Saudi Arabia and Speed Bumps On the Road to Normalization

by Hugh Fitzgerald

The normalization of ties between Morocco – the fourth Arab state to do so – and Israel has led many to conclude that surely Saudi Arabia will be the next, or if not, then the next after Oman. Such a prospect is not quite that simple. The latest report on Saudi Arabia and rapprochement with Israel is here: “The Saudi dilemma,” by Shahar Klaiman, Israel Hayom, December 18, 2020:

The peace deal with Morocco is the fourth accord between Israel and an Arab state to sideline the Palestinian issue. While the leaders of Abu Dhabi, Manama and Khartoum had all pledged their continued commitment to the Palestinians’ statehood aspirations, at the end of the day, none of them opted to place Ramallah’s interests ahead of their own.

As with the peace deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, here, too, the United States, which brokered the accords, hinted that Saudi Arabia could very well be the next Arab power to normalize ties with Israel….

One can argue that rapprochement with Israel and the West has been forced on the Saudis due to their need to diversify from their oil-based economy. In the past, the Saudis have fought Israel militarily and economically, and Riyadh perceives itself as the leader of the Arab world and the driving force behind the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative – at least ostensibly.

That rapprochement with Israel is not being forced on the Saudis; they have welcomed the security alliance with Israel against both Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. They applaud Israel’s acts of derring-do to hamper Iran’s nuclear program, from the Stuxnet computer worm that in 2010 caused 1,000 Iranian centrifuges to spin out of control and destroy themselves, to the assassination, between 2010 and 2012, of four Iranian nuclear scientists, to the 2018 seizure of virtually the entire nuclear archieve of Iran, some 100,000 pages of information, and then, this year, the destruction of the advanced centrifuge plant at Natanz, and then, the latest feat, the assassination of the mastermind of Iran’s nuclear program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. That is the main, if no longer the only, tie that binds the two strange bed fellows, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are also keenly aware that the world is moving away from fossil fuels, and turning to renewable sources of energy. They need to diversity their own economy, and Israel, as the original Start-Up Nation, could be of great benefit in this effort, especially in high tech, where Israel punches far above its weight.

Unlike King Mohammed VI of Morocco or Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is still cementing his position as the kingdom’s de-facto ruler and must still heed his father, King Salman’s policies.

The 84-year-old monarch is adamant that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be resolved before Saudi Arabia normalizes ties with Israel.

It is true that King Salman has insisted that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative must be observed, and no normalization of Saudi ties with Israel can take place before a Palestinian state is created, and Israel has been squeezed back within the 1949 armistice lines.

Yet King Salman also had no criticism to make of the Arab states that did normalize ties. He even granted Israeli planes the right to fly through Saudi airspace just after the U.A.E.-Israel agreement was announced. And he said nothing critical, either, when Bahrain, which the Saudis protect, decided to normalize ties. He must surely have had to give his consent to the Bahrainis behind the scenes.

Echoing the ruler’s policy, former Saudi Arabia General Intelligence Directorate chief Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal lambasted Israel at a recent conference in Bahrain, calling it a “Western colonizer,” and saying that the Palestinian issue was “an open wound that you cannot treat with pain killers.”

Turki al-Faisal’s extraordinary performance, crude and insulting both to his Arab hosts in Manama, and to Israel, with which Bahrain had just normalized ties, did not “echo” King Salman, who is always measured in his remarks. The Bahrainis were not pleased, and one assumes the Saudi King was not either.

The Gulf power’s relations with the United States also pose a hurdle en route to the coveted peace deal, even though the US is making considerable efforts to push such a deal before President Donald Trump’s term ends next month.

For more than five years, Saudi Arabia has been immersed in a war against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. The war has exacted a heavy price on the civilian population, incurring the wrath of the West. Still, diplomatically, the Trump administration has offered Saudi Arabia steadfast backing in the international areas with respect to the kingdom’s archfoe in the Gulf – Iran.

The Saudis know that the Trump administration has been solicitous of the Kingdom, running interferene against its critics in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West, for reasons of Realpolitik. Now the incoming Biden administration will likely want to distance the U.S. from Riyadh. The Biden people hold against the Saudis their poor human rights record in the Kingdom, their repeated bombing of civilians in Yemen, and their murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It thus makes sense for the Saudis to consider normalizing relations with Israel in order to placate at least some of the Kingdom’s critics.

So what could entice the Saudi crown prince to push for rapprochement with Israel? a special position on the Islamic Waqf Council that controls the Temple Mount could do the trick, although it is unclear how eager Riyadh is to become involved in the Jerusalem flashpoint that is the al-Aqsa Mosque. There is also the issue of whether Israel would agree to “trade” such rights on the Temple Mount – something that is likely to spark controversy at home and abroad.,,,

I don’t see how Israel, the Jewish state, could possibly be in a position to “trade” rights on the Islamic Waqf Council that controls the Temple Mount. Jordan, which controls the Waqf Council, has in the past rejected sharing control with any other Muslims. Possibly the Saudis could make King Abdullah an offer – how many hundreds of millions of dollars would it take? – should he agree to make room for Saudis to join the Waqf Council, but that has nothing to do with a possible Saudi rapprochement with Israel.

According to Arab media reports, Riyadh is slated to host a summit on the Gulf crisis next month.

With the clock ticking ahead of US President-elect Joe Biden taking office, the coming weeks could prove critical with respect to reaching a compromise with Doha. The move would also boost the moderate forces in the Gulf vis-à-vis the emerging Iran-Turkey front.

Saudi Arabia is no doubt hoping at this upcoming summit to persuade Qatar to rejoin the Gulf Arabs in opposing Iran. Even if that can’t be achieved, Qatar might agree to remain neutral, rather than taking Iran’s side, in the mighty contest between Iran and its enemies in the Gulf. The lifting of the three-year air, sea, and land blockade of Qatar would be welcomed in Doha, and by now the Qataris may have endured quite enough to be ready for a reconciliation with their “Arab brothers.” The Saudis could present themselves to the Biden Administration as peacemakers, who had helped to put a dent in Iran’s alliance with Qatar. That might be enough to compensate for the Khashoggi killing, the San’a bombings, and the mistreatment of Saudi dissidents.

Apprehension from [about] the Biden administration is growing in the region. The president-elect has already stated that he believes the United States must serve as a beacon of liberal values for the whole world – even if it means putting its allies “in their place.”

Saudi Arabia is the “ally” that comes immediately to mind for its complete absence of liberal values, and Biden’s promise to put some allies “in their place” is what sends shivers down the backs of royals in Riyadh.

Still, the Wall Street Journal reported recently that Prince Mohammed could use the potential peace deal with Israel as leverage vis-à-vis the Biden administration. This way, Saudi Arabia may present itself as promoting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process through normalization in order to appease the Biden administration….

This remark confuses me. How does normalizing relations with Israel serve to promote the “Israeli-Palestinian peace process”? To my understanding, these normalization deals are based on Arabs putting on the back burner that soi-disant “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians, and instead entering into deals with Israel that serve the national interests of the Arab states making them.

Saudi Arabia and Israel will continue to build their security ties, that grow ever tighter as Iran’s nuclear program, and Tehran’s manifold aggressions — from Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Lebanon — continue increasingly to alarm the Gulf states and Israel. And the Crown Prince will in the meantime wait for his father to die, when he can ascend the throne and at last conclude what he has long wanted to bring about – the normalization of ties with Israel.

First published in Jihad Watch.

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