The Negev Forum is the latest attempt to engineer a regional security architecture for the Middle East, where U.S. partners and allies could work together on collective security and fill some of the gaps left by the United States’ pivot to Asia. The Negev Forum is the direct outcome of the Negev Conference, where Israel’s then-foreign minister and alternate prime minister, Yair Lapid, hosted his counterparts from Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the United States, and Bahrain. The inaugural summit was a success, if only for the formation of it. Cyberspace is one promising area in which Negev Forum member states could collaborate, expand the format to include more countries, and deliver tangible results. Going forward, the Negev Forum should pursue an ambitious, multifaceted Negev cyber force to defend the collective cyberspace of its member states.
The Negev Forum is a reflection of the shifting geopolitical environment in the broader Middle East. Israel’s gradual integration into the region diplomatically, politically, economically, and militarily started with the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords. While the accords codified the existing relations that Israel had with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco, they acted as a strategic launchpad for Israel’s positioning in the Middle East and beyond. The I2U2 format—comprising India, Israel, the United States, and the UAE—is founded on the Abraham Accords and the strategic alignment between the UAE and Israel. The Negev Summit’s significance is an active attempt by Israel to bring Egypt—the first and largest Arab state to normalize relations with Israel after decades of direct wars—into the Abraham Accords framework. While Jordan turned down the invitation to join the Negev conference, the United States is likely to lobby Amman to join the forum.
During the Cold War, the Middle East, like much of the world, was organized around two camps—the American-aligned camp and the Soviet-aligned camp. After the end of the Cold War, Washington became the undisputed hegemon in the Middle East and has since established strategic bilateral relations across the map. However, despite its massive power and status in the region, the United States was not able to transform its bilateral relations into a multilateral format that allowed Washington to dedicate resources adequately and empowered regional players to take on their defense against Iran. The root of this struggle to create a multilateral format in the Middle East was (and still is) the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which not only consumed Israel strategically but slowed down its strategic integration into the broader region. Differences among Arab states were a factor, but not at the same level as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Abrahamic Order
Regional capitals are scrambling to deal with the consequences of the United States Pivot to Asia. In their view, while the United States has maintained the same military footprint, Washington has a limited political commitment to the region and has deprioritized the region as a third-tier strategic theater after the Indo-Pacific and Europe. This development is tectonic and incentivizes regional powers to explore a multilateral framework to bolster collective security.
Washington is actively positioning the Negev Forum as a vehicle for building a security architecture that it can have major influence over without maintaining its large military footprint in the region. The Negev Forum is built on the Abraham Accords and its de-facto removal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a central point of the bilateral relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco. UAE-Israel relations are heading towards strategic alignment, from cyber to defense and security, and from the Negev Forum to the I2U2. Bahrain now hosts an Israeli naval officer, the first time an Israeli military officer has been officially posted in an Arab country. Morocco and Israel are stepping up their commercial and defense ties. Egypt and Jordan—the first two nations to normalize relations with Israel in return for their occupied lands—might leave behind their traditional cold peace approach to Israel and embrace the “Abrahamic Order” as the way forward for the region.
For instance, Cairo gave the Abraham Accords its full support, and President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi convened an Egyptian-Emirati-Israeli summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in March, in contrast to Cairo’s position in earlier decades, which tended to express concern about Arab “normalization” with Israel without addressing the Palestinian conflict. Cairo and Tel Aviv are working together in the eastern Mediterranean to position themselves as energy partners with Europe against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its impact on Europe’s energy security. Washington is actively working to enhance Jordan-Israel relations and bring Amman to the Negev Forum for its next summit.
In the Middle East, Cyber Matters
The Middle East has been one of the main battlefields for cyberwarfare operations. IBM Security released a study estimating that the average cost of a data breach incident per company in the Middle East is $6.53 million—almost double the global average incident cost of $3.86 million. In 2010, Iran discovered that Stuxnet, a U.S.-Israeli cyber worm, had targeted Tehran’s uranium centrifuges, reducing the Natanz nuclear facility’s operational capacity by 30 percent. The Stuxnet attack was a wake-up call for Iran, which studied Stuxnet and rebuilt its cyber capabilities and later deployed its Shamoon cyber malware against Saudi Arabia in a 2012 attack against Saudi Aramco, rendering over 35,000 computers unusable and causing massive damage. In 2017, Iran used its cyber weapons against Saudi Arabia once more when it attacked the Sadara Chemical Company and the Saudi National Industrialization Company (Tasnee), which severely damaged the companies’ operations and took months to recover from. In 2019, Iranian hackers attacked the systems of Bahrain’s national oil company with malware that wiped away data. Tehran never stopped targeting Gulf states’ oil and gas enterprises, which are cornerstones of the global economy and have been the target of prior attacks based on its past cyber operations and current capabilities.
Cyber is a clear vulnerability for the Arab nations in their intense gray-zone conflict with Iran, and building a cyber working group under the Negev Forum is low-hanging fruit for the forum. The Negev Forum’s proposed cyber task force wouldn’t start from scratch. Following the Abraham Accords, the UAE and Israel deliberately positioned cyber cooperation at the center of their gradual geostrategic realignment. The UAE’s cyber czar, Mohamed al-Kuwaiti, gave a speech in Tel Aviv in which he outlined the cyber risks the UAE faces and proposed working with Israel on artificial intelligence (AI), smart government, and cyber security. With Israel’s strength in deep tech, cyber security, and AI, and the UAE’s financial clout and advantage in scaling digital solutions, Abu Dhabi and Tel Aviv are forging a cyber coalition that takes advantage of each country’s comparative advantage. Such growing bilateral cyber cooperation between Israel and the UAE should be formalized and extended to all participants in the Negev Forum—Egypt, Bahrain, Morocco, and eventually Jordan.
To become a mechanism for geostrategic integration between the Arab states and Israel, the Negev Forum needs to establish an ambitious cyber agenda capable of delivering success. At the same time, this envisioned agenda must consider the seven decades of conflict between Israel and the Arab states and their subsequent suspicion, which slows down any attempt at regional integration between Tel Aviv and Arab capitals. Cybersecurity has a dual commercial and military nature, which could act as a confidence-building measure toward further bottom-up military and security integration in the long term.
The first move should be establishing a cyber working group that focuses on providing Arab states with Israeli cyber tools and know-how to help Cairo, Rabat, Abu Dhabi, and Manama boost their cyber defenses.
Mohammed Soliman is a global strategy advisor and a nonresident scholar at the Middle East Institute, and a visiting fellow at Third Way National Security. You can find him on Twitter at @Thisissoliman.