Israeli Ministry of Defense paused a large arm sale to a Middle Eastern nation when the Saudi-Iranian deal was announced.

TEL AVIV — The new agreement restoring diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia may not be a regional game-changer as some have claimed. But it is already having an impact on how Israel views implementation of the Abraham Accords and its efforts to establish relations with its Arab neighbors.

According to government sources, the deal has already resulted in the halting of negotiations over an “advanced defense system” that Israel was in discussions to sell to an Arab nation, with a potential $1 billion price tag. The Israeli Ministry of Defense declined to comment, but sources said the MoD asked for the pause in order to evaluate the risk that the new agreement between Riyadh and Tehran could eventually result in the transfer of Israeli tech to Iran.

“The Iran–Saudi agreement casts a big shadow over other similar potential deals. Jerusalem will now have to rethink what to do when it sees the Iranian muscle flexing in contradiction to the vague US policy in the region,” one source said.

Israel is also realizing it has to deal with the clear Chinese effort to become a major player in the Gulf region and Africa, a tricky situation as Jerusalem, at the urging of Washington, has been disentangling itself from relations with Beijing for several years. As reported by Breaking Defense, Israel has been warned by the US to take the “needed actions” while letting Chinese companies work on major programs in Israel that have any relation to defense issues. Washington has also put pressure on Israel over Chinese port developments.

Also concerning in Jerusalem is the sense, Israeli sources said, that in Tehran there is a belief China’s involvement in the region will shield them from an attack by Israeli if Tehran pushes towards a nuclear bomb.

“China pushes forward and achieves meaningful targets. This while the US is losing its status mainly in Saudi Arabia,” Amos Yadlin, a retired Maj. Gen. who led Israel’s intelligence directorate, told Breaking Defense. “The Saudis want to get something from Washington before they make a normalization move towards Israel — like a civil nuclear program. The way to Jerusalem goes through Washington.”

In an analysis Yadlin wrote for the Israeli Mako news website, he notes that “Saudi Arabia and Iran will remain enemies on a religious, ideological and strategic level, and it is not at all clear that they will be able to bridge the hatred and differences between them within two months, as the agreement stipulates. For example, it is doubtful whether Iran will be able to fulfill its commitment and force the Houthis, who are acting relatively independently, to completely cease attacks against Saudi Arabia from Yemeni territory.”

The Chinese effort to achieve deeper penetration into African and Gulf states is reaching a new peak. Israeli sources say that China has stepped up its ballistic missiles program with Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s China sold some ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia. These have been upgraded but Riad wants new designs and China was ready to help in achieving that goal.

Chinese Outreach To Africa

The combination of the Iran–Saudi agreement and the problems encountered by the Russian defense industry due to the war in Ukraine will directly affect the status of China as an arms supplier to countries in Africa. According to an announcement made earlier this month, Saudi Arabia has set aside $800 million for development initiatives in Africa and Asia, and sources indicate a belief that this may help open doors for China as an arms supplier on the continent.

“As the Chinese do with their economic programs in Africa, they will do now with the increased sales of their weapons to African states and that will further increase their impact,” an Israeli source predicted to Breaking Defense.

According to Israeli sources, the war in Ukraine that has exhausted many of the Russian arms that helped charge conflicts in Africa. China, source say, is hoping to move fast and fill that gap.

Galia Lavi, a senior researcher in the Israeli institute for national security studies (INSS), told Breaking Defense the Chinese, when talking to African nations, point to how America has drawn back from the Middle East. The message, he said, is “The Americans left. We are here to supply economic help and now military help.”

Uzi Rabi, an expert on Middle Eastern and African issues from the Dayan center in Israel told Breaking Defense that the Chinese penetration into Africa should be one of the top worries of the US. He pointed to the fact that China in 2016 established a naval base in Djibouti. The United States, France, India, and Japan also have bases in this area that controls the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

“Beijing was very fast to take advantage of the diminishing status of the US in the region and now with Russia’s problems, their actions will be even easier,” Rabi said.

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