Israel-GCC ties were strategic even before the first official Israel-GCC diplomatic normalization took place recently with the UAE. For Israel, the mode of engagement set up with the GCC years prior to UAE-Israel normalization was ideal. It had a top-heavy aspect, featuring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal contacts with GCC monarchs, and was also discreet, with numerous high-profile Israelis taking private flights to the GCC.
Much of this synergy, which makes one wonder why diplomatic normalization with Israel had not occurred sooner, lies in the political structure and nature of the GCC itself.
GCC authoritarianism and Israel’s love for censorship
The authoritarian structure of the GCC makes GCC-Israel normalization very easy. The Gulf monarchs are not answerable to the broader GCC populace which has no true way of converting resentment against unpopular decisions – such as recognizing Israel – into tangible pressure upon their rulers. If they publicly oppose normalization with Israel, they can simply be jailed as happened with Bahraini anti-Israel protesters months ago.
For Israel, this presents a unique bonus. Not only does it soothe potential Israeli paranoia about the safety of its upcoming diplomatic missions and other personnel in GCC states against violence from angry crowds but also sets a precedent for GCC crackdown upon and censorship of any kind of anti-Zionist activity in media or civil society.
Prior to GCC-Israel normalization, public negativity toward Israel was at least allowed and not suppressed. Now, however, since anti-Zionist activism would inevitably lead to criticism of GCC-Israel ties, even something as harmless as a radio station broadcasting anti-Israeli messages could face suppression.
For Israel, who promotes censorship of anti-Israeli voices as a matter of state policy, this constitutes extra profit on its investment in normalizing ties with the GCC.
GCC security paranoia and Israel’s surveillance-and-spying bonanza
The GCC’s iron-fisted suppression of any form of political life in their territories has not prevented them exhibiting serious paranoia vis-à-vis security. The kingdoms view the numerical majority of GCC citizens born outside the sprawling familial and tribal structures that comprise the government suspiciously.
As observed by Israeli scholar Neve Gordon, who studies Israel’s security and surveillance industry, about the GCC:
"These regimes are unstable in the sense that most of the people living in these regimes do not have basic rights and they constantly need to monitor and surveil their populations."
This makes the GCC an irresistible market for a prime Israeli export: spyware. Indeed, the UAE and Saudis have already used spyware developed by teams comprising veterans of Israeli signals intelligence agency, Unit 8200 to hack private devices and track private conversations.
The espionage industry has outsized importance for Israel not only from an intelligence-gathering perspective, but also economical. As a relatively barren and geographically small, narrow state, Israel invests heavily in producing and marketing goods and services which do not require space and natural resources and spyware is an ideal such product to sell.
Match all this with Israel’s hegemony-and-control oriented foreign policy and the prospect of the GCC relying heavily on Israeli spyware becomes yet more attractive. This is because of Israel’s longstanding practice of bugging the spyware it sells to foreign governments – especially the US – with "back-doors" which allow it covert access to often-classified data in the devices using the spyware.
The GCC’s enthusiastic embrace of Israeli spyware would thus grant Israel a covert long-arm into their security systems to spy on everyone from state officials to citizens. With this would come the potential for the blackmail of senior officials which in turn would help Israel push the GCC closer to an objective Israel pursues heatedly yet which the GCC currently avoids – an actual war with Iran featuring a US attack on Iran from GCC bases.
Israel-GCC relations are already top-heavy and Israel’s consolidated grip over the GCC monarchies’ security would make them virtual client states.
Money to throw around, no questions asked
Alongside massive flows of unconditional annual US federal aid and the financial largesse of rich Jewish communities worldwide, Israel values opportunities to diversify its funding sources. In the era of multipolarity, Israel like numerous other states finds sense in tapping into funding sources beyond the US for financial, economic and military needs.
The GCC’s deep pockets as well as the fact their monarchs can arbitrarily dedicate huge amounts of capital to whatever end they see fit bears special appeal for Israel. While it has thus far managed to sustain impunity against this, both federal and private funding to Israel from the US yet faces a certain level of activist or occasional media pressure owing to Israeli violations of numerous US laws.
In the case of the GCC, nobody can or will question how the monarchs spend state revenue, nor are there elected bodies to oppose funding Israel based on its violations of laws – international, of the GCC or otherwise.
In short, Israel adding the GCC to its growing list of non-US business-and-investment partners is unlikely to come with the caveat of Israeli abandonment of its illegal settlements policy, or any similar form of concession to international law or peace. Lip service toward halting annexation – for whatever time – from Netanyahu might be expected as a formality, but nothing seriously intended or enforceable.
Israel in the driver’s seat
The brittle nature of the GCC states and their inevitable over-reliance on foreign powers for their survival will play to Israel’s advantage in a major way.
While it remains to be seen whether they can deliver vis-à-vis helping Israel counter Iran’s growing regional influence following their wasteful, unproductive campaign in Yemen, the GCC monarchs are ultimately precisely the type of allies Israel covets.
Agha Hussain is an independant editorial contributor based in Rawalpindi, Pakistan with Middle Eastern geopolitics and Pakistani foreign policy as main areas of focus.