According to a report in the The Wall Street Journal, top military officials from Israel, Egypt, Jordan Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as representatives from the U.S., Bahrain and UAE, met secretly in Sharm El Sheikh,Egypt, in March to discuss combatting the shared threat of Iran’s missile and drone capabilities.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain sent officers to the meeting as well, the report said, and Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of the U.S. Central Command, represented the United States, which convened the gathering.
Israel has no formal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia or Qatar.
According to sources familiar with the talks, the security officials agreed in principle on ways for fast notification of aerial threats, with alerts passed by phone or computer rather than through a US-style military data-sharing system.
The meeting took place following a secret working group of lower-level representatives who sought to identify ways the countries in the region could work together to detect and counter air threats.
The Wall Street Journal report said that this meeting was the first time that such a range of senior Arab and Israeli officers were gathered by the United States to talk about a shared threat.
According to the report, it was made possible by a series of regional shifts: fears of Iran shared by the states, strengthened ties under the Abraham Accords as well as Arab states’ desire to acquire Israeli arms and defense technology.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz told members of the Knesset last week that what he dubbed the “Middle East Air Defense Alliance” is already operational. “Over the past year I have been leading an extensive program, together with my partners at the Pentagon and in the U.S. administration, that will strengthen the cooperation between Israel and countries in the region,” he said, according to an official transcript. “This program is already operative and has already enabled the successful interception of Iranian attempts to attack Israel and other countries.”
The reported meeting of senior military officials comes against the backdrop of: better ties between Israel and its Arab neighbours following the Abraham Accords; the desire by many Arab states to access advanced Israeli technology; the decision to include Israel in US Central Command; and the mutual fear of Iran.
The meeting constitutes also another milestone in warming Israeli-Saudi ties. In July, during his visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to announce a further step.
On Monday, directors-general from the foreign ministries of Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, the US, the UAE, Egypt and Morocco will attend the first meeting of the Negev Forum Steering Committee. The working groups will deal with regional security, food and water security, energy, health, education and tolerance and tourism. Each of the six countries will head a working group, which will meet two or three times a year.