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Strange Bedfellows in the Middle East
Saudis Look to Israel

Inspired by a mutual fear of Iran, Israel is taking a few more steps closer to Saudi Arabia—and Riyadh may be reciprocating. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Led by Dore Gold, director-general of the foreign ministry, Israel has stepped up efforts to mend and improve ties in the region—all in a bid to counter Iranian influence and the threat of Islamic extremism.

A long-standing hawkish ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Gold said Israel and Sunni Arab states face a shared threat in Iran.

“Clearly there’s been a convergence of interests between Israel and many Sunni Arab states given the fact that they both face identical challenges in the region,” Mr. Gold told The Wall Street Journal.[..]

“What we have seen in the past six months is an intensification of the relationship [with Sunni Arab states],” a senior Israeli official said. “Israel is on the same side.”

While the relationship is not yet—and may never be—overt, it is nevertheless very real. Commercial and diplomatic ties are increasingly being forged, though the main emphasis is on intelligence and military cooperation. In Israel, this is a bipartisan initiative (the Journal quotes opposition leader Tzipi Livni commenting favorably). Meanwhile, cooperation with the Saudis brings along the Egyptians and U.A.E. The Journal notes that Egypt’s government has returned its Ambassador to Israel for the first time since the Morsi government removed him three years ago. And the U.A.E. let Israel open an office in the International Renewable Energy Agency in Emirates last year, giving the Jewish state its first diplomatic representation in the Arab nation.

From the Saudi point of view, the hunt for strong allies against Iran running into trouble. The U.S. is cold, and will remain so at least until January 2017. The Pakistanis, long assumed to be in the Saudi pocket, have been looking very cool: the head of the Pakistani Army gave Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman a polite kiss-off during a recent visit, annoucning that the Pakistani Army would of course respond to any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity—i.e., not the sort of threat Riyadh is worried about right now. (Predictably, Pakistani’s civilian government has been even cooler, declaring it won’t deploy Pakistani troops on foreign soil.) And though Turkey has been making surprisingly Saudi-friendly noises recently, there is too much historic rivalry between the two for leadership of the Sunni world—and Erdogan is still considered too personally ambitious to remake the order of the Middle East with himself at the top. The Saudis are not going to put trust faith in a life-and-death matter in help from Ankara. So there is really only one significant power left that really sees eye-to-eye with Riyadh: Israel.

What that means is hard to say. But one thing to note about the new Saudi leadership: it is willing to run risks and take bolder stands than past Saudi governments, when the situation as seen from Riyadh was less dire, were willing to do. There are lots of reasons why both sides will want to keep any new relationship out of the public eye, but it’s rare world politics to see two countries whose interests align as closely as Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have now done and not see some kind of common action come out of it in a time of crisis.

This group has already collaborated against Hamas in the last Gaza War, and Egypt and Israel today have better relations and closer communications than they have done in several years. Saudis and Israelis have a whole set of interests in common in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. As Saudi-Iranian tensions heat up in the region, keep an eye on this emerging alliance to push back somewhere.

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  • Fat_Man

    ” but it’s rare world politics to see two countries whose interests align as closely as Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE”

    I count four countries in that sentence.

    • adk

      All people fall into three categories: those can count and those who can’t.

      • Fat_Man

        All people fall into 10 categories, those who understand binary, and those who do not.

      • Dan

        Aw, you can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% percent of all people know that.

  • adk

    Let’s give the credit where it’s due — thank you, President Obama! Had he campaigned in 2008 or even in 2012, on the theme “I may not be able to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I’ll do something better: I’ll bring Israelis and leading Sunni Arabs together!”, how many people would’ve believed him? But that’s just what he did. Too bad he left this real (and perhaps only) accomplishment out of his SoTU.

    • Ellen

      Good point. This is clearly a case of Obama succeeding by failing. His absolutely failed foreign policy is bringing about a success that Kissinger would smile at: uniting the Sunni Arab powers with Israel in a real kind of “peace process”, not the decades long phony peace process with the Palestinians. This is emphatically NOT the success that Obama wanted, however, given his world view. He views the Sunni autocrats as on the so-called wrong side of history, and the Zionist project likewise as on the wrong side of history. So, this emerging alliance goes directly against his understanding of the arc of history. Does that tell us something about his understanding of history???

  • Episteme

    We’ve already seen the benefit of the “new generation” in Jordan over the past decade in terms of King Abdullah. Now, with the shift in offices over the past few years upon King Salman’s ascent, you have a similar (if not younger) group taking over many of the defense and policy roles in Saudi Arabia (Prince Mohammed bin Salman is a perfect example) – men who have grown up post-Cold War and have a different set of ideas for the region than stacking clients. The cut-off of aid to Hamas, the change in aid to Fatah, the rise in tension with Iran, and the new detente with Israel are all of a package in many ways to the newer group of younger behind-the-scenes princes.

    Combine that with men like al-Sisi in Egypt and you have the right sort of combination at a proper wrong time in history to bring together an odd coalition, even if it’s not officially spoken of – I was amused by the reporting of al-Sisi’s Arab Defense Summit at Sharm-al-Shiekh a few months back where it was an open secret that, while he couldn’t invite Israel to join them, they had a remote line to Tel Aviv managed out-of-sight at the conference so that their Jewish “ally” could give opinions while everyone involved retained plausible deniability…

  • FriendlyGoat

    The Saudi rulers can easily see Shiites as far worse than the USA, Israel or other infidels. I wonder if the Saudi Arabian people share that view.

    • leoj

      No need to wonder, as if it were impossible to better inform yourself. Talk with some Saudis or read some of their news analysis. For example, here is a representative piece: http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2015/12/26/2015-a-year-of-milestones-of-horrors-in-the-Middle-East-.html
      While for the takfiri it may be a question of infidels, etc., for others it is more a matter of barrel bombs and starvation from siege…

      • FriendlyGoat

        I still wonder, even after reading your link. The questions I have are whether a lot of Saudi subjects may be as radical as ISIL and only under control because of their rulers, and whether they (the subjects) can ever tolerate any cooperation with Israel and/or America, even against the Shia. (That Obama did or did not do “this or that” is not the question. The question is about the degree to which Saudi citizens may be “impossible allies” with Jews and other infidels.)

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