Volume 22 Issue 1, January 2018


Those familiar with Middle East politics are aware that the region is characterized by multiple destabilizing dynamics like the decades old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the historical Sunni-Shia divide, the Saudi-Iranian opposition - all rooted in cultural, religious and political divisions. To this, of late, has been added the Saudi -Israeli rapprochement against Iran. An American investigative journalist, Robert Parry, best known for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, has gone to the extent of suggesting that Saudi Arabia paid as much as US $16 billion to Israel for this alliance.

Early signs of a thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel became discernable in 2013, when during a UN General Assembly session, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that the ‘The dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and emergence of other threats in our region have led many of our Arab neighbours to finally recognize that Israel is not their enemy. And this affords us the opportunity to overcome the historic animosities and build new relationships, new friendships, and new hopes.’ Saudi Arabia heard the message and the Jeddah-based Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies responded positively by stating that Saudi Arabia would open an embassy in Tel Aviv if Israel accepted a Saudi initiative to end the Middle East conflict.

Officially, Saudi Arabia and Israel have no diplomatic relations since the Jewish state has come into existence - for the simple reason that the political cost for Riyadh to recognize Israel will be enormous and perhaps unbearable. But unofficially, since the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and signing in 2015 of the Iranian nuclear deal with a group of world powers known as P5+1, Saudi Arabia and Israel have been drawn closer and have begun to see the Iranian threat as their common enemy. The recent firing of missiles from Yemen into Saudi Arabia has further fueled these fears. In essence, the strong driver for Israel-Saudi Arabia rapprochement is the unstable equilibrium in the Middle East. President Donald Trump has since gone cold on the nuclear agreement but that hasn’t alleviated Israeli-Saudi fears as Iran has stepped up pursuit of longer-range and more reliable missile technology. In a strange twist of global politics, the US has economic interests in Iran and Trump probably sees Iran as the only potent countervailing force to resurgence and spread of ISIS in the region.
Whichever way one looks at it, there is a fundamental shift in Middle East politics from the 60s and 70s when there was the old bi-polarism of ‘Israel versus Arab States.’ The present-day trend may lead to the forming of new alliances comprising Gulf monarchies and Israel. This could take on the growing power of Iran which has been a very old rival of Saudi Arabia.
The rivalry has been deeply rooted in the historic Shia-Sunni conflict and also ingrained in the different cultures of the two countries. Israel has been a dominant military power in the region for decades and also the only country in the Middle East to possess a huge nuclear arsenal. Iran has a hybrid democracy-theocracy system of governance with all powers vested in the hands of the supreme leader. It has made no secret of its support for Shia Islam just as Saudi Arabia has left no stone unturned in promoting the puritanical version of Islam.

As a signatory of the NPT, Iran considers pursuance of peaceful acquisition of nuclear power under the watchful eye of the IAEA. That doesn’t satisfy Israel and Saudi Arabia which see a revolutionary and reformist Iran as anathema. The shifting of power in the hands of the younger generation of Saudis like Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubair has heated up Middle Eastern politics. Saudi Arabia fears that if Iran becomes a nuclear state, its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon will increase significantly. It visualizes this evolving situation as loaded towards a direct clash with Iran which, in its reckoning, can only be staved off with a nuclear deterrence and that is where Israel figures in the equation.

In the past, former Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad’s threat to wipe Israel off the world map and his denial that the holocaust ever occurred have only further heightened Israeli’s anxieties. Saudi Arabia, on its part, sees any unshackling of Iran’s trade regimes with the west as detrimental to its financial interests since higher volumes of oil flow from Iran will almost certainly depress global prices thus hitting Saudi Arabia’s hydrocarbon-based economy rather hard. In the current global geo-political environment, the more vertical Iranian military power grows, the lesser will be the divergence between Israel and Saudi Arabia in their regional political and security orientation. Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq, its strategic ties with Syria, its pursuit of nuclear capability or cutting edge missile technology, success of its allies like Hezbollah and Hamas - all encourage Iran in its ambitions for pre-eminence in the region, while the diplomatic efforts of regional Sunni Muslim states to limit Iran’s gains fall well short.

During the eight years presidency of Barak Obama, relations between the US and Israel were not at their best as Israel felt Obama was too soft on Iran. In that sense, Israel felt abandoned by US - a feeling also shared by Saudi Arabia for the same reason. If the recent hardline stance by incumbent President Donald Trump against Iran has eased Israeli anxiety to any degree, it is not going to admit it publically. A possible Israeli-Saudi friendship could therefore be a diplomatic maneuver which would threaten the old regional balance and replace it with a new order, the dynamics of which have yet to fully pan out. There is also the issue of ascendant Islamic nationalist movements in moderate Arab states to contend with.

The recent move by President Trump to name Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has all the potential to throw Middle East politics into a new turmoil. It had always been thought that the status of Jerusalem was a pivotal issue which would be decided upon by Palestine and Israel in a negotiated settlement. Trump’s announcement is being termed by the Palestinians as an end of their hopes. They demand East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. It also dampens the Palestinians’ hope for diplomatic efforts. These already seem to have brought no gains to them and will now lead to more violence. Saudi Arabia was hoping that somehow it could re-kindle peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians but now it believes its hopes will dashed. It will be difficult for Riyadh to remain isolated from its domestic public opinion if Jerusalem’s new status leads to turmoil in the Arab and Muslim world.

It is not certain how successful will an Israel-Saudi Arabia alliance be in containing Iran. The concept - ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ - first espoused by Chanakya in the second century AD in the context of conquerors, natural enemies and lesser enemies or allies, is clearly manifested in this relationship.

The writer is a retired Vice Admiral of the Pakistan Navy.

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