Saudi Arabia has been omnipresent in the headlines recently. By detaining several significant business figures and senior ministers, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has demonstrated the scope of his newly-inherited authority and violently asserted his power. What followed since, if not utterly unexpected, has been greatly intriguing and perplexing.
Developments, however, are not limited to internal Saudi affairs, but also have regional implications. There are signals of a growing Saudi-Israeli cooperation and aligning of interests in their wish to counteract Iran. Two weeks ago, Ayoub Kara, Israeli Communications Minister invited Saudi’s Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh to visit Israel, and a few days later, Saudi online journal Elaph, recorded Israel’s chief-of-staff Gadi Eizenkot saying that Israel is ready to share intelligence with Saudi Arabia on Iran. Both the events affirm the news of the warming of the (ever-tenuous) Saudi-Israeli relations. Curiously, both these events fit with recent moves to confront Iran’s influence in the region that took place under Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s watch.
In June, Saudi Arabia together with Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt imposed an extensive blockade on Qatar, blaming the country for providing support for terrorism and hence, being responsible for destabilising the region. The Saudi-led coalition accused Qatar aiding the al-Nusra Front of al-Qaeda in Syria, which was purportedly the primary cause for the imposition of the blockade. Several other reasons were mentioned as well, like Qatar’s housing and financing the Al Jazeera media network, hosting Turkish troops, and its strong relations with Iran. This last point might well have been the primary objective of the blockade. Saudi Arabia, fearful of Iran’s growing influence in the region, wants to wrest control of Qatar away from Tehran.
This contextualises the recent flirtation between Saudi Arabia and Israel. While these are still tenuous first steps, mostly covert and minimal, the tide seems to be tuning. The detention of several powerful Saudi figures and members of clergy, can not only be seen in terms of domestic reforms and consolidation of power intended by Mohammed bin Salman, but also as giving him more room to manoeuvre in developing closer ties with Israel, given the hostility Saudi regime would have faced from actors that are anything but pro-Israel.
While many have pointed to the bin Salman trying to shore up his hold on power, the Israel connection adds another dimension to the analysis of his purge of parts of the Saudi elite. Given the recently developing ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, there is evidence that the costs and benefits of a potential relationship with Israel played a role, however tangentially, in recent developments in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz a few days ago revealed having convert contacts with the Saudi government.
Iran’s growing influence in the region, control over proxy governments in Syria and Lebanon, hold over parts of Iraqi politics and involvement in the civil war in Yemen has led to the strange bedfellows of Israel and Saudi Arabia finding common ground in counteracting Iranian influence.
While fraught with complications, a closer relationship between the two countries might have other benefits, besides confronting their shared nemesis Iran. For Israel, a normalisation of relations with the “country of the two holy mosques” might inch the country closer to being accepted as a Jewish nation-state among Muslim countries. For Saudi Arabia, adding the region’s most formidable military power to its side would both strengthen its hand, and, no doubt, please the US, long a staunch supporter of Israel.
How exactly a closer cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel would look like in practice is hard to say. It is not obvious how Israel would substantially aid Saudi Arabia against Hezbollah in Lebanon, or to diminish Iran’s role in Syria. If Israel were to get overtly and directly involved, this would surely generate much rejection and backlash in Muslim countries. For Iran, such a development would be opportune to pitch itself as being the mainstay of defiance against Israel.
Having a common foe in Iran raises the possibilities some semblance of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel. While much unpredictability remains, it is certain that this would impact the Palestinian position. Saudi Arabia has long played an important role in Palestine. Any radical change in its stance would, hence, upset the fragile balance of power in the Gaza strip and West bank. The agreement between Hamas and Fatah has been the most significant development in Palestine in recent years, but it remains to be seen how durable this arrangement will be. Saudi Arabia making overtly common cause with Israel, could have consequences for Palestinian politics and the future of a Palestinian state. Thus, in the game of chess that is the struggle for domination in the Middle East, Palestinians might become a pawn sacrificed by Saudi Arabia.