Gulf Sheikhs resent subaltern role

US-Israel joint training exercise ‘Enduring Lightning’ involving F-35 ‘stealth’ aircraft, Southern Israel, March 2020

The tabling of a “bipartisan” legislation in the US Congress on October 1 reiterating American commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) creates an extraordinary dimension to the geopolitics and military balance in the Middle East region in the downstream of the so-called Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, which was signed in Washington three weeks ago. 

The bill’s short title is self-explanatory — Guaranteeing Israel’s QME Act of 2020. Succinctly put, the bill reiterates the requirement for the US President to consult the Congress on all arms sales to the Middle Eastern countries  that could impact Israel’s QME and mandatorily consult with the Israeli government to ensure that its QME concerns are settled, and furthermore, would require POTUS to submit a determination to Congress on the QME impact of any given sale within 60 days of its formal notification. 

Plainly put, the bill serves two purposes — it checks presidential powers on arms deals in the Middle East, and, two, gives “veto power” to Israel on all arms transactions between the US and the Arab countries. 

Legislation already exists for well over a decade on these lines but this “bill strengthens that commitment and reminds the Administration of its obligations under the law,” as the Democratic Congressman from Illinois Brad Schneider put it. 

From the impressive line-up of lawmakers from across the aisle who sponsor the bill, including several senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the legislation will sail through the Congress like a dream. 

The crux of the matter is, Israel is piloting this whole enterprise. Of course, it is a spectacular display of the clout Israel wields in the Washington Beltway on the US’ Middle East polices, the policymaking process and executive decisions by the White House.

But it also betrays a certain degree of nervousness on Israel’s part that US politics is increasingly volatile bordering on the chaotic, and nothing can any longer be taken as granted or as immutable despite incessant affirmations of US guarantee for Israel’s security. The Israeli concerns are broadly three-fold: 

  • An incumbent US president who is bizarre in his behaviour to the degree that he walks in an out of hospital while still carrying coronavirus within him, who is obsessed with arms sales to the petrodollar states and brags about it; 
  • A future president in the White House whose Middle Eastern policies may radically shift in regard of normalisation with Iran (which Israel anticipates), eroding in turn the US’ dependence on Israel as its local satrap in the Middle East; and, 
  • The accelerating breakdown of regional security in the Middle East where the existing political order,  intra-regional alignments, western hegemony are transforming rapidly with unpredictable consequences. 

Unsurprisingly, Israel never trusts any external power with its core concerns of security — and that includes the US despite being a close ally, generous benefactor, mentor, guardian, etc. all rolled into one. 

Equally, despite the bonhomie created by the Abraham Accords (which the bill invokes in its preamble), Israel is yet to evaluate how far the newfound friendships in the Persian Gulf turn out to be strategic assets or, conversely, liabilities in a future scenario. In the quicksands of Middle East politics, things change overnight. 

To cite one example, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar initially sponsored the terrorist groups affiliated with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Syrian conflict while eventually Saudi Arabia and the UAE attempted a regime change project to overthrow the emir of Qatar as well. Again, contradictions are galore. Radical Islam is kosher to Saudis and Emiratis as instruments of policy abroad, but moderate Islam of the sort represented by the Muslim Brotherhood becomes poison.

Above all, although Arab Spring once petered out, there is no certainty that it won’t reappear to blow away the autocratic regimes whom Israel has befriended — and if that happens, there is no certainty how the US would react. The US retrenchment in the Middle East is a growing possibility. Quite possibly, the Brothers may well step in someday to pioneer democratic transformation of Gulf Arab states. 

The immediate provocation for the upcoming bill is the complicated case of the UAE’s bid for F-35 stealth fighters. Trump or his son-in-law Jared Kushner would appear to have led the Emirati sheikhs up the garden path assuring them that as quid pro quo for normalising ties with Israel, they could have the F-35 jets. (Indeed, Abraham Accords fetched Trump a lot of political mileage.)

The Sheikhs probably demanded a quid pro quo calculating that F-35 would give the UAE vast air superiority over Qatar, Iran and Turkey. Now, Israel did a smart thing by not raising objections until Abraham Accords got formalised but thereafter put a spoke in the wheel to ensure it remains the sole proprietor of F-35 jets regionally. 

There is a trust deficit palpable in the Israeli mind as to how the Emiratis would put to use such awesome airpower. More importantly, this would be precedent-setting. What if Bahrain or Saudi Arabia also were to make such demands for F-35? 

And, of course, what if the emir of Qatar who is a longstanding close personal friend of Trump puts in a request? After all, Qatar hosts the US Central Command Hqs. But the catch is, Qatar also hosts a Turkish military base and the Emir is also a close personal friend of President Recep Erdogan who of course Israel hates as its existential enemy. 

Indeed, Qatar just did that! 

No doubt, Israel is doing the right thing by insisting that it will have the final say on the US’ arms deals with the maverick, fickle-minded, unstable Arab Sheikhs. The objective will be to prevent the Sheikhs from ever attaining parity with Israel in military capabilities. This is rational thinking, of course, and Israel never tried to hide its intentions. 

However, this bill will have unpleasant consequences. It may turn out to be a facile assumption that the Sheikhs will meekly accept such patent humiliation in public view. A sour note may enter Abraham Accords. Besides, the US legislation may spur the Sheikhs to look elsewhere for advanced weaponry — Russia, for instance.

Russia has signalled willingness to sell state-of-the-art weaponry to Persian Gulf states. Saudi Arabia has already purchased the S-400 Triumf anti-missile system from Russia, which is a real game changer, far superior to the US Patriot system. The Russians have technology that matches F-35 stealth aircraft. So does China.