries.
The virtual embassy is the opening of an Israeli Twitter account named "Israel in the GCC" to conduct a dialogue with people in the six countries. This outreach campaign towards the Arab countries was devised by Gary Koren, a member of the Israeli Foreign Office, who is soon to become ambassador to the Czech Republic.
Relationships and with Arab countries is not new. Israel had diplomatic representation in Oman until 2000, when the second Intifada and violence in Palestinian territories began. Oman for many years maintained trade relations with Israel, though they were not publicly announced. Israel had a trade office in Doha in Qatar until 2009, when it was closed because of opposition to Operation Cast Lead, begun in Gaza against Hamas. The two countries had signed an important deal on gas in 1994. Qatar has discussed with Israel the reopening of its trade mission.
The diplomatic ties between Israel and Egypt and Jordan remain, but at present there are no official diplomatic relations with any Gulf state. However, that has not prevented meetings and direct dialogue on regional and security issues between Bahrain and the UAE and Israel. The UAE has allowed Israeli representatives to enter the country for global conferences. Israeli government ministers visited Abu Dhabi and Qatar in 2010. The UAE has also facilitated Israeli business activity in the Gulf countries. Israeli exports to those countries, usually through third parties, now amount to at least $500 million a year. Saudi Arabia in 2005 repeated the unfulfilled promise to end boycotts, secondary and tertiary, on non-Israeli companies that do business with Israel.
Qatar has called for the revival of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, originally proposed by Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and calling for normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab and Muslim countries. Qatar's proposal was made in a modified form more acceptable to Israel. Instead of insisting on the 1949 demarcation line as final borders, Qatar recommended "comparable and mutually agreed minor swaps of the land."
All this does not entail harmony. The Gulf Cooperation Council welcomed the European Union plan in June 2013 to have its 28 members ban the products from Israel . Qatar provides funding for Hamas, including $400 million pledged in 2012. The Gulf States will not publicly normalize a relationship with Israel until a final-status Israeli-Palestinian agreement has been reached. Nevertheless, the informal contacts between the GCC and Israel will continue for a number of reasons. Relationships, as so often in international relations, have been based on mutual interests, not on ideology. Nor have the Gulf countries expressed any real concern for the Palestinians. The GCC, weak states in terms of defending themselves, internally because of the high proportion of foreign workers in their population, and externally, view Israel as an important key to closer relations with, be on good terms with, and hope for potential help from the United States for protection. Ties already exist with Israel in matters of defense and security. Above all, the Gulf States appreciate of Iran as a common threat to all the parties. It would be wise for Israel to seize the opportunity and strengthen even further its ties with the GCC.