Friendly Adversaries: How Israelis Secretly Helped Build Up the UAE’s Military Capabilities
CTech – High salaries, special flights on private jets, alongside a demand for strict confidentiality that forced Israelis to make phone calls to home from out at sea, where no one could hear them talking to their families in Hebrew. Such was the life of the Israelis who for the past decade have had a major hand in building the UAE’s security infrastructure.
As early as 2009, Israeli UAV manufacturer Aeronautics, then headed by Avi Leumi, first signed a deal to sell its Dominator drones to Abu Dhabi. It was just the appetizer: in collaboration with Italian company Piaggio Aerospace, the Israeli company offered to sell the Arab country a giant UAV based on an Italian-made manned aircraft in a project worth $500 million, dubbed “Sea Wolf.” The planned deal had even drawn investments from VC funds like Viola Ventures and KCPS.
Aeronautics employees began carrying out clandestine training sessions with the drone operators in Abu Dhabi, flying under foreign passports, introducing themselves to the soldiers they instructed using foreign names to blur the Israeli connection. The officers knew the truth, but the Israelis were forbidden to leave the military bases they were working in or the hotels they were put up in.
Despite the lavish settings, it wasn’t an easy or alluring life for them. The young employees, mostly in their late twenties and early thirties, some of them family men, faced difficulty maintaining contact with home. They were forbidden to speak to their families in Hebrew for fear of exposing themselves, so in order to bypass the prohibition, they’d enter the sea with phones wrapped in nylons, move a distance away from the coast and then dial Israel to speak to their wives and children. Despite the inconveniences, however, Aeronautics had no difficulty recruiting team members for the project by offering generous salaries.
The trouble was that, contrary to Leumi’s promises, the Ministry of Defense did not approve the Israeli involvement in the development and delivery of the giant drone to the Gulf state. A plane that arrived from Italy to be converted for unmanned flight remained parked for many years on an Israeli landing strip. After Leumi was fired from the company, his successor was surprised to find a letter of commitment sent by Leumi to Abu Dhabi confirming that the company owed the state $18 million paid to it as an advance on the project, a debt that accompanied the company for many years until it was paid off. The Italians ended up completing the deal with other partners, but it was not a success.
The unfortunate turn of events did not prevent Aeronautics from taking another bite of the UAE apple. After Leumi’s departure, he maintained his ties in the Gulf and linked the company to another deal for the purchase of Orbiter drones by Abu Dhabi. This one, worth $20 million, did go through.
Another Israeli company that made handsome profits from doing business with Dubai is Logic Industries, run by Amos Malka, a subsidiary of Mati Kochavi’s AGT. The cybersecurity company accumulated $8 billion worth of contracts for the sale of observation intelligence planes, a coastal protection system, and a land-border defense network. The company also built a national command and control network. It is believed that the network of CCTV cameras that aided the Dubai police to hunt for the people behind the 2010 assassination of Hamas military chief Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh — allegedly Israeli Mossad agents — was built by Israelis.
Logic recruited several companies run by former IAI, Elbit, and Rafael managers, aided by Bird — a small Herzliya-based defense company — and a Dutch partner, to carry out the project. Israeli know-how, combined with parts purchased in Europe, is what made up the largest defense undertakings in the Persian Gulf. Lots of money flowed into the projects and even relatively junior managers pulled in salaries of $200,000 a year.
At the start of every week, 50 Israelis would take off to a third country in the region and from there, without stamping their passports, would board private executive jets to take them to Dubai. They would do the same route back on the weekend. “The company’s motto at the time was ‘money is not a problem,’” said a former Logic employee. The projects were completed near the end of 2015 and Logic subsequently closed down.
Some of the big Israeli defense contractors tried to enter the UAE market through Logic’s projects. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems tried to get its Proctor unmanned patrol boats into the UAE coastal defense project, but the deal was not completed.