What Saudi-Israeli rapprochement means for the MENA region

By Zeenat Adam

The recent visit by US President Joe Biden to Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territory and Saudi Arabia was underwhelming, but cast a spotlight on the unprecedented rapprochement underway between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In what appears to have been an entrenchment of the “deal of the century” and the Abraham Accords initiated by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, the visit not only reinforced the “normalisation” of relations between various Arab states and Israel, but also took additional steps towards concretising an anti-Iran alliance, and endorsing closer security and military cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel’s occupation of Palestine was a marginal issue on the agenda, and Biden’s statement about a “two-state solution” and his assertion that “the ground is not ripe” for negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians reinforced the notion that he had no political will to end Israel’s colonialism, and that, in fact, he was content with a perpetual Israeli military occupation. Meanwhile, Arab states continue to abandon the Palestinians to a fate of apartheid and slow genocide.

In the context of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Biden had passionately asserted that Saudi Arabia was a pariah state, but his visit has exposed him as a geriatric figurehead for the US political machinery that has not deviated from its pro-Zionist positions, despite heightened expectations that emerging Democratic Party leaders such as congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar might shift US policies to a more balanced position in addressing human rights atrocities in the Middle East.

Biden’s statements indicated that journalists like Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh, who were both vehement advocates for human rights, and who exposed the Saudi and Israeli regimes for their atrocities, are dispensable in the interests of US strategic considerations. The Biden administration makes no apologies or excuses for its hypocritical stance in relation to Khashoggi (who, at the time of his murder, was a resident of the US), despite a US intelligence assessment blaming the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), of possibly having authorised the killing. In preparation for his visit, his administration backtracked on its previous position on Saudi Arabia, including the 2021 freezing of sales of “offensive weapons” to the kingdom. The new soundbite of Biden’s team was “reorient — but not rupture — relations with a country that’s been a strategic partner for 80 years”. It is therefore unsurprising that Biden has shied away from raising matters of human rights concern with Saudi Arabia, praising that country for cosmetic changes, while MBS’s draconian policies continue with the unlawful and extrajudicial incarceration and execution of dissidents who he views as a threat to his authoritarian rule.

Saudi Arabia has refrained from any commitment to normalising relations with Israel, and has maintained that peace with the Palestinians would be a prerequisite, based on the Arab Peace Initiative that Saudi Arabia had championed. Biden’s visit has highlighted that the Arab Peace Initiative is dead, and the skies are clear for deepening relations with Israel.

Before Biden’s visit, MBS had embarked on a tour of the region that included cosying up to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ushering in a “new era of cooperation” that would include billions of dollars of Saudi investments into the struggling Turkish economy, and Saudi’s possible purchase of drone technology from Türkiye. Ahead of the visit, Erdogan controversially transferred the Khashoggi case to Riyadh, ending any possibility of justice and accountability for the journalist’s murder. These moves are largely seen in the context of Türkiye’s internal politics that will likely see Erdogan fighting for political legitimacy in next year’s election, in the face of growing opposition.

Türkiye’s relations with Israel have also transformed after Israeli the visit of the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog to Ankara in March 2022 – the first visit of its kind in more than a decade. Although Erdogan and Herzog announced a turning point in relations between their countries, they agreed that there was a divergence of views regarding Israel’s occupation and Türkiye’s support for Palestinian resistance movements. Nevertheless, it is clear that Türkiye has moved on from Israel’s attack on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, off the Gaza coast in 2010.

More significant cooperation in the context of regional relations was evident in June 2022 when Turkish authorities foiled a plan for Iranian attacks on Israelis ahead of the visit to Istanbul by Yair Lapid, then Israeli foreign minister (now prime minister). The arrests of Iranian agents happened as Iran-Israel tensions heightened, after the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) office, Colonel Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, in his Tehran home on 22 May; Iran blamed Israel for the killing. The arrests also followed Israeli air raids on Iranian military installations in Syria. The Türkiye-Qatar-Iran entente concretised during the four-year-long blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain, appears to be mutating amidst the changing landscape of the region. The trilateral alliance hinged on common cause regarding Palestine, and deterring the prospect of war with Iran.

Qatar paid the price then for not toeing the Saudi-led line on an anti-Iran alliance, being determined, instead, to craft its own foreign policy. It appears now that Qatar has been artful in its mediation, balancing along fragile fault lines and craftily supporting a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear deal. Its shuttle diplomacy and hosting indirect talks between Tehran and Washington in Doha seeks to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf, where Qatar shares a lucrative and strategic gas field, the South Pars/North Dome Gas-Condensate field, with Iran. But these diplomatic manoeuvres are unlikely to steer too far from the trajectory that has been cast by larger powers in the region, including Saudi Arabia; the recent mending of Gulf relations with Qatar is still too fragile for the Qataris to rock the boat.

While Qatar’s efforts to mediate between the USA and Iran on a return to the JCPOA has not yet produced the desired results, Doha has proposed hosting a regional dialogue between Iran and the GCC+ nations (the six GCC members – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – together with Egypt, Iraq and Jordan), for which Iran has shown enthusiasm.

Concurrently, while Qatar may continue to be a firm critic of the Israeli military occupation of Palestine, and it repeatedly claims that it will not entertain the notion of normalisation with Israel while Palestine remains occupied, it does, however, maintain a “working relationship” with Israel in the context of negotiating aid for the besieged Gaza Strip. Publicly, though, tensions appear to have deepened after the murder of Al Jazeera journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, and previous attacks by Israel on Qatari assets in Gaza, including Al Jazeera offices and the Hamad Bin Khalifa hospital. Interestingly, earlier in July 2022, Israeli military officials were surreptitiously dispatched to Qatar’s Al-Udeid base, headquarters of the US Central Command (Centcom). Israel was included in Centcom in 2021, in line with plans for normalisation. In addition, it was recently reported that senior Qatari officials attended a secret meeting convened by US military officials in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in March 2022, purportedly organised to explore coordination against the “Iranian threat” of improving missile and drone capabilities.

The Emiratis proudly boast of their love affair with Israel in the past two years. Emirati leader, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), has paraded Israeli delegations before the world’s cameras and has cultivated strong military ties with the Zionist state.

Although Biden’s visit is considered the first open acknowledgement of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the two states have maintained in covert cooperation for many years, and steps towards overt diplomatic and intelligence ties were in the pipeline for at least two years. In 2019, the former Saudi intelligence chief, Turki Al Faisal, disclosed that clandestine relations between Israel and most Gulf States had been ongoing for at least 25 years. In November 2020 it was widely reported that Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, secretly travelled to Neom, Saudi Arabia, for the first known meeting between MBS and a senior Israeli official, signalling a potential breakthrough for Israel as it strives for acceptance in the region. Although the Saudis denied the encounter, Israeli media reported that Netanyahu spent many hours with MBS, and the two were joined by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Mossad director Yossi Cohen. MBS has even gone as far as calling Israel a “potential ally”.

MBS has used soft diplomacy tactics, welcoming Israeli visitors as tourists, businesspersons, and, more recently, military personnel. Through his modernisation drive and Vision 2030, he also touts Saudi Arabia as a futuristic destination that has transformed from its previous image as a conservative religious nation. His critics argue that MBS has abandoned core Islamic values by redesigning school curricula, promoting international music concerts, supporting Saudi social media influencers to praise Israel, appointing a pro-Zionist imam to lead the Hajj prayer in Arafat, and describing Palestinians as ungrateful.

Saudi defence expenditure since MBS’s rise has been superfluous. Had Saudi Arabia taken a different course and not proceeded to entertain relations with Israel, it could have provided some form of deterrence to the Zionist state, considering its prolific shopping spree of military hardware in the past five years. Under MBS’s leadership and ambition, Saudi Arabia’s defence expenditure reached an all-time high in 2015 at the apex of the war on Yemen. While there has been a considerable effort to decrease defence spending in recent years, the kingdom remains one of the largest arms’ importers globally. With new goals on the horizon, Saudi Arabia is now building its local military production capability. The military might has, however, not deterred drone attacks on Aramco oil infrastructure, allegedly by Iranian proxies. Israel has punted the notion of a Middle East Air Defence Alliance to act as an early-warning mechanism against potential Iranian threats. In addition, Israel is campaigning to sell its laser-powered air defence system to Arab states aligned against Iran. Israel’s other defence equipment is marketed as “battle-tested” or “combat-tested”, meaning that these sophisticated weapons have been tested against Palestinian civilians – in clear violation of international law, but this humanitarian tenet does not seem to bear any weight with megalomaniacs in the Gulf. Meanwhile, Iraq continues its efforts to bridge relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Since April 2021, the Iraqis have facilitated five sessions of talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with a public meeting expected soon.

In the early 2000s, following the American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent growth of Iranian influence in Iraq, Jordanian King Abdullah II raised an alarm for what he termed the “Shi’a crescent” of influence by Iran that needed to be counter-balanced by an Arab alliance. Almost 20 years since he coined the phrase, the perceived threat of Iranian hegemony in the region continues to dominate the political psyche. King Abdullah recently said that he would support the notion of a Middle East alliance, similar to NATO. The perceived Iranian threat seems to be a unifying force for some Arab States that fear growing Iranian influence through proxies and partners in Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Israel has already concluded military cooperation deals with Morocco, the UAE and Bahrain (where a military attaché has been deployed).

The Russia-Ukraine war has not only impacted on the exorbitant oil prices but is ushering in global polarity similar to that during the Cold War. Saudi Arabia was cautious in playing its cards and, stopped short of severing ties with Russia under duress from the USA. Russian and Chinese influence in the Middle East has strengthened. In 2021, the Saudis signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia. Interestingly though, Iran has now applied for membership of BRICS, suggesting that a dramatic shift in the balance of power in the region might be expected. A key outcome of the GCC+ meeting with Biden was an agreement to incrementally increase oil production to allay fears of a global energy crisis as a result of the Russia-Ukraine war. But this development is parallel to a Saudi-Russian deal in terms of which Saudi Arabia will import Russian oil and gas for local consumption while exporting its own oil produced by its Aramco corporation. This confirms that the Saudis will not sever ties with Russia despite considerable pressure from NATO, while also enabling Russia to break the sanctions on it.

Biden’s visit to the region, and the Saudi-Israel rapprochement, has not heralded any prospects for peace. Instead, it has entrenched polarities and ushered in an atmospheric shift toward tensions with Iran that serve to reinforce shadow and proxy wars. In the meanwhile, the Palestinian quest for self-determination, freedom and justice is more difficult than it has ever been, as these deals with the colonial occupier translate into impunity for war crimes and a perpetuation of apartheid.

* Zeenat Adam is the Deputy Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, a former diplomat, independent international relations strategist, political opinion writer and human rights activist

Last modified on Tuesday, 26 July 2022 15:59

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