by Neville Teller
Once top secret, a multi-national meeting of military leaders in March 2022 formed the basis for discussions that US President Joe Biden had in his visit to the Middle East over July 13-16, 2022.
For three months a clandestine get-together of US, Israeli and Arab military chiefs remained secret. Then on June 26 the Wall Street Journal printed an exclusive, revealing details of a meeting hosted by the US in Egypt’s Sharm-el-Sheik the previous March which had apparently included military leaders from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. They had met in secret, according to the report, in order to explore ways of coordinating a joint response to Iran’s growing missile and drone capabilities.
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As the WSJ pointed out, these talks marked the first time that such a range of ranking Israeli and Arab officers had met under US military auspices to discuss how to defend themselves and each other against a common threat.
A glance at the participants suggests that something else is new on the regional scene – the positive effect that the Abraham Accords is having in expanding the concept of normalization across the moderate Arab world. No longer does the idea of sitting round a table with Israelis seem inconceivable, even though Qatar and Saudi Arabia have no formal diplomatic relations with Israel. On the contrary, it is becoming increasingly obvious to Arab leaders that linking up with Israel’s hi-tech capabilities across a multitude of fields brings them huge benefits not otherwise available.
For example, Arab countries appear increasingly keen to access sophisticated Israeli air defense technology, following a succession of recent drone strikes on oil facilities and infrastructure in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, perpetrated by Iran or its proxies. One such, carried out in September 2019, was claimed by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. It hit an Aramco compound in Saudi Arabia, shutting down about 5 percent of global oil production and caused chaos in financial markets. A 3-drone strike directed by Hezbollah against Israel’s Karish oil rig in the Mediterranean on July 2 was shot down by the IDF.
During his visit Biden attended a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), augmented by the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. It no doubt included on the agenda the regional threat to security posed by Iran and its proxies.
Media reports claim that the participants in the March meeting discussed which country’s forces would intercept drone, ballistic or cruise missile attacks. They agreed in principle to coordinate rapid notification systems when aerial threats are detected, but apparently agreed that for the present a US-style military data-sharing system would not be set up, but that alerts would be sent via phones and computers.
During his time in Saudi Arabia, Biden announced further steps in the warming relationship between Saudi and Israel, in particular the opening of Saudi skies to commercial flights by Israel. A fact sheet issued by the White House after his formal meeting with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) lists thirteen areas in which the US has pledged closer cooperation with the Kingdom, including energy security and clean energy, cyber security, space exploration, maritime security and air defense.
Since shortly after the 1978 Camp David Accords, US troops have served as peacekeepers on Tiran Island as part of the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) under the 1979 Egypt-Israeli peace treaty. Five Americans were killed on the island in 2020 in a helicopter crash. The White House announced that arrangements were finalized to remove the MFO peacekeepers and for Saudi to develop this area for tourism, development, and peaceful pursuits.
Visits by US presidents to Israel might almost be considered routine (six did so, some more than once), but Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia was long weighed in the balance. The fact that it is going ahead is a mark of the importance that Washington attaches to it. Liberal opinion in the US declares itself outraged at the idea of Biden shaking hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), in the light of the Khashoggi affair.
On the afternoon of October 2, 2018 journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of MBS entered the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, never to emerge. Having listened to purported recordings of conversations inside the consulate made by Turkish intelligence, a UN special rapporteur concluded that the journalist had been “brutally slain” inside the building by a 15-strong team of Saudi agents, and that his body was then dismembered.
Khashoggi’s murder sparked worldwide outrage. US intelligence agencies concluded that the Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, had approved the operation. MBS denied playing any role. A year after the killing, a Saudi court found five people guilty of directly participating in the killing and sentenced them to death. The sentences were later commuted to 20-year prison terms. Three others received lesser sentences for covering up the crime. While Turkey has signed off on its involvement in the case, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and MBS have exchanged visits, liberal opinion in the West refuses to accept the Saudi judicial outcome, and continues to charge MBS with responsibility for the assassination.
In his meeting with MBS, Biden raised the Khashoggi issue, and under the heading: “underscoring human rights concerns” the fact sheet states he “received commitments with respect to reforms and institutional safeguards in place to guard against any such conduct in the future.”
Finally, under the heading: “Integrated air defense cooperation”, the White House fact sheets states: “In particular, the United States is committed to advancing a more integrated and regionally-networked air and missile defense architecture, and countering the proliferation of unmanned aerial systems and missiles to non-state actors that threaten the peace and security of the region.”
In other words, the secret meeting at Sharm-el-Sheik in March 2022 virtually set the agenda for this aspect of the presidential visit.