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Sunday, June 13, 2021

How tech is cementing the UAE-Israel alliance

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Since the normalization of UAE-Israel relations was first announced, much of the international commentary has focused only on the deal’s political and diplomatic significance. However, it will also create a new digital order in the Middle East, one in which Israel and the UAE will partner more closely than ever in developing emerging technologies and cyber capabilities. This cooperation will be at the forefront of this UAE-Israel tech order. 

The Turkey and Iran factor 

The UAE-Israel deal paves the way for an alliance between Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv aimed at countering regional foes Turkey and Iran in many hotspots around the Middle East, such as Syria, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, and the Gulf states. For Iran, there is a growing feeling of “strategic encirclement” and loss of strategic depth because of the deals between the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel; and the possibility of a normalization agreement between Israel and Oman. For a long time, Tehran had worked actively to strategically encircle Israel in Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria. With the Abraham Accords, the dynamics have changed, and Israel is officially in the Gulf within miles of Iran. 

Turkish drones and Iranian cyberwarfare 

In addition to the important strategic implications of the Abraham Accords, there is an undeniable tech and cyber element to the recent agreement between Israel and the UAE as well. In the last decade, Turkey and Iran have altered the regional balance of power to their favor at the expense of Arab Gulf states by investing heavily in their cyber and tech capabilities. For instance, Turkey has mastered the process of designing, manufacturing, and operating low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Empowered by locally produced, low-cost, and highly effective UAV fleets, notably the Bayraktar TB2 and TAI Anka-S, Ankara pursued an expansionist foreign policy across the region from Syria to Libya and from Iraq to Azerbaijan. The operational success of the Turkish drones in altering power dynamics on the battlefield attracted the interest of potential buyers such as Tunisia, Ukraine, and Pakistan and has forced global powers, such as the U.S., the U.K., and India, to reconsider their drone warfare strategies. And given the ongoing cold war between Turkey and the Arab Gulf states, Gulf capitals needed another drone power that would help them to fill the drone gap with Turkey: Israel. With a robust homegrown industry, Tel Aviv has been at the forefront of the drone industry since the 1980s, becoming the world’s largest exporter of drones through agreements with many global and regional powers such as Azerbaijan, the U.K., France, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Spain, and India. 

Iran has advanced its cyber warfare capabilities significantly in the 2010s. Tehran successfully integrated cyberwarfare into its regional asymmetric warfare doctrine, especially against its Arab enemies. After being attacked by a jointly Israel-U.S. developed malware “Stuxnet,” Iran reverse-engineered the malware and created “Shamoon,” which was used in a cyber attack against Saudi Aramco. In 2021, APTs attributed to Iran have carried out a number of cyber espionage campaigns against many countries in the region and around the world, including the UAE and Kuwait. Given Israel’s unmatched cyber capabilities, Tel Aviv emerged as a potential cyber partner.  

Tech integration  

The UAE and Israel are two major tech hubs in the Middle East region. However, each nation’s tech sector has its own niche. Israel is highly specialized in deep-tech such as blockchain, cybersecurity, AI, and quantum computing, while, the UAE has become a tech leader among Arab nations through its comparative advantage in digital transformation and smart cities, as well as its ability for wide-scale deployment. In this sense, the UAE-Israel tech alliance is complementary, and allows the two countries to benefit from each other’s value proposition. The UAE has a strategic objective of pivoting to deep-tech in areas such as cloud computing, blockchain, and AI. And with Israeli assistance, the UAE will have a shorter path in reaching those goals. For Israel, the UAE represents a leading market for Israeli technologies, a source of investment in capital-intensive technologies, and a launching pad for Israeli exports and partnerships in the rest of the region.

Cyber cooperation

Before the Abraham Accords, Abu Dhabi had looked to Tel Aviv as a regional cyber power and potential partner in the current competition between other Arab states, Iran, and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, one of the first moves following the normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE was a meeting between the two countries’ cyber czars in Tel Aviv, where the cyber-security chiefs discussed cooperation. The UAE cyber czar, Mohamed al-Kuwaiti, described the cyber risks that face the UAE and floated the idea of cooperation on cyber defense, AI, and smart government technologies between his country and Israel. 

Cyber intelligence 

The understanding between the UAE and Israel cyber czars was quickly translated into concrete cyber intelligence cooperation on transnational threats facing the two countries. In April 2021, al-Kuwaiti gave an interview to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and revealed that the UAE and Israel shared intelligence on Hezbollah’s cyber activities. He was referring to a January report by the Tel Aviv-based ClearSky Cyber Security firm about APT Lebanese Cedar, a hacking group attributed to Hezbollah. APT Lebanese Cedar had used software and tactics linked in the past to Iranian state hackers to breach over 250 servers of targets in the United States, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. Al-Kuwaiti confirmed that the UAE was targeted by APT Lebanese Cedar, and alluded to cooperation between the UAE and Israel to identify the scale of the Cedar breach. 

Cyber diplomacy

As a leading business hub in the region, Dubai hosted an Israeli cyber conference, “Cybertech Global.” The conference highlighted how quickly the cyber cooperation between the UAE and Israel has spiked in the few months following the signing of the Abraham Accords. At the conference, al-Kuwaiti and Israel cyber czar Yigal Unna were quoted as describing UAE-Israel cyber relations as “brotherly.” Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi also launched the “UAE-IL tech zone,” an initiative that aims at building connections that will “focus on technology-related ventures” through relationships, connections, and the creation of businesses.

UAE investment in Israel’s strategic industries

Following a March call between Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the UAE announced its establishment of a $10 billion investment fund in Israel that would focus on strategic industries that include energy, water, space, healthcare, agri-tech, AI, blockchain, and other emerging technologies. The recently appointed UAE ambassador to Israel, Mohamed al-Khajah, has been a driving force in many tech initiatives between Israel and the UAE. Al-Khajah supported Israel’s Start-Up Nation Central, a leading tech non-profit, in setting up a joint task force to boost cooperation between the two nations on technology and innovation. The task force has a strong emphasis on strategic industries for the UAE, including “fintech, agrifood tech, education, cyber, digital health, energy, petrochemicals, cleantech, and sustainability.”

Anti-drone partnership

Unlike the tech cooperation, the drone/anti-drone industry is military in nature. Fearful of Turkish—and to lesser extent, Iranian—drones, one of the first defense cooperation agreements between the UAE and Israel was one that developed anti-drone capabilities. UAE’s Edge and Israel Aerospace Industries agreed on developing a fully autonomous counter-UAV system that is “supported by 3D radar, communications intelligence technology and electro-optics integrated into a unified command-and-control system.”

Changing regional dynamics 

While the Abraham Accords are still in their first year, the tech and cyber partnership between the UAE and Israel demonstrates the depth of the geostrategic realignment between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi. After the accords, the Emiratis and Israelis are working in tandem to build a tech and cyber coalition that leverages each nation’s comparative advantage, with Israel’s leadership on cyberwarfare, deep tech, and drone and anti-drone capabilities, and the UAE’s financial muscle and advancement on scaling digital solutions. 

 

Mohammed Soliman is a non-resident scholar with MEI’s Cyber Program. His work focuses on the intersection of technology, geopolitics, and business in the MENA region. The views expressed in this article are his own.

Photo by Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

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