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Despite aligning interests, Saudi doesn't look like a resilient ally

There are serious questions about how useful a partner Saudi Arabia can be for Israel in the future

    Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir
    Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir Getty Images

    The ingredients are all in place for a neat conspiracy theory.

    Why has Saudi Arabia’s new Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, been toying with removing his man in Beirut, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri? Simple. To foment a violent confrontation in Lebanon between Mr Hariri’s Sunni supporters and Hezbollah that would encourage Israel to intervene and destroy the Shia army.

    It would be a win-win for Riyadh and the Jewish state, both of whom are threatened by Hezbollah and its Iranian paymasters. Add the Israeli admission of covert talks about Iran with the Saudis, and you are in plotter’s paradise.

    There can be no doubt that the interests of Israel and Saudi Arabia are more closely aligned than ever, but Prince Salman’s first few months directing Saudi foreign policy show few signs that he is developing a co-ordinated regional masterplan.

    If anything, they have signalled that the 32-year-old leader, with sweeping control of every Saudi security agency and strong US support at his disposal, feels unshackled to act boldly and unilaterally.

    One such foreign policy experiment, the blockade on Qatar announced in June, merely divided Saudi Arabia’s allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council. It also drove Iran closer to Doha, which restored full diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic shortly after the crisis erupted.

    Another idea – a blockade on supplies to Yemen – also looks set to backfire as the international community rounds on Saudi Arabia over the looming humanitarian catastrophe.

    Meanwhile, Mr Hariri, who appeared to resign under duress during a visit to Saudi Arabia two weeks ago, said on Wednesday he was “temporarily suspending” the decision. Whatever plan Riyadh had been hatching, it appears to have come apart already.

    The prince’s poor tactical game is only one of the reasons Israel would be highly unlikely to take any lead from Saudi Arabia when it comes to taking joint military action against their common foes – overtly or otherwise.

    As Sima Shine, a former head of research at Mossad and fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, put it during a visit to London last week: “Saudi Arabia is very well equipped but its army is poor. The war in Yemen is relatively easy; a war with Iran would be an entirely different matter. It would require a different level of organisation.”

    She added: “It is not in the interests of Israel or Hezbollah to engage in a conflict. Right now, Israel has nothing tangible to gain from a war with Hezbollah. And for Iran, Hezbollah will only become useful as a strategic tool if something major happens between Iran and Israel.”

    Neither does Saudi Arabia look like a particularly resilient ally for Israel. It is a vast territory traditionally held together by the favours that only oil money can buy, but the petrodollars are running out and Prince Salman’s response looks fraught with risk.

    The recent anti-corruption sweep, which saw hundreds of top officials detained at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton and Mariott hotels, indicated he is bent on transforming the country into a truly absolute monarchy.

    They are not the actions of a man seeking to stabilise a country already riven by extremism and a huge population of under-employed, liberally-inclined youth.

    Israel has much to gain from an improved relationship:  a huge economic boost and the chance of normalised relations with the Sunni Arab world through a peace deal with the Palestinians.

    But just as its strategists have long worried whether Iran’s leadership was sufficiently rational to avoid a direct conflict with Israel, the Jewish State now also has grounds for concern about the Saudi government’s ability to act in its own best interests.

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