Bide and seek: The dangers of US support for a Gulf-Israeli defence pact
Military alignment between Israel and Gulf Arab states risks heightened conflict in the Middle East – without weakening Iran’s geopolitical position or nuclear programme
During his visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia this week, President Joe Biden is widely expected to offer US political and military support for the development of a regional security partnership between Israel and Arab countries. But there is a risk that – rather than strengthening regional security, which Biden claims is the goal of his trip – further militarisation of the Israeli-Arab relationship, with the explicit aim of countering Iran, will lead to new violence in the Middle East.
This comes at a risky moment, as talks with Iran over its nuclear programme are on the verge of collapse, and Israel is reportedly intensifying its clandestine operations inside Iran. Although Middle Eastern states have engaged in a new dialogue with one another in the past year, US policy could now prompt them to pivot back towards dangerous confrontation. This could reignite conflict in Yemen and Iraq, while causing leaders in Tehran to accelerate their country’s nuclear programme and launch new military ventures elsewhere. Instead of following Washington’s lead, Europeans should continue to support efforts at regional de-escalation. This offers the best prospect of safeguarding Europe’s core interests linked to regional stabilisation and, against the backdrop of Russia’s war on Ukraine, its growing reliance on Middle Eastern energy.
That conflict has forced the Biden administration to change its approach to the Middle East and its leaders. With mid-term elections just around the corner, his administration has a political imperative to reduce gas prices and inflation. This has given Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, greater leverage over the United States. Top of Riyadh’s list of demands in exchange for support in the oil market is the full political rehabilitation of Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman – whom Biden vowed to treat as an international pariah over his alleged involvement in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Riyadh also wants tangible US security guarantees against Iran and the resumption of full military and security cooperation – which the Biden administration scaled back due to the Saudi military intervention in Yemen.
Biden’s U-turn has attracted criticism from Democrats. He has responded by framing renewed engagement with Saudia Arabia as a means of deepening Israel’s integration into the region as part of the 2020 Abraham Accords – which have strong bipartisan support in Washington.
After the Abraham Accords
The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco have used the accords to swiftly normalise their relations with Israel. Although Riyadh has refused to follow suit so far, it appears to be quietly gearing up to do so. In parallel to deepening these bilateral relationships, Israel has focused on turning the Abraham Accords into a multilateral framework. These efforts underpinned the creation of the Negev Forum in June, bringing together Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, the US, and Egypt through cooperation on issues ranging from regional security to clean energy and tourism. Israel has touted this as the start of a new common defence architecture (a kind of Middle Eastern NATO) to counter Iran’s regional influence and nuclear programme – which it sees as existential threats.
Although Gulf states and Israel initiated this front, US support will be decisive in the endeavour. Israeli officials believe that, with US backing, this multilateral security framework can also deepen its relationships in the region – not least by persuading wavering leaders such as those in Saudi Arabia to support normalisation. And it could. As a result of growing distrust in the US as a security guarantor, Gulf Arab states are seeking to diversify their security partnerships even as they look for ways to secure new commitments from Washington.
Israel announced last month that it was building a “US-sponsored regional air defense alliance”. The so-called Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD) would likely include the UAE and Bahrain, and could even extend to Saudi Arabia. This would see the deployment of Israeli early-warning radars to the Arabian Peninsula and the synchronisation of regional air defence systems, with the aim of countering possible missile attacks by Iran and its allies. Security officials from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar reportedly discussed the MEAD proposal in the Egyptian resort of Sharm El-Sheikh in March 2022.
In public, Riyadh and other Gulf Arab capitals have downplayed the prospects of a regional security organisation aimed at countering Iran. But they see Israel as an important partner in stemming the repeated drone and missile attacks on their countries from Iran’s allies in Yemen and Iraq. Many Arab leaders believe Tehran is intent on escalating such attacks, especially if there is no return to the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have reportedly already benefited from Israel’s high-tech capabilities, receiving an early warning that allowed them to intercept some of the missiles and drones directed at them in early 2022. Both see clear advantages in strengthening their air defence capabilities through the acquisition of Israel’s cyber warfare technology and advanced missile defence systems such as David’s Sling and the new Iron Beam – both of which have been jointly developed with the US and require American authorisation to be transferred to third countries. The Gulf monarchies also need Israeli consent to procure more advanced American weapons, given the US commitment to preserving Israel’s “qualitative military edge” in the region.
Biden is widely expected to give this security initiative a further push when he attends a regional summit in Jeddah on 16 July with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, as well as Iraq, Egypt, and Jordan. Israel is encouraging the Biden administration to tie new security guarantees to the creation of this regional bloc, modelled on an expanded version of the Negev Forum, rather than accede to Saudi Arabia’s request for bilateral security commitments with the US.
Dangers and limitations
Despite the frenzied speculation around a formal military pact between Israel and Gulf Arab states, this initiative could suffer the same fate as the Trump administration’s failed plans to create a Middle East Strategic Alliance. While prospective members of this alliance will welcome enhanced regional security cooperation, their diverging threat perceptions and priorities regarding Iran are likely to impede effective coordination between them.
Not all GCC countries regard Iran as an existential threat. Even those that do, such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, have recently sought to ease tensions with Iran through diplomatic engagement and, in the UAE’s case, growing economic ties.
Jordan, which signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, is primarily concerned about regime security and the Abraham Accords’ potential to undermine a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians – which it views as key to its domestic stability, given its large Palestinian population. Egypt, too, has refused to back any anti-Iran security venture, even rejecting Saudi requests for support in Yemen. Morocco, an enthusiastic member of the Negev Forum, sees its security through the prism of its rivalry with Algeria rather than a distant Iran.
Even the more modest idea of a regionally integrated air defence system will be tricky to pull off in a multilateral format. The US has promoted the idea of an integrated GCC missile defence architecture for more than a decade, but Gulf Arab leaders’ deep reluctance to share sensitive military data with one another has prevented this effort from moving forward. However, Israel’s recent successes in developing security ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE indicate that it could establish a less formal security network underpinned by a ‘hub and spoke’ network of bilateral agreements.
An effort to increase Gulf monarchies’ defensive capabilities is not a bad thing in itself, especially if it provides them with enhanced security reassurances (regardless of whether there is a nuclear deal with Iran). But it will be difficult to ensure that this security cooperation does not evolve into – or assume the appearance of – an offensive alliance against Iran. Tehran will certainly view it in this light, given Israel’s leadership role and its clear focus on Iran.
Far from weakening Iran’s regional position and nuclear programme, military alignment between Israel and Gulf Arab states could heighten tensions in the Middle East. Tehran would see a severe threat in efforts to create military infrastructure on the Arabian Peninsula from which Israel could launch a direct attack. Iran would likely retaliate by accelerating its nuclear programme and escalating its own military operations, including in a manner that could target Western interests such as tankers transporting energy to Europe.
All this would be a major setback for the sensitive regional dialogue now under way – namely, bilateral Saudi and Emirati tracks with Iran. The Iraqi-mediated discussion between Saudi Arabia and Iran has only had limited success so far, but it has noticeably eased regional tensions and helped produce a months-long truce in Yemen. If this dialogue continues, Iran and Saudi Arabia could agree on a more permanent solution to the Yemen conflict – raising the prospect of broader regional de-escalation. Meanwhile, the UAE is keen to avoid being drawn into a new wave of US sanctions and pressure on Iran – both because it fears military escalation by Tehran and because it is ideally placed to become a hub for expanded trade with the country. Qatar, for its part, has actively supported the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme and may be open to cooperating with Tehran on further development of their shared gas field.
However, these tracks could collapse as a result of a US-supported shift towards increased militarisation. In response to a perceived loss of US security guarantees, Middle Eastern leaders have sought to maintain channels for de-escalation with Iran even as they have built security relations with Israel. A renewed US security push could upend this balance, especially if it was accompanied by US calls to tighten pressure on Iran following a collapse of the nuclear negotiations. In this scenario, Israel and Gulf Arab states would feel emboldened to pursue a more confrontational position against Iran that would curtail regional dialogue and feed dangerous escalation.
An alternative path to regional stability
European capitals are keen to support the Abraham Accords, aiming to integrate Israel into the region and increase their economic cooperation with Middle Eastern states, especially in relation to energy production and connectivity. But a US-backed push for a heightened Israeli-Gulf Arab front against Iran is likely to directly undermine these ambitions. Moreover, even if the US persuades Saudi Arabia to increase oil production, regional escalation will threaten global energy flows in ways that would push prices back up and further disrupt global supply chains.
In this context, Europeans should urgently discuss how they will deal with the possible collapse of the Iran nuclear deal. They should urge the Biden administration to remain focused on supporting diplomatic pathways to improve regional security and revive nuclear negotiations. To be sure, Western states will want to increase pressure on Iran to return to nuclear negotiations, but this should not come at the cost of regional diplomacy and stability.
The European Union should throw its full institutional weight behind continued regional dialogue and quickly appoint a high-level, politically connected special representative for the Gulf region – as it recently proposed in the Joint Communication on a “Strategic Partnership with the Gulf”. The special representative should press the US, Iraq, Iran, and GCC countries to maintain avenues for diplomacy. Europeans should also look to support Middle Eastern-led platforms that promote de-escalation by focusing on non-military issues of concern to Iran and Gulf Arab states, such as food and water security. This is an area in which Europeans could offer valuable support, and could build on the Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership, co-sponsored by France.
Ultimately, an inclusive political dialogue will protect European interests far better than a military framework between regional players ever could.
 Author’s interview with a UAE official, Abu Dhabi, May 2022.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.