Israeli-backed internet cable aims to link country to Saudi Arabia and Gulf states
A major Israeli investment fund is backing a project “gaining traction” in Saudi Arabia to build a fibre-optic cable that would link the two countries and other Gulf states, Middle East Eye can reveal.
The proposed internet cable, known as the Trans Europe Asia System (TEAS), appears to be the first piece of infrastructure directly connecting Israel to the kingdom.
The project is also being backed by the Saudi-based Gulf Cooperation Council Interconnection Authority (GCCIA), a private company jointly owned by the six states of the GCC, which aims to build a cross-border power grid for the region.
The 20,000-kilometre cable will also run through four more GCC states - the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman - as well as Jordan and Palestine on a route between Marseille in France and Mumbai in India.
It is being heralded as “revolutionary” in the industry because it would be the first cable to run terrestrially across the Arabian Peninsula from Ras al Khair on the Gulf to Amman, and then onto Israel. A southern segment would also run along the seabed from the Indian Ocean through the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba.
Both routes would avoid Egypt, which currently dominates cable routes from Europe to the Middle East, Africa and Asia, accounting for up to 30 percent of global internet traffic.
Sources in the cable industry told MEE that the project has gained favour in Riyadh and is also being backed by the US government.
Others involved in the project are reported to include investors in the US and the UK and “former senior officers in the US Army”.
Industry insiders said the project had only become feasible in the wake of the September 2020 Abraham Accords, which normalised diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. Israel has also declared its intention to pursue a similar agreement with Saudi Arabia.
The TEAS project was promoted in December 2020 by Cinturion, a newcomer in the cables industry that is registered in Bermuda but based in New Jersey.
The backers of the privately developed cable have remained obscure, with no mention of strategic investors, or of Israeli or Saudi involvement, on Cinturion’s website or in press releases. Both countries are named on the website among the countries set to be linked by the cable.
The Israeli connection
Israeli involvement was revealed in January 2021 when the business daily Globes reported that Keystone, an Israeli infrastructure investment fund that has a majority stake in Egged, the national transportation company, had acquired a 25 percent stake in the project.
'This [is] an extraordinary investment, made during the period of normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab countries'
- Navot Bar, Keystone CEO
“This [is] an extraordinary investment, made during the period of normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab countries, which facilitates rapid progress with the project,” Navot Bar, Keystone’s CEO, was quoted as saying.
“Among Keystone's partners in the project are former senior officers in the US Army, British investors, and investors from the Gulf states and Israel.”
According to a Keystone presentation to the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange in 2022, the company owns 30 percent of the share capital of Cinturion, and has invested 7.5m Israeli shekels ($2.07m) out of a total investment of 30m Israeli shekels ($8.39m). The presentation also mentions a total construction cost for TEAS estimated at $900m.
The Israeli connection does not end there. Earlier in 2020, Cinturion entered into a partnership with New York-based investment firm Stonecourt Capital.
A managing partner at the firm, Lance Hirt, is on the executive board of Thrive Study Abroad Israel, which encourages students in the US to study in Israel and describes itself as being on “a mission to combat apathy, awaken Jewish identity, and activate passionate ambassadors for Israel”.
The programme also offers students the chance to take part in “Gadna - The Thrive Israeli Defense Force Army Experience”, in which they get the “opportunity to train as if… experiencing a day in the life of an IDF soldier going through basic training”.
Stonecourt has more direct links to Israel’s military industrial complex. One of its partners is Arik Arad, the former head of security for Israeli airline El Al at Ben Gurion Airport, and chairman of Israeli cyber aviation company CyViation, which includes Stonecourt Capital as an investor along with IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries), the country’s leading weapons manufacturer.
MEE could find no mention on Cinturion’s website of Keystone Fund’s investment, nor its partnership with Stonecourt Capital.
Asked for comment, Keystone referred MEE to Cinturion. Interview requests with Cinturion and Stonecourt Capital have gone unanswered.
Details about other investors in the project, or the identities of the “former senior officers in the US Army” have not been publicised.
Cinturion’s chairman and founder, Richard Marshall, is a retired senior US government employee who has worked for the Department of Defense (DoD), the National Security Agency (NSA), the White House and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), according to Marshall’s biography on the company’s website.
Marshall’s Facebook page describes him as a “Former Director of Global Cyber Security Management at DOD, NSA and DHS”.
According to Centurion's Facebook page, a former national security adviser to President Barack Obama, retired Marine General James L Jones is also an adviser.
Last year, Jones was revealed to have also worked as an adviser to the Saudi government and to the country's de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Jones' consultancy firm did not reply to an email request for comment about his role in Cinturion.
Another apparent link with the US government is a TEAS presentation in November 2022 at the US Embassy in Athens, promoted by Cinturion on its Facebook page, after the company signed an agreement with Greece’s Grid Telecom.
According to a submarine cable consultant that wanted anonymity, the involvement of the US government is “not a surprise” as Cinturion is “an American entrepreneurial start-up”.
Most of the cables through which global internet traffic flows are owned and operated by private companies. The NSA has typically leveraged private cables that have at least one US owner to exert influence, including tapping into cables for surveillance purposes, as exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013.
Washington is also highly concerned about the involvement of state actors such as China in reshaping the topology of the internet, and preventing the interception, disruption and manipulation of data.
Supporting the development of TEAS would meet such objectives in a critical geographic region with allies Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UK.
As Sunil Tagare, a submarine cable industry expert, noted in his blog OpenCables, “my prediction is that the next submarine cable wars for control over the global internet will be played in the Europe to Asia corridor”.
The Saudi connection
Saudi Arabia is also quietly involved in the TEAS project, according to the consultant. He said Cinturion was “gaining traction with Saudi authorities and entities”, including state-owned telecom provider STC and the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.
Riyadh is investing heavily to digitalise the economy as part of its plans to diversify away from hydrocarbons as part of Vision 2030. The aim is to be a digital hub for the region, by building data centres and for the multi-billion dollar Neom project to be a "smart city". To achieve such goals the country requires more high-speed internet connectivity through fibre-optic cables.
“Cinturion is getting to talk to Saudi ministers, and the US ambassador provided support. There has to be some strong relationships that have enabled Cinturion to get this far,” he said.
The involvement of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in the TEAS project was acknowledged by the GCCIA in its 2019 annual report, in which it said it had signed an agreement with a consortium of Saudi Arabia’s Etihad Atheeb Telecom and Cinturion “to construct and develop a fibre optic cable network project that links Europe, the Middle East and India (TEAS)”.
Asked why the Israeli-Gulf connection had not been disclosed more openly, the consultant said “the mere mention of Israel is very sensitive”.
“We’ve moved on from before the Abraham Accords, when you did not talk about Israel at all in terms of submarine cables, but still discretion is the better part of valour,” he said.
Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at Gulf State Analytics, a geo-strategic consultancy in Washington, expected Saudi Arabia’s “cyber authorities to be deeply involved in the project”, and also linked TEAS to the Abraham Accords.
“The Accords have a security-economic component that is not wreckable, but any connection Saudi Arabia has with Israel is kept very quiet,” he said.
‘A big step if openly allowed’
Cinturion’s reticence to mention the direct Israel-Saudi Arabia link contrasts sharply with Google’s approach to developing its Blue-Raman cable, which was also announced in 2020.
The Google cable also connects Saudi Arabia and Israel, but the cable was split in two for geopolitical reasons - with the Blue half running from Europe to Israel, while the Raman half connects Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Djibouti and India.
“It was important for Google to separate the two cables,” to not appear directly linked to Israel and Saudi Arabia, said another fibre-optic consultant, who wanted to remain anonymous.
Unlike major subsea cables that are usually developed by large consortiums of telecom companies, the Blue-Raman cable is being built by Google for its own use.
“Google’s modus operandi is generally to limit access to the cable for other players,” said the cable consultant. By doing so, Google has preferential access to the cable, and can charge other operators for using its fibre-optics.
In the case of TEAS, the consultant said “it makes sense to limit the participation and exposure of people trying to develop the cable. If it was a big consortium, you would be bound to have someone that is anti-Saudi, or has an issue with Israel, so the cable wouldn’t be able to move forward. That is the advantage of a private model, you can make decisions more easily.”
James Shires, a senior research fellow at Chatham House and author of Politics of Cybersecurity in the Middle East, said that any increased cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia “is a big step if openly acknowledged”.
“But what we’ve seen over the last decade or so is that none of the Gulf countries are adverse to cooperation [with Israel] that is not declared or done outside of the media spotlight. To me, [the obfuscated role of Israel and Saudi Arabia in the TEAS cable] might not be an intent to hide but a standard way of doing business,” said Shires.
The lack of transparency around TEAS is nonetheless puzzling to the cable industry. “Private cablers can use cloaks and daggers, but why would you want to surprise the market? A wholly privately funded cable is kind of unusual, particularly on this scale,” said the second consultant.
The consultant also questioned the cost of TEAS, stated in Keystone’s financial report as $900m, which is more than double that of the $400m Blue-Raman network.
“$900m is an inflated number for whatever reason. Maybe they are building data centres as well,” he said.
There is suspicion that the cable will be utilised by the Five Eyes, a signals intelligence alliance of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Israel is also suspected of being a partner of the US’s NSA.
“It is not unheard of for cables to be built that don’t make a load of commercial sense. Governments can have their own reason for doing things,” said the consultant.
Ultimately, the TEAS cable has political and economic attributes that make sense, giving the Israelis, Saudis and allies security advantages and being a conduit to drive forward plans to grow digital economies.
“If Saudi Arabia has well-used and developed internet access points, including where cables come ashore, that could be exploited for their intelligence gain and as a potential bargaining chip for intelligence exchanges with others. But overall, the economic regional relations are the main driver, and the security question is more relevant for certain agencies or players,” said Shires.