The Firefly, an Israeli-built loitering kamikaze drone, part of the Spike family of missiles that the Jewish state has sold to various European nations, may be one reason why Gulf states, and particularly Saudi Arabia, have cozied up to Israel in a seeming reversal of their past support of Palestinian rights.
If there is one lesson that Gulf states have learned from the United States’ reduced commitment to the region and the strains in US-Saudi relations, it is that putting one’s eggs in one basket is risky business.
That has not prevented the United States from continuing to secure its place as the region’s foremost arms supplier as this month’s arms and related commercial deals prove.
The US Defense Department announced a $2.6 billion USD Saudi deal to acquire 1,000 air-to-surface and anti-ship missiles from Boeing. Within days, Saudi Arabia’s Al Tadrea Manufacturing Company tweeted that it had reached agreement with Oshkosh Defense to establish a joint venture to manufacture armed vehicles in the kingdom.
The Public Investment Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, disclosed separately that it had recently taken a $ 713.7 million USD stake in Boeing at a time when the company, already suffering major setbacks because of its 737-Max fiasco, took a significant hit as a result of a collapse of the civilian aviation industry.
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The continued Saudi arms focus on the United States has not deprived China of opportunities. China has stepped in to help Saudi Arabia produce unmanned military vehicles after the United States refused to sell its MQ-9 Reaper killer drone to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia expects production to start next year.
Like China, Russia has been urging Saudi Arabia to purchase its acclaimed S-400 anti-missile defense system. So far, the kingdom, having watched the United States cancel NATO-member Turkey’s purchase of US F-35 fighter jets and its co-production agreement of some of the plane’s components after it acquired the Russian system, has been reticent to take the Russians up on their offer.
The limitations of Saudi-Russian cooperation have since become obvious with April’s price war between the two major oil producers that sent oil markets into a tailspin from which they are unlikely to recover any time soon.
Israel, like China and Russia and unlike the United States, puts no problematic restrictions such as adherence to human rights and use of weaponry in accordance with international law on its arms sales.
But Israel has one leg up on its Chinese and Russian competitors who maintain close ties to Iran. Israel shares with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) a perception of Iran as an existential threat and a destabilizing force in the Middle East that at the very least needs to be contained.
To be sure, that is a perception that Saudi Arabia and the UAE see reflected in the United States’ maximum pressure policy towards Iran which aims to force the Islamic Republic to “change its behavior,” if not change its regime.
The problem is that maximum pressure two years into the imposition of harsh US economic sanctions has produced little result.
Add to that the fact that the United States has proven to be an unreliable ally when the chips are down, persuading the UAE and other smaller Gulf states to reach out to Iran to ensure that their critical national infrastructure does not become a target in any future major US-Iranian military conflagration.
The watershed moment for the Gulf states was when the United States failed to respond forcefully last spring and summer to alleged Iranian attacks on key Saudi oil facilities as well as oil tankers off the coast of the UAE.
The Trump administration, in a bid to reassure Gulf states, weeks later sent troops and Patriot anti-missile defense systems to Saudi Arabia to help it protect its oil installations, although the United States withdrew two of those systems earlier this month.
It took the killing of a US military contractor in December 2019 for the United States to respond to tens of Iranian-backed attacks on American targets in Iraq. And when it did, with the killing in January of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Gulf states privately celebrated the demise of their nemesis, but also feared that it was overkill, bringing the Middle East to the brink of an all-out war.
Gulf states are likely to find that cooperation with Israel has its limits too. Israel may be eager to sell weaponry and have the capability to push back at Iran in Syria. If need be, Israel can also severely damage, if not take out, Iranian nuclear and missile facilities in military strikes that Gulf states would be unable to carry out.
But ties to Israel remain a sensitive issue in the Gulf and elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. And Israel has so far restricted sales to non-lethal equipment and technology. That could change with a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations.
Public opinion, however, may be one reason Gulf states have refused to turn unofficial relations into diplomatic recognition, suggesting that there may be greater public empathy for Palestinians than Gulf rulers wish to admit.
That could count for more with Gulf rulers finding it increasingly difficult to provide public goods and services, among which first and foremost jobs, as a result of the global economic crisis and the collapse of oil prices.