Spearhead Analysis – 25.05.2018
By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
On his highly publicized trip to the USA, Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS), the young and ambitious Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, broke from decades of tradition to declare that the people of Israel deserved to have a country of their own. “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land”.
His statement reverberated around the world, because, even though it was not an outright affirmation for the status of Israel, it was at least an indication that one of the most powerful men in the Muslim world was open to finding a solution that was beneficial for both sides. This was a change from the usual rhetoric employed by Muslim states who not only opposed the very existence of Israel, but had, on several occasions in the past, actively tried to dismantle it from both within, and outside.
Enemy Number One
MBS’ rising status as the new face of Saudi Arabia makes him one of the most influential men in the Middle East, and as such, instrumental to Israel’s ambitions of being accepted by the Arab League. The sweeping changes taking place across his country are indicative that the young Prince is determined to make his mark on the region and is not afraid to take bold steps in order to secure his vision for the future. However, while he enjoys ample support from his citizens, the majority of whom hail the transformation that Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing, can he expect the same kind of support when it comes to the status of Israel?
Saudi Arabia has long considered itself as the bastion of the Muslim world, and as such, have used their wealth and influence to further their cause around the globe. Their support for the ultra-conservative Wahabi sect of Islam prompted them to open countless seminaries and madrassas in several different countries, many of which have since become a hotbed for extremist ideology and radical Islam. In this role as the ‘benefactors’ of the Muslim faith, Saudi Arabians, like most Muslim majority nations around the world, became staunch supporters of the Palestinian cause and condemned Israel for the violence and suffering that they have perpetrated over the past few decades.
However, in recent years, particularly under the leadership of King Salman and MBS, Saudi Arabia now seems to have shifted their focus, and the brunt of their criticisms, on to Iran. In the same interview in which MBS proclaimed that the people of Israel deserved a nation of their own, he went on to assert that Iran was a member of an “axis of evil” that also contained the Muslim Brotherhood and Terrorist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. He also called the current Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei “the Hitler of the Middle East” and stated that “I believe that the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good”.
This shift in policy is seen as a deliberate ploy by MBS to push his anti-Iran beliefs on to the world, and in order to accomplish his plans, it seems he has decided to abide by the age old proverb ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and turn to Israel for assistance.
While there have not been any direct interactions between the two states as yet, there seems to be enough going on behind the scenes to convince commentators the world over that there has been a considerable improvement in their relationship. On 22nd March, 2018 Air India became the first Airline to use Saudi airspace to travel to Israel. Previously airplanes headed for Israel had to be redirected over the Red Sea route, as both Iran and Saudi Arabia had denied them access to their airspace. Even though the improving relationship between India and the Saudis helped facilitate this new arrangement, it wouldn’t have been possible without active involvement between the governments of Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In a recent interview, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot provided further proof of the progress made by the two countries by conceding that “there is complete agreement between us and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has never been our enemy. It has not fought us nor have we fought it”. He added that while at a Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting in Washington he found the Saudi envoy shared Israel’s concerns over the rising threat of Iran and the need to “confront it and to confront its expansion in the region”. He further went on to add that under President Trump, there would be an opportunity for “a new international coalition in the region” and that the government of Israel was prepared to “exchange experiences with moderate Arab countries and to exchange intelligence to confront Iran”, and that Saudi Arabia and Israel shared “mutual interests”.
This is perhaps one of the first few times that a high profile official from Israel has been so forthcoming about their hopes for improved relations with a country that has spent a considerable amount of their resources in trying to undermine them in the international community. It also serves to consolidate the animosity that both nations feel towards Iran and its growing influence in the region. With a Shiite majority government expected to take control of Iraq, and their support for Assad in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen, the Saudis fear that the Iranians will soon pose a bigger threat for the Sunni majority nations in the Middle East and that a temporary or long-term partnership with Israel might prove to be the best strategy to counter to their rising power.
Compliance or Opposition
The House of Saud has long held great sway in the Muslim world, and still holds a position of influence due to their great wealth and their control over two of the most revered cities in Islam, Mecca and Medina. They have directed policy decisions in various Arab states, and they have influenced Muslims across the globe through their numerous Madrassas and seminaries. However, while most Muslim majority nations have time and again fallen in line with the directives of the Saudis, it is hard to imagine that they would do the same when it comes to supporting Israel.
Muslims and Jews have been at odds with one another for centuries, and this feud predates the creation of Israel, Palestine or the House of Saud. The creation of Israel however, and the subsequent persecution of the Palestinians, incensed the Muslim population and further drove a wedge between the communities. On the other hand, the continuous threat of violence on their borders and the inauspicious history of their people prompted the Israelis to become more assertive and aggressive in their approach towards foreign powers. This dysfunctional status quo has ensured that disorder in the region continues to reign and that a change can only occur if there is a systematic transformation in the manner in which both sides view each other.
It will also be hard to find a solution when the status of the people of Palestine is yet to be resolved. Their treatment at the hands of the Israelis has been appalling, to say the least, with whole generations of families being born in to a world of war and destruction, without a place in the world to call home. The Saudis will find it hard to find allies that are willing to forget the various transgressions perpetrated by the Israelis over the years, especially countries like Pakistan, who have not only failed to recognize the state of Israel, but have gone as far as to add the line “this passport is valid for all countries of the world except Israel” to all of their government issued passports. While there has been some evidence of the two countries cooperating during the eighties’ Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Iran does not pose the same level of threat to the Pakistanis, or most other Arab nations, and it will be harder to convince them to establish diplomatic ties with Israel, as a result.