Saudi Arabia Gets Upstaged by Its Neighbors on Israel



In the Saudi government’s weekly statement on Aug. 18, King Salman bin Abdulaziz thanked leaders who sent wishes following his gallbladder surgery, ministers praised health protocols during the hajj pilgrimage, and the cabinet reviewed measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. A bunch of promotions for civil servants was also announced.

Conspicuous for its absence was any mention of the landmark policy shift for the Middle East that’s reverberating across Saudi Arabia’s traditional sphere of influence. Indeed, a week after the United Arab Emirates and Israel announced theirstunning peace agreement, it was the Saudi foreign minister who made theonly official comment, but only after being pressed by reporters during a visit to Berlin.

It’s tough to divine what the thinking is in the royal court. What is clear, though, is that the kingdom finds itself in an awkward spot while its Arab allies gush over the deal. The rise of the UAE as a new power broker in the region could mark a shift in Arab leadership, dilute Saudi influence, and further fracture Gulf Arab unity. The kingdom has to balance that immediate geopolitical concern against other ideological ones. As the location of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is the symbolic leader of the global Muslim community, which is overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Palestinians. The Saudis’ archenemy Iran would likely pounce on any hint that Riyadh’s support for the Palestinians waswobbling.

After other Arab states quickly lauded the Aug. 13 UAE decision,Israel said it expected Bahrain and Sudan to be the next in line to sign accords. Sudan credited the UAE for charting “the correct course for the rest of the Arab countries” by signing the agreement with Israel. “The deal gives the UAE the opportunity to be chief diplomat for the Arab world and be the adult in the region,” says Kamran Bokhari, director of analytical development at the Center for Global Policy in Washington.

Saudi Arabia has no formal ties with Israel, but there have been closer contacts between Gulf countries and the Jewish state in recent years, which officials say stem from shared concerns over Iran. Inan interview with the Atlantic magazine in April 2018, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, said Israel had the right to its own land.

His father, King Salman, though, is a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause. The move by the UAE, a fellow Gulf ally, breaks away from a peace proposal to end the Arab-Israeli conflict that Salman’s predecessor, King Abdullah, officially unveiled at an Arab League summit in Lebanon in 2002.

The initiative was aimed at trading peace with Israel for land seized by the Jewish state in the 1967 Middle East war. It also called for achieving a just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem and the acceptance of a sovereign, independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. In the absence of Palestinian consensus on the deal and Israeli agreement to all its terms, the agreement didn’t work.

Any Saudi relations with Israel hinge on that 2002 Palestinian peace plan, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud said when asked at a press conference in Berlin on Aug. 19 after meeting his German counterpart. “When we sponsored the Arab peace plan, we fully envisioned that there would be eventually relations between all Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Israel,” he said. “But the conditions for that from our point of view are quite clear: that peace must be achieved between the Palestinians and the Israelis based on the internationally recognized parameters. Once that is achieved, all things are possible.”

The real catalyst for the unraveling of unity in the Gulf goes back to the Arab Spring uprisings, which toppled four heads of state after they erupted in 2011. They hobbled economies and plunged several countries into sectarian wars, offering two non-Arab powers— Turkey and Iran—the opportunity to steadily encroach in Arab affairs. The big rupture in the six-country Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a body seen as a stalwart of regional reliability, came in 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain imposed a boycott of fellow member Qatar.

As the Arab world descended into disunity and greater disorder, there was growing conviction among regional leaders that the U.S. was turning its back on them. UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed would tell senior American officials that the region still needed a “coach” and that coach should be America. “Don’t leave us to ourselves,”Barbara Leaf, U.S. ambassador to the UAE from 2014 to 2018, recalls the prince saying on more than one occasion.

The UAE’s decision to normalize relations with Israel can be explained in that context, she says. “It’s the UAE trying to figure out as a very tiny, vulnerable country how to manage in a post-America Middle East and how to secure its interests,” says Leaf. “Israel is the only country taking Iran on.”

Bader Al-Saif, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, says he expects divisions in the Gulf to widen. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the most hard line on Israel, while the rest of the GCC states will probably follow in the UAE’s footsteps, he says. “It will fracture an already fragile GCC establishment,” Al-Saif says. “It will reorient its six member states along different axes.”

That’s already clear with three of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors. Bahrain hosted a conference in June 2019 where President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, promoted his long-promised initiative for Middle East peace and introduced a$50 billion plan to bolster the Palestinian economy. Saudi and Israeli company executives were among those present. The government in Manama on Aug. 15 congratulated the UAE on its deal and lauded its “wise leadership.”

Oman welcomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018, the first official trip by an Israeli leader to the Gulf nation in more than two decades. Omani Foreign Minister Yousef Bin Alawi discussed regional developments in a call with his Israeli counterpart on Aug. 17 before he stepped down as part of a government reshuffle. Qatar, which has hosted Israeli officials and at one point had an Israel trade office in Doha, hasn’t commented on the deal.

Al-Saif says a change in Saudi policy on Israel may come after the reign of King Salman, who’s 84. In the absence of any official mood music, government-sanctioned Saudi media published other countries’ praise of the move as well as positive opinion pieces. Saudi analysts have appeared on regional TV channels saying the map of enemies for the kingdom has changed, with Iran now on top of the list. In a “Letter to the Palestinian People” in the Al-Jazirah newspaper, Saudi writer Khaled bin Hamad Almalek criticized Palestinian rejection of the UAE-Israel deal.

Leaf says the GCC fissures will affect the group’s ability to function properly. Multilateral collaboration over security action may be impossible, even with the U.S. as a referee. That would include cooperation over a common ballistic defense architecture, intelligence sharing, and counterterrorist financing coordination.

“So the damage has been done by themselves,” says Leaf, who’s now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “This shift on Israel is in part a reflection of that reality: They are increasingly acting singly, in pursuit of individual, not collective, interests.” —With Vivian Nereim, Patrick Donahue, Simone Foxman, and Zainab Fattah
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