The United Arab Emirates and Israel have no official diplomatic ties. In fact, Israeli passport holders cannot even visit the UAE. Nor does Abu Dhabi openly recognize Israel as a state. Yet their covert dealings, particularly in the field of cyber-spying, have forged a unique and mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries over the last decade.
Secret Emirati and Israeli relations began around 20 years ago, with a relationship based largely on intelligence and arms sales, according to the Hebrew-language Israeli newspaper Maariv.
Now they are drawn closer together amid concerns such as Iran’s regional influence. This factor also explains Israel’s increasing ties to other Gulf countries, notably Saudi Arabia. Yet it is really the UAE which has more proactively developed a security relationship with Israel ahead of other GCC states. Acquiring Israeli technology and cyber-security expertise has boosted the UAE’s own domestic and regional surveillance capabilities.
Amid an Israeli teen “Robotics Olympics” delegation’s visit to Dubai in November, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the visit, hinting at the two countries’ covert interests.
“You went there [to the UAE] with robotics and technology, but the reason why the State of Israel has forged ties with many countries in the first place is because we have technologies and capabilities against a common enemy in both the security and civilian spheres,” said Netanyahu, subtly referring to Iran.
Since 2013 the UAE has sought greater regional influence, backing its preferred political actors in Yemen, Libya, Egypt, Somalia, and elsewhere for geopolitical dominance in these countries. It often operates pragmatically, even engaging with Iran and Yemen’s Houthis while simultaneously seeking to contain them. The UAE’s repression of dissent has also soared since the Arab Spring, with detention and imprisonment of countless activists and domestic opponents, seeking to root out any challenges to its regime.
To fulfill its regional goals of greater political stature and influence, the UAE required a key ingredient: strong surveillance capabilities.
Yet to fulfill its regional goals of greater political stature and influence, the UAE required a key ingredient: strong surveillance capabilities. Lacking these would have otherwise hindered its ambitions.
Though the UAE is a close regional ally of the United States, which has extensive research capabilities across the region, Washington often does not share its information with Abu Dhabi. Acquiring essential expertise from established cybersecurity providers helped quickly fill this void, just as Abu Dhabi was rapidly bursting onto the political scene.
The UAE had previously relied on many American employees working in the Emirati security company, Project Raven. Yet many of these employees became critical of the company’s malignant nature in its domestic and international surveillance, particularly after discovering that many of its surveillance targets were Americans.
Project Raven eventually shut down in 2016, and merged into a new Emirati company called Dark Matter, founded in 2015. Most of its American employees moved elsewhere. This is where Israel, another regional actor with shared concerns with Abu Dhabi, filled this crucial gap.
Dark Matter has attracted controversy; Google and Firefox have blocked the organization. Activists warn that its expertise could target human rights campaigners in the Emirates.
Dark Matter has attracted controversy; Google and Firefox have blocked the organization. Activists warn that its expertise could target human rights campaigners in the Emirates. It has also tried to hack Western targets, human rights activists, and journalists. Prominent Arab media figures who are opponents of the regime, including the founder of newspaper Al Araby Al Jadeed, Azmi Bishara, and its CEO Abdulrahman Elshayyal have been targeted; the media outlet has been banned in the UAE.
Dark Matter presents itself as a private cyber security company, but even the CEO Faisal al-Bannai admits its close ties with the Emirati authorities.
Al-Bannai quickly recognized the benefits of acquiring Israel’s cyber-security expertise for Dark Matter’s expansion. He told journalists visiting Dark Matter in early 2018, “the only country in the region that’s strong in cyber-security is Israel. Other than that, it’s blank.”
In October of this year, the Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper revealed that Dark Matter had been actively headhunting graduates from the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) Unit 8200 intelligence unit, enticing them with huge monthly salaries of $100,000, extra bonuses, and luxury homes in Cyprus. Such graduates work as software designers for Dark Matter’s Cyprus and Canada offices. Israeli programmers are also running the company’s Singapore office, according to the New York Times. Clearly offering enticing financial rewards has boosted the UAE’s ability to carry out surveillance, while Unit 8200 had since reportedly faced a brain drain.
The UAE in 2014 had hired Israeli company NSO, using the ‘Pegasus’ software to hack the iPhones of the Emir of Qatar, Tamin bin Hamad al Thani, and the Saudi prince Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah (who was a contender for the Saudi thrown at the time), and former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
While Dark Matter’s capabilities expanded thanks to these experienced Israelis, the UAE in 2014 had hired Israeli company NSO, using the ‘Pegasus’ software to hack the iPhones of the Emir of Qatar, Tamin bin Hamad al Thani, and the Saudi prince Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah (who was a contender for the Saudi thrown at the time), and former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hundreds of others were also targeted, including Turkey’s former Deputy Prime Minister, Mehmet Simsek, and Oman’s head of foreign affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah.
The targets of such attacks would receive a shady text message with a link; clicking it would then trigger the downloading of Pegasus. This would give the user of the software access to all contact details, text messages, emails and data from online platforms such as Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, WeChat and Telegram, thus enabling them to monitor the targets’ activities and receive information on their contacts.
NSO spy software was also used in baiting leading Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansour to activate this link, which would ultimately lead to the UAE controlling his iPhone 6 device. Emirati authorities could then track every mobile action of Mansour. After calling for reforms in Emirati politics on social media, in May 2018, he was sentenced to ten years in prison where he has been since in inhumane conditions in Abu Dhabi. Israeli technology had likely made it easier for Emirati authorities to monitor and then target Mansour.
Since then, a Qatari citizen and Mexican journalists have filed a lawsuit against NSO after the software Pegasus was used against them, raising alarm about the UAE’s capabilities to target any foreign national deemed a threat.
In August, spy planes were spotted taking off from Al-Dhafra airbase in Abu Dhabi. Haaretz obtained documents concerning these, revealing a transaction between UAE officials and Israeli businessman Matanya (Mati) Zvi Kochavi, founder of AGT International. The deal to deliver the spy planes, according to Haaretz, amounts to 3 billion shekels ($860 million according to the current exchange rate)—a further boost for Emirati capabilities in monitoring the region and its adversaries.
Kochavi, who is close to Israel’s military establishment, has provided basic domestic technology to Abu Dhabi, including surveillance cameras, electronic fences, and sensors to monitor strategic infrastructure and oil fields.
Furthermore, AGT international has also aided Emirati authoritarianism. The company has provided a vast civil surveillance network in Abu Dhabi so that “every person is monitored from the moment they leave their doorstep to the moment they return to it.”
Though Israel’s Defense Ministry has avoided commenting specifically on such ties with Emirati companies like Dark Matter, Israel reaps benefits from this too, aside from the obvious economic rewards.
The UAE utilizes Israeli technologies and security figures not just for spying on Emirati adversaries like Qatar, but also against Iran and Hezbollah.
The UAE utilizes Israeli technologies and security figures not just for spying on Emirati adversaries like Qatar, but also against Iran and Hezbollah. The cyber-security relationships thus enable Israel to acquire further information on the latter two, who are its major regional foes, thereby helping it outmaneuver them.
Ironically, Abu Dhabi avoids openly acknowledging these symbiotic relationships and recognizing Israel, as doing so could not only tarnish its image of having alleged concerns for the Palestinian cause but also trigger opposition from Emirati citizens.
Yet the UAE still benefits from an increasingly significant partnership, even as it uses these cyber-security ties for clearly malign purposes.