by Tyler B. Parker
The normalisation between Israel and the UAE, announced as the Abraham Accord on 13 August 2020, will formalise nearly a decade of ties lying ‘just below the surface’ of official relations. Speculation abounds over the details of the Israeli–Emirati accord and which GCC members, especially Bahrain or Oman, could be next to normalise. What is clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns over Iran and Islamism, and uncertainty over US strategy in the Middle East have propelled many of the Gulf states toward commercial exchange, diplomatic engagement, and security coordination with Israel. What are the causes, consequences, and constraints of this rising, albeit cautious, cooperation?
In Fraternal Enemies: Israel and the Gulf Monarchies, Clive Jones and Yoel Guzansky provide timely answers to these questions. They argue that Israel and the Gulf states pursue non-official economic and security cooperation to strike a balance between addressing regional threats and assuaging domestic pressures. Although the book is heavily focused on the Lower Gulf states (chapter 2) and Saudi Arabia (chapter 3) to the detriment of Kuwait, Fraternal Enemies is a must read for its thorough analysis of the varying degrees of normalisation between Israel and five of the six Gulf states.
The authors contribute theoretical rigour and empirical richness to a range of recent accounts of Gulf–Israeli relations. Professor Jones (at Durham University) and Dr Guzansky (at Tel Aviv University) use Fraternal Enemies to expound on what they termed in a 2017 article a ‘Tacit Security Regime’ (TSR). For them, a TSR is underway because ‘it allows security co-operation to be pursued between the actors involved (most notably over Iran) but without compromising sensitive political positions that might give rise to internal opposition’ (11). The Gulf–Israeli TSR is infused with soft power attraction and hard power coordination, embodying a Realpolitik calculation of the domestic costs associated with the regional benefits of addressing what the authors identify as three core threats: Iranian adventurism, jihadi militancy, and American retrenchment (42).
Jones’s and Guzansky’s theorisation has many strengths. Firstly, the TSR concept shows that cooperation and competition is issue specific. Oman coordinates with Israel via a joint desalination centre, but it does not share the perceived threat of Iran. The UAE has purchased Israeli surveillance software, but its recent accord was predicated on Israel suspending its annexation of portions of the West Bank. In the late 1990s, Qatar hosted an Israeli trade delegation, all the while supporting Hamas. The TSR concept helps demonstrate exactly where Gulf–Israeli relations sit on the adversary–ally spectrum. Secondly, TSR as a concept in international relations moves beyond structural realism, which finds domestic factors as indeterminant in external balancing and alliances. Implicitly drawing from neoclassical realism, Jones and Guzansky instead find that ‘internal constraints on all sides determine the type and intensity of external engagement’ (203). This helps explain why the UAE pursues full normalisation: its officials face the lowest degree of internal constraints among the Gulf states.
One theoretical weakness is the causal weight assigned to the six elements of the Gulf–Israeli TSR: the irrelevance of geographic distance, the centrality of shared threat perception, the constraining nature of domestic norms, the role of United States’ ‘Great Power commitment’, the diversity of ties, and its non-static nature (18–19). But when does one of these factors outweigh the others? For Bahrain’s leadership, the threat of Iranian subversion may supersede the danger of domestic debates over normalisation with Israel. For Saudi Arabia, Iran poses a less direct material danger, but an enduring ideational threat to its religious legitimacy. In Israel, Netanyahu addresses both an Iranian presence in Syria and the precarity of his premiership. Given the diversity of each state, Jones and Guzansky could have sharpened the TSR concept by assigning a relative importance for each factor.
This omission results in the book’s main empirical oversight: Kuwait’s rejection of Israel. The book uses a single quote from one Kuwaiti journalist on the importance of religious tolerance as indicative of ‘wider societal acceptance’ of Israel and ‘a growing de facto acceptance of the state itself’ (47). This is undercut not only by cited examples of governmental hostility, but also unexplored examples of societal rejection of normalisation with the so-called ‘Zionist entity’ (46). Unlike its neighbouring monarchies, Kuwait eschews bilateral engagement with Israel, even though it faces a comparable risk of Iranian subversion and jihadi attacks. Why do normative constraints eclipse threat perception for Kuwait? Perhaps it is due to the personality of Emir Sheikh Sabah, the power of the parliament, or the influence of its Palestinian community. Unfortunately, the book does not fully explore Kuwait’s exceptionalism.
The book succeeds in showcasing instances of Gulf–Israeli interaction beyond peace initiatives (chapter 1) and hesitance over the Iran nuclear deal (chapter 4). It was surprising to read that in 1975, Israeli advisors covertly visited Oman to advise former Sultan Qaboos on his counterinsurgency in Dhofar (49). Additionally, it was interesting to learn that an Israeli delegation travelled to Bahrain in 1994 to discuss environmental cooperation (36). Turning to Qatar, the authors cogently argue that Doha’s links to Jerusalem serve the aim to ‘court closer ties with Washington’ (58). Beyond Israel, there is an insightful account of Emirati coordination with South Korea on nuclear technology and security provision (145). Finally, the chapter focused on Syria (chapter 5) highlights ‘the limitations of relying on proxies to fight regional wars’ – a stark reality amid the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen (181).
Fraternal Enemies provides an excellent theoretical roadmap, reinforced by superb empirics, to help the reader navigate the growing links weaving Washington, Tel Aviv and most Gulf capitals. Tacit ties with Israel have helped Gulf leaders achieve many of their commercial and military goals, without completely abdicating the ambition of a future Palestinian state. Jones and Guzansky provide a prescient and timely account of the material attractions and normative constraints shaping Gulf–Israeli ties. Though the book could have addressed Kuwait more thoroughly, it nonetheless represents a welcome addition to the shelf of policymakers and scholars seeking a nuanced realist theorisation of conflict and cooperation in the Middle East.