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ConflictsMiddle East

Why did some Arab countries appear to help Israel?

April 14, 2024

Some analysts saw the fact that Arab nations helped Israel and the US repel a major Iranian attack as cause for celebration. But countries like Jordan have more complicated motivations for coming to Israel's aid.

Israeli Air Force F-15 Eagle is pictured at an air base, said to be following an interception mission of an Iranian drone and missile attack on Israel.
US and UK planes joined the Israeli air force in shooting down Iranian missiles and drones, with help from some Arab countriesImage: Israel Defense Forces/Handout via REUTERS

Iran launched more than 300 drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday night in retaliation for a suspected Israeli attack on its embassy in Damascus at the beginning of April. As the missiles and slow-moving drones were heading toward Israel, Israel's allies stepped in to help.

The US and UK air forces were involved in shooting down the aerial threats. France may also have been involved in patrolling the area, although it was unclear if the French shot down any projectiles.

But what got a lot of attention was the fact that the Jordanian air force also stepped in to help. Jordan opened up its airspace to Israeli and US planes, and also apparently shot down drones that violated its own airspace.

According to the Reuters news agency, residents there heard heavy aerial activity and images of remnants of a downed drone in the south of Amman, Jordan's capital, circulated on social media.

"Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, might have played an indirect role as well, since they host Western air-defense systems, surveillance and refueling aircraft that would have been vital for the effort," noted British publication The Economist.

Online, some commentators were quick to celebrate the Arab involvement. They said it proved Arabs and Israelis could work together and that Israel was not alone in the Middle East.


"Iran's attacks also rallied new international support behind Israel, including from key Arab states critical of the Gaza offensive that nonetheless supported the Israeli military response to the drone attacks," Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, confirmed in a statement on Sunday.

Jordan, for example, has been highly critical of Israel's military campaign in Gaza, which has continued over the weekend. One in five people in Jordan are of Palestinian descent, including the country's own queen, and over the past few weeks there have been increasingly aggressive protests against Israel.

At the same time, though, Jordan shares a border with Israel, is the guardian of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, a highly significant place for Muslims, Christians and Jews, and regularly works together with Israeli authorities, albeit often behind the scenes.

Jordan, Saudi Arabia face tricky balancing act

Jordanian authorities, which also consider the US an important ally, must balance all of those competing interests, its political stability and its own self-defense. Jordan was quick to say that in helping Israel, it was actually defending itself. 

"Some objects that entered our airspace last night were intercepted because they posed a threat to our people and populated areas," the Jordanian government said in a statement. "Several fragments [of downed targets] fell on the country's territory without causing any significant damage."

Emile Hokayem, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Jordan's involvement was in part "about Jordan proving it is a good partner of the US."

Saudi Arabia is another country that has had to balance its own interests, international alliances and realpolitik with appearances around the Gaza conflict.

The wealthy Gulf state was poised to normalize relations with Israel before the October 7 attacks by the Gaza-based militant group, Hamas, that resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 people in Israel. But after Israel launched its military campaign in Gaza, where more than 33,000 people have been killed over the past six months, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry, those plans were put on hold.

The Saudi government has welcomed calls for a cease-fire in Gaza and has been critical of Israel's conduct there. But insiders regularly concede that privately, the Saudis are still interested in improving relations with Israel.

Long-standing conflict between Iran and Gulf

Whether they intervened on Israel's behalf over the weekend or not, the Saudis have other reasons for being willing to down Iranian missiles.

The Middle East has been split along religious-sectarian lines for decades, with certain Gulf Arab states and their Sunni Muslim majority populations facing off against Iran, which is seen as a leader in Shiite Islam. Basically, the enmity can be seen as similar to earlier conflicts in Europe, when the two main sects of Christianity — Protestants and Catholics — were warring rivals.

Central Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, whose populations are a mixture of Shiite and Sunni Muslims, as well as other religions and ethnicities, have been caught in the middle as both Iran and the Gulf states have tried to build up influence there.

This is where what are known as Iran's "proxies" come into it. This group includes Shiite Muslim organizations that Iran supports financially, militarily, logistically and even spiritually, to some degree. Yemen's Houthi rebels, the militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq and the political and military group Hezbollah in Lebanon are all members of this Iran-sponsored alliance. The Hamas group is also supported by Iran but is an exception, as it is actually Sunni Muslim, along with most Palestinians.

These groups fired rockets toward Israel from Yemen, Syria and Iraq last night, as part of the Iranian offensive. In Iraq, reports suggest the US military based there shot down some of those rockets. It's unclear whether the Saudis intercepted any coming from Yemen, but they have done so before, late last year.

"For regional players, particularly Saudi Arabia and Jordan — who have reportedly intercepted Iranian drones — the argument will be that they are rightfully safeguarding their sovereign airspace," Masoud Mostajabi, deputy director of the Middle East Programs at the US-based Atlantic Council, argued in an analysis published late Saturday

"However, if tonight's attacks escalate into a wider Israel-Iran conflict, regional actors perceived as defenders of Israel may find themselves targeted and dragged into the regional conflagration […] Given the incentives at play, it's likely that regional leaders will be motivated to act between both parties to bring this confrontation to a close," he concluded.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.