Secretive Israeli billionaire helps UAE acquire spy planes

The United Arab Emirates purchased two surveillance jets from an Israeli billionaire to spy on Iran, Israeli newspaper Haaretz revealed this week.

The secret deal, signed almost 10 years ago, amounted to more than $800 million in total transactions.

Pictures of the aircraft undergoing testing over England were published online in 2017:

The deal was primarily signed between Emirati firm Advanced Integrated Systems (AIS) and Swiss firm AGT International, owned by Israeli billionaire Matanya “Mati” Kochavi.

Emirati leaders were also listed as involved in some of the deal’s transactions, including de facto ruler Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates.

AIS is headed by Abdulla Ahmed Al Balooshi, who the newspaper says is a “member of an Emirates family known to be involved in the country’s intelligence establishment.”

The planes are intended for the Emirates armed forces, however.

AIS signed a $700 million contract to supply aircraft for the Emirati military, Haaretz reported, and regularly provides its so-called security services to other governments as well as private entities.

The two executive jets were purchased in 2012 by Kochavi’s AGT from the Canadian firm Bombardier.

They were then sent to be refitted as spy planes by the British firm Marshall.

Details of the complex web of transactions to acquire the planes and transfer them to the Emirates was revealed in leaked emails and documents contained in the Paradise Papers trove.

One of the two aircraft began trial flights over the Gulf region in recent weeks, and both will be delivered to the Emirati armed forces soon. The second plane is still being completed and tested in Britain.

Once operational, the UAE 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,” according to Haaretz.

The planes could also be used to spy on the UAE’s “frenemy” Saudi Arabia, the newspaper added.

The Israeli behind the curtain

Kochavi is a secretive figure who heads several international corporations.

He employs former soldiers and agents from Israel’s army, the Shin Bet secret police and Israel’s deadly Mossad spy agency.

The billionaire has been central to advancing the United Arab Emirates’ intelligence reach.

In 2007, his firm AGT International signed another $6 billion deal with AIS to turn Abu Dhabi into a “smart city.”

Kochavi’s firm helped install thousands of cameras, license plate readers and surveillance devices along some of the UAE borders and throughout its capital.

Ironically, it was just such a surveillance system in Dubai, another Emirati city, that helped identify the Mossad agents who murdered a Hamas official in his hotel room in 2010, sparking a crisis between the secret allies. It is however unknown if Israel had any role in installing the Dubai system.

Mutual intelligence interests

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal revealed that despite having no formal diplomatic relations between the UAE and Israel, the two countries have been exchanging intelligence on Iran with the help of United States officials.

This information comes as no surprise.

Informal clandestine relations between the two states trace back to the 1990s and include military and intelligence cooperation.

Those relations have gained momentum in recent years as a Saudi-led group of Gulf states has solidified its alliance with Israel to confront Iran.

Since October, two Israeli government ministers have made public trips to the UAE.

The Israeli and Emirati air forces have also participated in joint military exercises since at least 2017.


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.