August 17, 2020

United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize relations - my thoughts

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayid, President Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu

In a surprise announcement last week, President Donald Trump revealed the successful conclusion of an agreement between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the State of Israel that will lead to the establishment of full diplomatic relations.

My first reaction: this is a good thing. The Gulf Arabs are coming to the realization that Israel does not pose a threat to them unless they pose a threat to Israel. There is no reason for the Gulf states to threaten Israel except for the myth of Arab - and in some cases Muslim - solidarity against the self-described Jewish state "for the sake of the Palestinians."

Having lived and served in a variety of these countries for many years, I assess that they are tired of the Palestinian "cause" and self-victimization, the Palestinian Authority, Lebanese Hizballah, and Hamas, to name a few. They are fearful of Sunni extremism (al-Qa'idah, ISIS, etc.), yes, but much more wary of Iranian support for Shi'a terrorist groups - the aforementioned Hizballah, as well as Iraqi Shi'a militias.

These Gulf Arab nations do not live in fear of Israel. For the most part, Israel tries to conduct itself as a member of the international community when permitted to by an overwhelmingly anti-Israel United Nations and European Union. In private, many senior and influential leaders of these Arab countries, those I would call "the enlightened" ones, actually want to be more like Israel.

The Arabs only have to look at Israel's advances in science, technology, medicine, and yes, weapons. Israel enjoys a qualitative edge in virtually every category when compared to the Arab countries. Many ask why this is the case, and the tired explanation that it is only the support of the United States for Israel that allows them to be so successful is losing its voice.

The United Arab Emirates has been blessed with a decades of enlightened leadership. Even during the presidency of Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan Al Nahayyan, he allowed the next generation the leeway to try and change the Emirates into a modern society. One only need look at Dubai when I served as the acting Defense Attache to the U.S. Embassy in the UAE in 1992, and when I visited two years ago - night and day.

As part of my duties, I dealt closely with the UAE Ministry of Defense and its armed forces. I found them to be well-educated, well-motivated, and for the most part nonpolitical. That extended to their views of Israel and the Palestinians. Most were more concerned with the self-styled Shi'a hegemon just a few miles across the Gulf - Iran. You will note I am not calling it the Persian Gulf - that's one of the things about which the Gulf Arabs can get a bit testy.

At the embassy, located in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, I was the acting chief of the Defense Attache Office, the USDAO. Another section in the embassy was the security assistance office (SAO), now called the Office of Defense Partnership. These are the U.S. military officers who are there basically to sell U.S. weapons and training to the UAE. Fine officers and at time rivals - we jokingly referred to each other as the "spooks" (me) and "merchants of death (them)."

While there certainly was cooperation and coordination, at times we were acting at cross purposes. My role was to observe and report on UAE military capabilities, and to act as an intelligence liaison with the UAE Military Intelligence Directorate. Keep in mind that military attaches worldwide are declared intelligence officers, work for their country's military intelligence service - in my case, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency - and are accredited to the host country's chief of military intelligence.

When I arrived in Abu Dhabi, I made an office call on the Director of Military Intelligence, who later introduced me to Minister of Defense (since 1971 and still today) Shaykh Muhammad bin Rashid Al Maktum. If that name sounds familiar, it should - he is now Vice President of the UAE, Prime Minister of the UAE, Emir of Dubai, and as I said, Minister of Defense of the country.

"Shaykh Mo," as he asked us to call him, and I struck up a conversation about the Gulf War and my service as Central Command chief General H. Norman Schwarzkopf's interpreter. I think since we were fairly close in age, he asked if I would give him my analysis and opinion on the future of the UAE's armed forces. I knew he had been in rather heated discussions with representatives of the embassy's SAO over weapons purchases. At that time, the U.S. defense industry was pushing sales of the M-1 Abrams main battle tank and the Patriot air defense missile system.

Perhaps this is when I should have consulted with the security assistance people....

I told the shaykh/minister that in my opinion, and stressed that this was just my opinion, not the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, that he should pattern the UAE armed forces on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), with one exception - the Israeli Army. Did I just note that the U.S. defense industry was pushing the M-1 tank?

I explained that as I saw it, the UAE's primary adversary was, and likely to be for the foreseeable future, Iran, or at least as long as it remained the Islamic Republic of Iran. Unless Iran was to develop a massive amphibious assault capability, there was little chance of a land invasion - special operations raids on oil and gas facilities, maybe, but a major ground assault? Unlikely.

Iran's major threats would come from the air, the sea (either the Gulf or Gulf of Oman), or terrorism. On point, in 2019 there was a terrorist attack on four ships in Emirati territorial waters in the Gulf of Oman off the coast of the Emirate of al-Fujayrah.

What the UAE needed, at that time and now, was a world-class air force, an effective air defense/anti-missile system, and a regionally competitive navy/coast guard. Ground forces like a national guard should suffice to face the minimal ground threat, and they needed to develop a serious counter-terrorism effort against Iran.

What the UAE did not (and does not) need is an armor-heavy army that should never deploy to fight an expeditionary war, or have to defend the territory of the UAE. They have strayed a bit from where they should be in Yemen, and I think they have learned that deploying their ground forces is not wise.

That said, buying M-1 tanks? Not a problem, but not a priority. Acquiring Patriot missiles? Yes, a high priority. F-16s? Absolutely the highest priority - get the best money can buy, and the UAE can afford it. I am satisfied to see that the UAE Air Force now flies some of the most advanced F-16s in the world.

It was a wide-ranging conversation - the shaykh was well-informed and cognizant of the current situation. I think my comments were merely confirmatory to his own thinking. However, reports of my conversation with the shaykh reached the ears of the SAO people at the embassy. I was immediately called to meet with the chief of the SAO, a soon-retiring U.S. Army colonel obviously looking for a position at Raytheon (Patriot missiles) or General Dynamics (M-1 Abrams tanks). Both are great weapon systems, but were they right for the UAE?

The security assistance function of the Department of Defense has always been suspect to us foreign area officers and intelligence specialists. Senior officers recommending ("selling") certain weapons systems to countries where they have served and then retire and end up working for companies named Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, etc. It just sounds too convenient.

I told the shaykh what I thought he needed to know, not what the defense industry contractors (or the SAO officers) wanted to sell him. I was immediately challenged by the Army colonel who was chief of the embassy security assistance office. All in, he was a fine Army officer just doing his job, but peddling unnecessary arms to an ally did not seem to be kosher (pun intended) to me. Since we labored for different masters, we parted on rather icy terms.

As I said, I am pleased to see that the UAE has developed a very capable air force - if not world-class air force, it is certainly among the best in the Middle East. They have also developed a good naval and coast guard capability. I am disappointed that they have attempted to use their military as an expeditionary force in Yemen and Libya. I find it hard to believe that the Shaykh Muhammad of 1992 is allowing his forces to be used this way in 2020. The force structure we had talked about in 1992 was never meant to operate in this manner.

Still, the UAE has been a key American ally for decades. The use of the al-Dhafra air base outside Abu Dhabi has been an integral part of American air operations in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

I often wonder why we have positioned U.S. Central Command (Forward) at the al-'Udayd (Al Udeid) air base in Qatar. Qatar is an ally, yes, but much more aligned with Turkey and its support for Islamist groups in Syria. Let's not forget that the anti-American satellite news network Al Jazeera is based in Doha, Qatar. For those of you who watch Al Jazeera English, the Arabic language network and the English language networks are totally different - the Arabic-language broadcast is exponentially much more anti-American and anti-western than the English language content. I digress.

What is driving the change in the UAE that they are willing to normalize relations with Israel? Easy - Iran. I guess we owe a debit of gratitude to former President Barack Obama and his terminally ineffectual Secretary of State John Kerry.

If Obama and Kerry had not spent so much time and treasure on the ill-advised Iran nuclear deal, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia would not be so worried about a potential nuclear-armed Iran. (See my article from earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and China nuclear cooperation - is Riyadh seeking nukes?) The prospect of a Joe Biden-Kamala Harris administration and the probability of another ill-advised American effort to befriend the world's leading sponsor of terrorism is of great concern to our Gulf Arab allies.

I hope the United States is able to work with the leaders of Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait to follow in the UAE's footsteps. Saudi Arabia, who also cooperates with Israel silently, may take a bit longer.

The Israelis are smart to try and work with the Sunni Arabs. They share a common threat: the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Shi'a syndicate in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.