Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 22, 2022
The Gulf region witnesses a shift as Israel is being accepted within the folds of regional politics.
Israel and a changing Middle East


The recent visit of the Israeli President Naftali Bennet to the Kingdom of Bahrain has highlighted yet again, Israel’s increasing role in Middle East politics. This comes at the back of Israel’s participation in the International Maritime Exercise 2022 (IMX 22), where 60 countries took part in the military exercises including nations like Saudi Arabia and Oman with which Israel has no official relations.

In many ways, these efforts to normalise ties were meant to be after the Abraham Accords of 2020 were hammered out with US’ ex-president Trump presiding over the peace deal that brought together Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain. This article, thus, examines some of the factors that changed Israel’s role in the region. It specifically notes that due to the immense financial and political clout of the Gulf nations, their alliance with Israel is driving changes in the broader Middle East.

Nemesis to ally

The Middle East has always been a turbulent region on account of its history rooted in colonial power as well as various internal factors in many of the nations. One of the biggest focal points of agitation in the Middle East has been the formation of Israel, which many Arab nations considered as illegal and infringing on the rights of the Palestinians. These grievances led to significant conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, apart from giving rise to several non-state violent actors that carried out terrorist activities against the state of Israel.

While the last half of the decade saw many other conflicts such as the Iran–Iraq war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Yemeni civil war, and many others, Israel has continued to grab the limelight sporadically. Yet, in the last few decades, Israel has been consistently forging itself as an island of peace in a turbulent region and has now emerged as one of the important power brokers in the region. Several factors explain this growing importance of the nation to the region.

Factors supporting Israel’s role in the Middle East

Firstly, Israel’s alliance with the United States of America looms large over every alliance in the region. Israel occupies a special place of importance for the USA, which has long provided it with finances, defence technology and promises to defend it in times of conflict. For nations like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other gulf countries which have relied on the US for security and oil purchasing guarantees, this paved the way for thawing ties with Israel.

Secondly, especially over the last decade or so, the US’s  appetite to stay in the Middle East diminished, and it largely accorded itself as a net seller of weapons and technology to the region as opposed to a security guarantor for many of these nations. This coincided with Israel’s role as a supplier of defense technology to many nations across the world. Most recently, as part of the Abraham Accords of 2020, weapons sales between the nations involved have led it to be dubbed as the ‘Arms Sales Accords’. This also demonstrates how the demand supply equation helps move relations.

Israel occupies a special place of importance for the USA, which has long provided it with finances, defence technology and promises to defend it in times of conflict.

Thirdly, the Iran factor is another that provides impetus to Israel and other Gulf and Arab nations to come together. Iran has been a prominent critic and rival of Israel and has often funded various anti-Israeli groups such as the Qassam Brigade (the armed wing of Hamas) as well as the Hezbollah. In a similar vein, theGulf nations which have based most of their domestic and foreign policy on ensuring the survival of their respective royal families have opposed Iran and its rhetoric of exporting its domestic revolution which necessitates replacing these royal families with an Islamic monarchy. Thus, in many statements that emerged after bilateral meetings between Israel and Gulf nations, countering Iran has become one of the mainstays of these alliances.

Fourthly, many Islamist actors sparked or supported the growth of various non-state actors including groups like the Muslim brotherhood, Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Over time, these groups have come to challenge the Gulf establishments too which have led to Arab nations to coalesce further with Israel against Islamist actors (violent and non-violent).

Challenges to Israeli acceptance

Despite Israel’s increasing prominence, there are still significant milestones that it has to achieve without which it cannot be declared as an accepted player in regional politics. Most importantly, the fact that Saudi Arabia has not officially established relations despite (reportedly) having covert ties with the nation is another noteworthy point.

While the crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman is ostensibly more strategic and open to relations with Israel, his father King Salman (86) is more pre-disposed to the Palestinian cause dictating Saudi Arabia’s official policy. Yet, his age and allegations of poor health may mean that this will change shortly. This is crucial given that Saudi Arabia is the most important power broker in the region and within the Organization of Islamic (OIC) grouping which is the most prominent grouping of Muslim nations.

Given repeated episodes of such aggression, it is likely that the Arab public will not warm up so easily to Israelis coming to their nations which could create security risks, especially in nations that are not so stable.

A bigger challenge for Israel is that people-to-people relations which have also been a focus of the Israeli leadership is yet to thrive. Reports of Israel’s annexation of Palestinian neighbourhoods have often riled up the Arab populace in the Middle East. In 2021, for example, bloodshed in the Gaza strip elicited a rare but forceful show of criticism of the Israeli government in nations like Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, and the UAE, amongst others—especially on social media. Nations like Bahrain even witnessed civil society members signing open letters criticising Israel. Given repeated episodes of such aggression, it is likely that the Arab public will not warm up so easily to Israelis coming to their nations which could create security risks, especially in nations that are not so stable.


Regional politics in the Middle East which are powered by the Gulf nations are largely moving towards a position where Israel is accepted within the folds and Iran is shunted to the side. Against this backdrop, the nation still has a few milestones to achieve before it really entrenches itself in the Middle East fabrics.

Two key factors here are Saudi Arabia’s official alliance with Israel which will embolden every other nation in the region given its Islamic credentials and reduced tensions and conflicts between Israel and Palestine that will provide Israel a higher acceptance level amongst the Arab public. While the former seems easy, the chances of the latter taking place is not guaranteed. Thus, while Israel may ratchet up its trade and defence ties with the other nations, it would have to ensure security for its citizens across the Arab world, should they want to travel these nations.

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Mohammed Sinan Siyech

Mohammed Sinan Siyech

Mohammed Sinan Siyech is a Non – Resident Associate Fellow working with Professor Harsh Pant in the Strategic Studies Programme. He will be working on ...

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