Fiyaz Mughal

A Saudi-Israel peace accord may be nearer than we think

Saudi pragmatism and the threat posed by Iran makes a deal more likely than not

September 22, 2020 18:50

Changing relations in the Middle East, as demonstrated last week with the signing of the Abraham Accords, indicate that Saudi Arabia is on the verge of normalising its relations with Israel - which would be a huge step forward in reducing the risk of future conflict between Arab states and Israel. 

Whilst Saudi Arabia has never fought Israel directly, its support for other once hostile Arabs nations has seen its financial might back these countries with essential military and technological hardware. No one should underestimate the impact that a Saudi-Israel normalisation would have. 

Such an entente cordiale may even happen before the US election in November, since the Kingdom sees a Trump presidency as being more aligned in terms of its foreign policy objectives, vis-a-vis a tougher stance on Iran.

The significance of Iran’s interference in the national and domestic politics of countries like Bahrain, the UAE, Yemen and Saudi Arabia is often overlooked. Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah have regularly tried to penetrate into countries like the UAE and develop intelligence networks. Fomenting instability via proxies was a strategic plan masterminded by the late Qassem Soleimani as a form of security and "early warning system" for Iran and its theocracy.

For example, Iran has been regularly involved in creating tensions in Saudi Arabia when it has sought to put pressure on the Kingdom. In Qatif in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, protests overwhelmingly led by Shia residents in 1979, 2011 and 2017 were focussed on political reforms and the release of Shia prisoners in Saudi jails. In 1979, anti-Americanism and local anti-Western demonstrations were mobilised in this part of the country by the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and his subsequent takeover. Much of this was down to localised grievances, though they provided a soft Saudi underbelly for the Iranian regime to poke whenever it wanted to create an ongoing internal civil disorder problem for the Kingdom. 

Confronting Iran’s forward leaning posture in the Hejaz has therefore become the main foreign policy thrust for Saudi Arabia and, within that calculation, an accord with Israel is the logical step forward.

Furthermore, there is a well-placed, considerable unease amongst the Saudis and their Gulf allies lingering from the Obama administration’s softer approach to the prevalence of hardline Islamism, often in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, at the turn of last decade. This ideology presents an existential threat to the existing regimes and continues to threaten a heightening of instability and division across the Middle East. 

There remains a view that Obama’s folly was to fail to recognise the damaging effect a more Islamist Middle East presented to some of America’s closest allies, including Saudi, as well the US’s own interests.

The "Iran Deal" agreed under President Obama also caused considerable concern amongst America’s Gulf allies, helping sustain a belligerent Iranian regime and its proxy armies in the region. A restoration of this deal, unchanged, would be a major hurdle to the plans of the Kingdom and its allies in the region to contain Iran and see it draw back from its extensive and aggressive resourcing of destabilising proxies. 

As with Islamism, this is a prime example of where the US under Obama received the advice and warnings of its Gulf allies with deaf ears. They will be hoping that this approach will not be repeated whoever sits in the Oval Office come January.

Therefore the Saudis will want to shore up their position ahead of the election. Making a high level policy announcement on the Kingdom normalising relations with Israel, which will undoubtedly be positively received by both candidates, is one way to do this. There is also a chance it will provide President Trump with a much needed poll boost at the cusp of this election. It will give him a legacy in history as the only US president who successfully brought the Saudis to the "peace table", given the religious importance of this country that has a huge influence on Muslims globally since they control the two holiest Islamic sites in Mecca and Medina. The warm reception the Abraham Accords has received in the Saudi media, as well as agreements for direct flights to Israel to use Saudi airspace, are both strong indicators of the Kingdom moving in the same direction.

Additionally, Turkey’s increasingly aggressive military postures in Libya and its growing military domination in the Middle East, as well as its ongoing alliances and links with Qatar, have raised it up the scale of risk and threat to the Kingdom. 

Turkey is also engaged in a major cultural battle with Arab countries, as it pumps out Ottoman period dramas that seek to re-enforce its Islamic credentials to Muslim communities internationally. Traditionally, this role has been one that the Saudis have played and with some merit, since they control Mecca and Medina, though it has not passed them by that Turkish historical and cultural dramas have built up large non-Turkish and Muslim audiences in Western countries. Speak to many Muslims of Pakistani heritage in the UK and they will reel off series such as Ertugrul and The Magnificent Century. This cultural battle is also part of the ongoing Turkish-Arab tussle for hearts and minds of Muslim communities worldwide.

In light of this there is nothing more that the Saudis would like to see than a chastened Erdogan in a weaker position. Supporting the Abraham Accords will help them to frame countries like Iran and Turkey as conflict creators rather than peacemakers, a line that is being pushed repeatedly by its allies. Furthermore, it will remind the United States that they are the allies that best represent their regional interests and that past appeasement of Turkey and Iran, as well as the Islamist ideology that underpins them, does nothing but harm American standing in the region. 

The next few months will see further major shifts in the Middle East. We must not under estimate the seismic changes that will follow if the Kingdom makes this move towards normalisation of relations with Israel. The Saudi leadership can be extremely pragmatic when it needs to be, a characteristic that has seen the House of Saud survive since the Kingdom’s creation. It also demonstrates the basic fact that where there is a political will, there is a way ahead.

September 22, 2020 18:50

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