An Israeli businessman has spearheaded a multi-million dollar initiative to sell intelligence-gathering aircraft to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), ostensibly to spy on shared regional foe Iran.
According to an exposé by Haaretz, Israeli businessman Matanya “Mati” Kochavi has supplied the UAE with surveillance planes as part of a decade-long “secret mega deal”.
The exposé draws on documents obtained by the Israeli daily, some of which originated in the 2017 “Paradise Papers” leak by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Haaretz notes, however, that “the connection [of the deal] to Israel was unknown until now”.
The Paradise Papers documents reveal that the deal involved total payments of about three billion shekels ($846 million), large portions of which were paid for in cash by Emirati leaders.
Under this deal, the UAE Armed Forces “signed a contract with a huge company in [Emirati capital] Abu Dhabi called Advanced Integrated Systems [AIS]. The person now officially listed as CEO of AIS, Abdulla Ahmed Al Balooshi, is a member of an Emirates family known to be involved in the country’s intelligence establishment.”
The UAE’s President Khalifa Bin Zayed and his half-brother, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, are both named in legal documents relating to AIS.
Kochavi, through his Switzerland-based firm AGT International, “was one of the patrons of the deal”. In 2012, AGT purchased two executive jets from Canadian firm Bombardier for about €43 million ($48 million) per plane, and was then “responsible for providing a substantial amount of the [intelligence gathering] systems installed in the aircraft”.
The fitting of the aircraft with these AGT-procured systems was carried out by UK-based firm Marshall, which manufactures and modifies both military and commercial aircraft. Marshall’s cut of the deal amounted to $100 million.
However, as Haaretz points out, “it is interesting to discover that Israel’s name is totally absent from the hundreds of thousands of words describing the transaction in detail. The only mention of the country is in one document originating in Switzerland that describes the structure of AGT. It mentions in German that Kochavi is an Israeli citizen.”
The Israeli daily also notes that this deal is not Kochavi’s first project on behalf of the UAE, pointing to the installation of thousands of cameras, sensors and license-plate readers in Abu Dhabi in a bid to turn the capital into a “smart city”.
Kochavi refused to comment on Haaretz’s report, responding only through a PR agent.
Though the deal has been in the making for the past ten years, the first adapted aircraft was spotted carrying out test flights over the Gulf in the past few weeks, setting off from Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhafra Air Base and cruising over the country’s coastline.
The second plane is due to be sent to the UAE from the UK, where it is currently being fitted out, in the near future.
The move is expected to dramatically increase the UAE’s intelligence capabilities, with Haaretzexplaining that its new planes “will be able to intercept communications and to identify, locate and map electronic systems operated by Iran in real time – including radar and aerial defense systems that protect its nuclear installations”.
Given the escalation of tensions in the Gulf after several tankers were attacked or seized in the Strait of Hormuz – a strategic shipping lane between Iran and the UAE – as well as the apparent involvement of Israel in a US-led maritime mission to escort commercial ships through the Strait, the acquisition could stoke regional rivalries.
The revelations will also be seen as yet more evidence of the ever-strengthening relationship between Israel and the UAE, which has seen the two countries hold secret meetings to share intelligence on Iran, plan collaborative infrastructure projects and visits by Israeli delegates to the UAE.