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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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