It may have seemed impossible for nearly all of Israel’s existence thus far but I think it’s likely in the next five years that these two nations will open official diplomatic channels. It is an act that may cause serious backlash and anger across the Middle East. Alternatively, after years of disillusionment with the leadership of Saudi Arabia, it may simply be met with a shrug of the shoulder and further sense of dejection with the state of the region.
Since the inception of the state of Israel in May 1948, Saudi Arabia has refused to acknowledge its existence. It has supported the rights of Palestinians and called for a withdrawal from territory occupied by Israel after the war in 1967 through being a charter member of the Arab League.
Crucially, it didn’t participate in the wars in 1948, 1967 or 1973. Saudi Arabia’s long term strategic alliance with the United States may have had something to do with this. This was exacerbated by the mutual distrust between General Nasser led Egypt, the champion of pan- Arabism with secular, Soviet Union sympathies and the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia which used Wahhabism as a crucial pillar of its legitimacy.
However, since 1979 and the Islamic revolution in Iran, the strategic aims of Saudi Arabia and Israel have converged. They both have a desire to curb the influence of Iran across the Middle East. The ruling Saud family initially saw the emergence of the Islamic Republic as an existential threat to their existence.
In recent times, the threat to their existence has subsided somewhat. It has evolved into a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. As the relative power and influence of Egypt waned in the years after the assassination of Anwar Sadat (who actually lost his life for signing a peace Treaty with Israel which made it the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel) the vacuum that opened up was the prize that fuelled the rivalry.
In the 1980’s Saudi Arabia, which still did not have the military capability, bankrolled Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War against Iran. It is important to note that other Middle Eastern nations also supported Iraq but Saudi Arabia spent approximately thirty billion dollars in this conflict.
In more recent times Iran has increased its influence in Lebanon, as well as in post-Saddam Iraq and now in Syria. In Syria, it has acted as a bulwark for the regime of Bashir Al-Assad. The actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain amongst others has failed so far to really damage the Iranian influence in the region.
The emergence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia has led to a raft of major changes in a relatively brief period of time. Just last week, he consolidated his position as the heir apparent as well as the de facto ruler by purging a large number of the Royal Court’s retinue.
He has continued the war in Yemen, a key proxy battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia while allegedly forcing the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, to resign over the continued power and influence of Hezbollah (albeit with a democratic mandate).
It’s his views on the future relationship with Israel though that I believe could mark one of the most seismic changes in Middle Eastern diplomatic relations over the last fifty years. He has spoken about how Saudi Arabia adopted a more rigid Islamic outlook in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution
“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
The major issue with the above statement is that it could be construed to mean “get rid of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. In order to do this, he may engage further with Israel, as the one other Middle Eastern nation that possibly reaches the same level of fear and suspicion of the Iranian state.
It is very interesting, and probably not a coincidence, that the Crown Prince used the phrase “moderate”. Just this week, the Israeli military chief, Gadi Eisenkot, gave an interview to the Saudi newspaper Elaph where he described Iran as the “biggest threat to the region” and that Israel would share intelligence with “moderate” Arab states like Saudi Arabia.
Strategically, the US is pivoting away from the Middle East to Asia in the long term. With the current presidency of Donald Trump though, this may be the perfect window of opportunity to gain maximum leverage from agreeing to diplomatic relations and potentially forming a military alliance that goes beyond the tacit one that exists today.
This would be a potent combination of the vast reserves of cash held by the Saudis combined with the military might of the Israeli army. It may still seem a stretch to many political observers currently, but we may soon see the emergence of the Saudi-Israel axis as the key power in the Middle East.