The Arab balancing act as Iran and Israel raise the stakes

Jordan was thrust into the spotlight in the early hours of Sunday as an inadvertent — and to some, unwanted — Israeli ally, after its jets shot down dozens of the Iranian missiles and drones fired at Israel that crossed into its air space.

The kingdom has been a fierce critic of Israel’s war in Gaza, and framed its actions in countering Tehran as a necessary move to “ensure” the safety of its citizens, rather than a defence of Israel.

Officials in Israel have hinted that other Arab states also helped, either by opening their skies or offering intelligence and early detection assistance. One western official said Saudi Arabia provided assistance on the night.

But only Jordan has publicly acknowledged playing any role as Iran’s attack underscored the region’s already fraught dynamics.

“[Jordan] might be taking a risk if things escalate,” said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of the kingdom, but “so far it’s a limited risk”.

“It’s not pro-Israeli,” he said of Amman’s actions. “It was a way to prevent an escalation. Nobody would benefit, especially Jordan, from an escalation of hostilities beyond Gaza.”

Israeli officials have sought to emphasise the help provided by its neighbours — as well that from the US, UK and France — with war cabinet minister Benny Gantz praising the “regional co-operation”.

Arab governments, by contrast, have mostly said very little, neither confirming nor denying any involvement. They have called for restraint, as the region teeters closer to the war that many have feared since Hamas’s deadly October 7 assault on Israel. 

An anti-missile system operates after Iran launched drones and missiles towards Israel © Amir Cohen/Reuters

For Jordan, the balancing act is particularly difficult. The kingdom shares a border with the Jewish state and is the custodian of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, which necessitates regular co-operation with Israeli authorities. Amman also fears that Israel’s war against Hamas could spill over its border, particularly from the occupied West Bank.

But its response to Tehran’s attack — which followed a suspected Israeli strike on an Iranian consulate in Syria this month that killed senior members of its Revolutionary Guard — was roundly condemned by many inside the country, who denounced the defence of Israeli interests at the expense of their own.

“It’s one thing to let coalition planes use your air space, it’s quite another to actively shoot down those drones and risk the safety of your people for the sake of a country that’s committing genocide against our Palestinian brothers,” said a 30-year-old Jordanian woman, who requested anonymity as she feared reprisal for criticising the government. 

Her comments were echoed on social media, where footage circulated showing downed fragments of missiles and drones falling into residential neighbourhoods of Jordanian cities. 

More than two-thirds of Jordan’s population claim Palestinian heritage, the first Palestinians arrived having fled or been forced from their homes following the establishment of Israel in 1948. 

An excavator clears rubble after a suspected Israeli strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus © Firas Makdesi/Reuters

Confirming that Jordan had intercepted several of the projectiles, Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Safadi said: “Let me be very clear — we will do the same, regardless where those drones are from: from Israel, from Iran and from anybody else.”

Since at least 2022, Jordan, Israel and Arab allies have participated in the Middle East Air Defense Alliance led by US military’s central command (Centcom), whose radar and early warning network provided tracking of the drone and missile launches.

Jordan has diplomatic ties with Iran, although the relationship is frosty. The tensions were underlined when Iran threatened that Jordan would be its “next target” if it co-operated with Israel, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, the two biggest powers in the Gulf, are equally wary of Iran. They have long considered Iran to be a malign actor and a hostile power in their backyard.

But they have also sought to cool tensions across the region in recent years, including efforts to improve relations with Iran — Saudi Arabia restored diplomatic ties with Tehran in a Chinese-brokered deal last year.

At the same time, they were moving closer to Israel. The UAE normalised ties with the Jewish state in 2020 and Saudi Arabia was edging closer to a similar US-backed deal before Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel triggered the war in Gaza.

In the months since, their concerns have shifted to the conflict in Gaza and the risks of a broader regional conflagration erupting that could spill over their borders.

After October 7, the UAE advised Washington that it would want to be approached for approval before the US launched any military operations from its territory. It cautioned that it did not want any US assets in the Gulf state to be used against Iranian targets.

This approach was born out of uncertainty over the degree to which the US was committed to defend the UAE from a counterstrike from Iran or Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen with more missile defence and more intelligence.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian urged Israel not to retaliate to the attack, which Tehran presented as a justified response to the strike on the consulate in Damascus © Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

The UAE and Saudi Arabia did not join a US-led maritime task force to deter Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea last year, despite them leading an Arab coalition that intervened in Yemen’s civil war.

For Saudi, the calculations have been similar to its Gulf neighbour.

Ali Shihabi, a Saudi commentator close to the royal court, said Riyadh would not officially allow the US to use its territory for actions against Iran, but “it may if the US assumed responsibility for the consequences”. But the kingdom was wary of the dangers of escalation, “because ultimately, there’s a high risk they would pay a price”.

“Everyone would want Iran’s capabilities to be diminished because Iran is a malign actor and threatens the security of the Gulf,” Shihabi said. “But they don’t want to be seen to be part of an attack unless America comes in full blast . . . they aren’t going to go out on a limb.”

Saudi analyst Aziz Alghashian said it was unlikely that Saudi Arabia had intercepted any Iranian missiles, as they did not want to be seen as taking sides, citing the kingdom’s decision not to join the US-led maritime coalition. 

“Riyadh was trying to avoid precisely this kind of scenario,” said H.A. Hellyer, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It’s an escalation on top of an escalation, without any benefit to Saudi interests.”

There has also long been frustration in Saudi Arabia and the UAE at the US’s perceived tepid responses to attacks against their interests, including a strike on Saudi oil infrastructure in 2019 that was blamed on Iran, and Houthi missile and drone assaults on Abu Dhabi in 2022.

“While Saudi understands that the Israel-US dynamic is different, Saudi believes that it doesn’t burden the US as much as Israel burdens the US, yet receives treatment that is (almost) unconditional,” Alghashian said.

Additional reporting by Neri Zilber in Tel Aviv and James Shotter in Jerusalem

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