David Schenker is the Taube Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute and director of the Program on Arab Politics. He is the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.
Articles & Testimony
The Abraham Accords have substantially increased the region’s options for countering Iranian threats, but the past performance of Arab coalitions should make policymakers cautious about expecting too much from new alliances.
The following testimony was prepared for a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism.
Much has changed in the Middle East in the two years since the signing of the historic Abraham Accords. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have moved quickly and deliberately to normalize relations with Israel, embracing a “warm peace” with the Jewish state. Along with Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco, nearly one-third of Arab states have now elected for peace with Israel, ending an ugly taboo and creating positive regional momentum. In turn, this improved regional environment has encouraged other Arab states—including those without formal diplomatic ties and technically still “at war” with Israel—to likewise engage, even if discreetly.
One of the more promising outcomes of this new regional dynamic is the prospect that this enlarged pro-U.S. Middle East peace bloc will redound to unprecedented regional strategic cooperation. Intra-regional security cooperation has long been a U.S. interest in the Middle East, but the demand has become even more urgent with the so-called “pivot to Asia,” increasing demands on the U.S. military around the globe, and the heightened menace posed by Iran. Only recently, however, with the signing of the Abraham Accords and the shift of Israel from European Command (EUCOM) to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), has this kind of tangible collaboration become feasible.
In the past few months, as reports of contacts between senior Israeli and Arab security officials have proliferated, discussion of a new regional strategic alliance has reached fever pitch in Washington. It’s difficult to judge how much progress to date has actually been made, but the stories are impressive.
According to the Wall Street Journal, CENTCOM convened chiefs of defense (CHODs) from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Israel this past March in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, to discuss the Iranian air threat. In June, Israeli minister of defense Benny Gantz claimed that since August 2019, there had been roughly 150 meetings between Israeli defense personnel and counterparts in regional countries “excluding Egypt and Jordan.” Then, Jordan’s King Abdullah announced that he “would be one of the first people that would endorse a Middle East NATO.” All the buzz in turn generated widespread speculation that President Biden would make this cooperation the centerpiece of his trip to the Middle East in July. Yet while security was on Biden’s agenda, there was no big announcement of progress on regional strategic cooperation.
Before the visit, a senior administration official outlined in a general sense what the cooperation might look like: “Bring[ing] countries together to address common threats and challenges, something the United States can uniquely do, and with new frameworks that aim to harness unique American capabilities to enable partners to work more closely together.” Indeed, the U.S. role here is critical. What the Biden administration envisions, however, is less than the Arab NATO evoked by King Abdullah. Rather, it is a U.S.-supported regional strategic cooperation initiative focused on countering Iranian missiles and drones, involving the sharing of radar information and the integration of layered missile defense systems. There also appears to be an element of joint air force training and exercises, as well as sales of Israeli equipment, including, most notably, a $500 million missile defense system to Morocco. By and large, to date, few details have emerged about the so-called Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD), including the states involved and their level of involvement. Already, however, according to Israel’s defense minister, MEAD is operational and “thwarting Iranian attempts” to target the region.
This less ambitious approach is well-advised. Washington helping to facilitate strategic cooperation among partners isn’t something new. The United States does this all over the world, and quite successfully. In the Middle East, however, the United States has been less successful in promoting strategic cooperation among its Arab partners. And the record of military coordination among Arab states, without U.S. support, is even less distinguished. While current enthusiasm in the region is reason for some optimism, past precedents suggest that it is important to have realistic expectations for what can and will be accomplished.
Historically, bilateral trade between Arab states has been negligible. So too has intra-regional strategic cooperation.
The Arab League has deployed several peacekeeping and expeditionary forces since its inception in 1945. In 1976, the so-called Arab Deterrent Force was established to help end the Lebanese Civil War. The force, composed primarily of Syrians augmented with some symbolic Saudi, Sudanese, and Libyan troops, ended up facilitating the decades-long Syrian military occupation of Lebanon. In 1982, the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) contributed troops to the Peninsula Shield Force, a 40,000-strong unit designed to counter Iranian subversion. With the exception of a 2011 deployment to repress a popular uprising in Bahrain, however, the force has never seen combat.
Seven Arab States participated in some capacity in Operation Desert Storm (1991), when a U.S.-led coalition of thirty-five states liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the GCC agreed to build a regional military force including Egypt and Syria, but the corps was never established. The Gulf War represented the height of Arab military cooperation, under a carefully orchestrated U.S. umbrella. This level of coordination has not since been repeated.
More recently, Riyadh established a coalition in 2015 to support Saudi Arabia in its Yemen intervention following the Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion. While seven Arab League members participated in Operation Decisive Storm, the intensity of each state’s involvement was uneven, as was battlefield performance and interoperability. In short, the force did not operate “jointly.” Moreover, Qatar and Morocco exited the coalition in 2017 and 2019, respectively. Abu Dhabi—Riyadh’s indispensable partner in the campaign—also withdrew in 2019, reportedly without Saudi consent. (The UAE remains involved in Yemen today, but not as part of the Saudi-led coalition. Indeed, the Emirati military effort in early 2022 to blunt the Houthi offensive in Marib was critical in bringing the Iranian-backed group to the negotiating table.)
A common threat perception on Iran has driven a change in approach to regional military cooperation with Israel. While the current trajectory of strategic cooperation between Israel and Arab states is unprecedented, however, there remain significant obstacles to building out an effective operational “alliance.”
Intra-Arab rivalries. Notwithstanding the perennial talk of “brotherly” relations, Arab states do not necessarily get along. Between 2017 and 2021, six Arab states imposed a political and economic blockade on Qatar. The rift has been bridged, but suspicions remain. Likewise, in recent years, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been both strategic partners in Yemen and economic rivals. Saudi Arabia is currently making an effort to compel multinationals to relocate their corporate headquarters from Dubai to Riyadh. In 2021, the Saudis reportedly tried to undercut a water and solar energy deal between Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, and Amman. Regional rivalries and distrust may undercut efforts to forge closer security cooperation.
Public vs. quiet cooperation. Public opinion polling and empirical evidence alike suggest that the Abraham Accords and normalization with Israel are not popular in the Gulf and the Middle East writ large. For that reason, historically, both Jordan and Egypt—Israel’s first peace partners—preferred to keep diplomatic and strategic cooperation with the Jewish state quiet. Fledgling ties between Israel and the Gulf states, forged in the aftermath of the 1993 Oslo Accords, were also handled discreetly. In the aftermath of the Abraham Accords, Arab state dealings with Israel have become more overt, but reticence remains.
Although it is widely believed that Riyadh will inevitably normalize with Israel, until now the kingdom has kept its reported dealings with Jerusalem quiet. Last month, disagreements about Israel publicizing a phone call between Israeli interim premier Yair Lapid and Qatari foreign minister Muhammad bin Abdulrahman al-Thani scuttled plans for opening an Israeli consulate in Doha during the World Cup. The hesitancy of some Arab states to go public with strategic cooperation may make it difficult to station Israeli equipment and/or personnel in non-Abraham Accords states. Israeli officials’ predilection for leaking will not reassure states still undecided about upping the ante.
Antagonizing Iran. To a greater or lesser extent, Arab states have concerns about popular opinion related to normalization with Israel. These states are equally if not more apprehensive about how Tehran will respond to closer strategic cooperation with Israel. Since 2019, senior officials from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have repeatedly warned Gulf states against pursuing security ties with their new peace partner. Early on, Abu Dhabi reportedly sought to preempt these threats by announcing that the UAE would not allow Israel to base military aircraft on its territory. While not as menacing as F-35 fighter jets, Israeli radar systems on Emirati territory would no doubt also be seen as problematic by Tehran. For the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, then, the key question will be how closely they can coordinate with Israel until Iran responds, either directly or via its proxies. Like the Emirates, Qatar and Oman also have important economic and diplomatic ties with Iran and may prove even more cautious about taking steps with Israel that might antagonize Tehran.
Sharing what with whom? Strategic cooperation between Israel and its Arab partners is a positive development. Intelligence sharing will all but certainly improve security for regional states threatened by Iran and its proxies. At the same time, however, some of Israel’s best potential partners in the region have increasingly close relations with China. If Israeli equipment—some of which has been co-developed with the United States—is deployed abroad, measures will need to be taken to ensure the technology is not compromised. Some of the Arab states that Israel is hoping to strengthen strategic cooperation with vis-a-vis Iran are also currently leading efforts to help Tehran bust U.S. sanctions.
The regional security partnership between Israel and Arab states has significant potential to help Washington’s friends and allies in the Middle East better defend against the growing Iranian missile and drone threat, but it remains in the nascent stages. While intelligence sharing may ultimately expand to include other threat sets—including ground-based counterterrorism challenges posed by Iran’s proxies—it is difficult to imagine this cooperation taking on a more proactive kinetic approach. Indeed, given different threat tolerances across the region, coordinated and proactive air-to-ground operations seem unlikely. However this cooperation evolves, though, it is a vast improvement over where the region was two years ago.
Still, it is important to have reasonable expectations as to the limitations of the strategic cooperation. While the Arab partners are at best non-democratic, if not authoritarian, they still give some consideration to public opinion. Furthermore, the capabilities of many of these Arab states remain limited, while Israel lacks sufficient capabilities in aerial refueling and ordnance to accomplish certain missions vis-a-vis Iran. In this regard, while helpful, MEAD is no panacea.
The new strategic architecture made possible by the Abraham Accords is an important element of burden sharing, but it is not a Plan B for when Iran truly becomes a threshold nuclear state. Even if regional strategic cooperation achieves its full potential in defending against the missile and drone challenge, the United States will remain the indispensable ally of its regional partners in countering the Iranian nuclear threat.
David Schenker is the Taube Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute and former assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs at the State Department.