Israel, UAE test potential for cooperation on COVID-19

The agreement signed between the United Arab Emirates' Group 42 and Israel’s IAI and Rafael companies offers a glimpse of the potential for cooperation -- if not deterred by annexation.

al-monitor The Rafael company logo is pictured during the Defense Systems and Equipment International at the Excel Center, London, United Kingdom, Sept. 11, 2007.  Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images.

Jul 9, 2020

It’s no secret that the relationship between Israel and the Gulf states has advanced, if often quietly, in recent years. On the other hand, with Israel now flouting its intention to annex the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the relationship is starting to look more like a tango: two steps forward, one step back — or is it the other way around?

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is one of the Gulf states that has cautiously tested the waters of non-official engagement. While there are no official diplomatic relations, commercial relations between them are proceeding. Some of these steps appear to be low key. For example, Israel has an official representative to the United Nations International Renewable Energy Agency, which is headquartered in Abu Dhabi, and this year, Israel was invited to participate in Expo 2020 in Dubai.

Three weeks ago, on June 12, UAE Ambassador to Washington Yousef al-Otaiba, published an editorial about the potential annexation of West Bank lands, in the popular Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. This was an unprecedented step for someone from the UAE in such a lofty position. In his piece, he warned that annexation would harm the emerging relationship not only between Israel and his country, but between Israel and other Arab states as well. “Annexation is a misguided provocation of another order,” Otaiba wrote. He went on to say that it would turn talks of normalization between Israel and the UAE, as well as with other Arab states, upside down.

So, annexation is not happening as fast as originally planned. Nevertheless, it is as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to prove that Otaiba’s warnings are not really founded, and that Israel’s relationship with the Gulf states is actually getting closer. At the June 26 graduation ceremony for Israeli air force pilots, Netanyahu said that the health ministers of Israel and the UAE would be announcing their countries' cooperation in research and development and the development of requisite technologies to combat the coronavirus. As he explained, this is intended to improve “health security” in the region. According to Netanyahu, cooperation came about after long and intense discussions over the last few months, intended to benefit many in our region. The stronger and more powerful we are, the more we are able to restrain our enemies and get closer to our friends.

After Netanyahu tweeted about this, the Israeli Foreign Ministry repeated the news. But then, just a few hours later, Hend Al Otaiba, director of strategic communications for the UAE’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, clarified things saying that cooperation would take place between private companies in Israel and the UAE, but not between the two countries’ health ministries, as Netanyahu mistakenly indicated.

Professor Hezi Levy, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Health, offered another clarification indicating that private companies from the UAE and Israel agreed to cooperate in the medical field, particularly in the battle against the coronavirus. According to Levy, scientific and medical cooperation bridges historical and political divides in the region at a time when the ultimate priority should be to find a solution to combat the coronavirus. Cooperation between the two countries will lead to enhancing the resilience of all people in the region in matters pertaining to health.

Yet, even with the lowering of expectations, it turns out that this kind of cooperation is both unprecedented and significant. First and foremost, it was announced publicly. Furthermore, it involved cooperation by Israeli firms, whose main focus is on security. And finally, the very scope of this cooperation is noteworthy.

Hassan Sajwani, a technology reporter from the UAE, and many others like him, quoted the announcement on the cooperation, which was covered by the media in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. These reports emphasized that the participating firms were the leading technology companies in their respective countries, and that this cooperation was for the purpose of combatting the coronavirus. It was as if they were trying to legitimize the joint effort.

More details appeared in an announcement by Group 42, a corporation based in Abu Dhabi that specializes in advanced technology. It stated that a memorandum of understanding was signed to advance joint research and development with the two Israeli concerns — Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. The announcement said that the purpose of this cooperation was to find solutions to help in combatting the coronavirus. Ling Shao, CEO of the company, is quoted as saying, “At G42, we embrace international cooperation as a way to develop new and innovative technological solutions for the public good. The UAE has led by example in the global collaborative effort to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic, and our company is privileged to follow the lead and share resources and expertise with Rafael and IAI for such a significant cause." The statement continued that the company is in the early stage of clinical trials of a vaccine for the virus that causes COVID-19.

The agreement was signed with the Alta division of IAI in a video conference between the UAE and Israel. Based on details obtained by Al-Monitor, the areas of interest that were discussed included artificial intelligence, sensory systems, the use of lasers, and so on. IAI reported that discussions encompassed the development of technologies that would help expedite identification of the virus, with the goal of making it immediate. The signing of the memorandum came after long discussions between the parties via digital platforms. “The mood in these talks was friendly,” a senior IAI official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. He said that ever since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company had developed radar-based equipment and heat sensors to keep tabs on COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized in Israel. It also developed a new kind of respirator to treat patients, given the worldwide dearth of such equipment.

Deputy Director of IAI and General Manager of Alta Yoav Turgeman said in an interview, “The coronavirus pandemic transcends continents, peoples and religions. We consider it our top priority to collaborate on breakthrough solutions to it. We are proud to work together with a company from the UAE and to serve as a harbinger of future cooperation between the two countries.’’

The second company, Rafael, is expected to contribute in its area of expertise: robotics. Since the start of the pandemic, it has developed products for the remote treatment of patients, so as to reduce the risk of infection among caregivers on the medical team. Rafael’s robots are used in hospitals to serve food and drugs to coronavirus patients and to measure their vital signs.

This story tells us that cooperation and closer relationships between Israel and the Gulf states have some momentum — perhaps to the chagrin of the Palestinians. They may not blossom into comprehensive relations between the countries in the near future, but the anti-Israel boycott, which characterized past relations, seems dead. At the same time, Israel should realize from this that the potential for cooperation and closer relations may be enormous, but the current political gridlock with the Palestinians is keeping it from being fully realized.

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