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Saudi Arabia and the dilemma of normalising relations with Israel

The change in regional dynamics of recent years, with Iran now the main threat to many, has led to a rapprochement between the House of Saudi Arabia and the Hebrew country
Arabia Saudí y el dilema de normalizar relaciones con Israel

PHOTO/BANDAR ALGALOUD/ Courtesy of the Royal Court of Saudi Arabia  -   The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohamed bin Salman  

Saudi Arabia is a fundamental piece of the puzzle that the different Middle Eastern states make up, not only because of its role as a regional power but also because of the symbolic weight of the Saudi King as Guardian of the Holy Places of Islam. These conditions should be understood as part of a broader regional context in which the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has-until a few years-been attracting the maximum attention of the Arab and Islamic world, which has traditionally supported the Palestinian people and condemned Israel. However, the change in regional dynamics of recent years, with Iran now the main threat to many, has led to a rapprochement between the House of Saudi Arabia and the Hebrew country. Will Saudi Arabia follow the example of the other Arab states that have normalised their relations with Israel or will it maintain its current position? 

The role of Saudi Arabia in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the development of its relations with both parties  

Saudi Arabia's role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has traditionally been characterised by a role of mediator in which different diplomatic efforts have been made to resolve the conflict peacefully. Despite the messages of support for the Palestinian people, Saudi Arabia's position towards Israel has not been one of complete rejection. Indeed, this has traditionally been characterised as a relationship of quiet diplomacy and pragmatism through which both states have advanced common interests in a discreet manner, avoiding declarations and official meetings. Similarly, relations between Saudi Arabia and Palestine have not always been a smooth ride, as they have also witnessed moments of tension that have damaged the friendship between the two sides.   

The first years of the conflict were characterised as a period of high tension between the Arab League states and Israel. Even before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the members of the Arab League, including Saudi Arabia, began a boycott against Israel aimed mainly at preventing any economic exchange with the Hebrew country to avoid its economic and military strengthening. For its part, Saudi Arabia rejected the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine of 1947, which proposed dividing the territory into two states, and banned Jews from entering the country.  

PHOTO/SAUDI PRESS AGENCY - King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia chairs a government meeting by video conference
PHOTO/SAUDI PRESS AGENCY - King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia chairs a government meeting by video conference

Ironically, one of the first known moments of cooperation between the two states took place after the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel took the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Officially, Saudi Arabia supported the Khartoum Resolution, which expressed the official position of the Arab League, the refusal to sign the peace, recognise and negotiate with Israel. However, that same year Israel allowed the trans-Arabic "Tapline" pipeline, which operated from Saudi Arabia to Lebanon via the Golan Heights (recently captured by Israel), to continue to operate. 

At the same time, the Six-Day War marked a turning point in relations between Saudi Arabia and Palestine, as the Palestinian cause became the priority of Saudi diplomacy. On the one hand, the kingdom proclaimed itself a supporter of Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization, and on the other began a campaign of soft power and economic diplomacy aimed at distributing the income from oil between Palestine and the Arab states that had taken part in the war. The hostile rhetoric towards Israel continued during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and the embargo imposed on the United States and Europe, although it was eventually lifted without the fulfilment of the conditions imposed by the Arab states, such as the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the occupied territories, among others.   

1981 marked a turning point in the role Saudi Arabia would assume with respect to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, becoming a mediator and putting forward proposals for resolving the conflict peacefully. The first was the Fahd Plan which, despite being rejected by Israel as it proposed the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the territories occupied in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, was a change on the part of the House of Saudi Arabia as its ambiguous language left the door open to recognition of Israel's existence.   

AFP/YOAV DUDKEVITCH - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
AFP/YOAV DUDKEVITCH - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

A few years later, the Gulf War led to the breakdown of relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Saudi Arabia, and Palestine, a break that would take years to heal. The origin of the crisis was the support that Arafat guaranteed Saddam Hussein following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, which caused Saudi Arabia to cancel the economic aid hitherto earmarked to the Palestine Liberation Organisation and expel Palestinians living in the kingdom. However, during this episode Israel and Saudi Arabia were on the same side and found a common enemy in Iraq. Hussein, who wanted to weaken the coalition, launched a series of missiles against Israel in the hope that Israel would respond by entering the war, which would have put the Arab countries involved in a very delicate situation and could have made them leave the coalition. Thanks to international cooperation efforts, Israel did not intervene in the conflict and the coalition, of which Saudi Arabia was a member, undertook to protect the Hebrew state from possible Iraqi attacks.   

However, the most important Saudi Arabian initiative to date is the Arab Peace Initiative, presented in 2002 by the then Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. The document offered the complete normalisation of relations between the Arab states and Israel and the protection of all the states in the region in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from all the occupied territories and recognition of the independence of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. Moreover, a "just solution" should be found to the problem of the Palestinian refugees who want to return to the territory. This marked a significant moment since all the members of the Arab League supported the proposal, thus opening the door to a collective recognition of Israel, which would mark the end of the years of blockade represented by the Khartoum Summit. Although Israel rejected the initiative, today it continues to be the starting point for a peaceful solution to the conflict.   

If the Gulf War showed that apparently rival countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia could work on the same front in the face of a common enemy, the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 laid the foundations for what has subsequently been a strategic alliance in the region between Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran. During the war, the House of Health described the intervention of the Shiite group as irresponsible and inadequate, and accused the organisation of harming Lebanon and the region more generally. From that moment on, both countries began to make their concerns about Iran's expansionist ambitions and nuclear capability more public, considering it to be the biggest threat the Middle East faces today.   

REUTERS/TOM BRENNE - From left to right, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Abdullah bin Zayed,
REUTERS/TOM BRENNE - From left to right, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Foreign Minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Abdullah bin Zayed,

Since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, the Hebrew country and Saudi Arabia have seen their relations worsen or improve according to the historical moment. Although on many occasions Saudi Arabia has been highly critical of Israel, in practice it has done nothing to compromise the country's existence or survival, opting instead for mediation diplomacy in order to achieve a peaceful end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This is also due to the importance of the alliance with the United States, which both Israel and Saudi Arabia wish to maintain. 

Saudi Arabia today: the Abraham Accords and the dilemma of normalising relations with Israel  

In recent years, the dynamics of the region have changed. New concerns for the governments of Saudi Arabia and Israel, such as Iran's regional ambitions, the instability caused in many states by Arab revolts, the strengthening of political Islam and the emergence of terrorist groups such as Daesh, among others, appear to be drawing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict out of the focus of regional policies. That is, if previously it was the conflict that influenced other political aspects of the region, now it appears that other issues are influencing the development of the conflict. This new situation appears to have influenced the states in the region, which are increasingly moved by pragmatic considerations and following the rule of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend".  

This has been proved in recent months by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, which, with the mediation of the United States, have signed agreements for the normalisation of relations with Israel establishing full diplomatic relations with it. The question now is whether Saudi Arabia will follow in its footsteps or whether, on the contrary, it will maintain its current stance, advocating the Arab Peace Initiative as an instrument for achieving a peaceful end to the conflict, with the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlements from the territory occupied in 1967 and the recognition of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. In recent years, particularly since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince in 2017, many structural changes aimed at modernising the country have taken place, such as the Saudi Vision 2030, gender reforms and, more recently, the decision to open up Saudi Arabian airspace to flights from Israel.   

According to several writings and press publications, Israel and Saudi Arabia have cooperated discreetly on common aspects and interests, though it is important to stress here that this supposed cooperation would be secret and therefore cannot be confirmed or denied with certainty. The fact is that, in one way or another, both states are bringing their positions closer together, with members of both governments making particularly soft statements about the other party. An example of this is the interview the same Crown Prince gave to Time magazine in 2018, in which he openly recognised Israel, its common interests with the Hebrew state, and identified Iran as "the cause of the problems in the Middle East".   

AFP/SAUL LOEB - From left to right, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and the United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
AFP/SAUL LOEB - From left to right, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and the United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Many analysts agree on the importance that Mohammed bin Salman could have in a possible agreement to normalise relations with Israel. Unlike his father, the crown prince has not experienced the Arab-Israeli conflict so closely, which could influence him to be more open to this option. For his part, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Guardian of the Holy Places of Islam, continues to advocate the Arab Peace Initiative, as he stated in a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September this year. Traditionally, Saudi Arabia has been cautious about adopting major changes in policy, which could partly explain why it has not been the first Gulf state to normalise relations with Israel. Although it has supported the Abraham Accords with gestures such as permission to fly over Saudi airspace, the House of Saud has preferred not to be the first to take delicate decisions whose consequences would go beyond the national sphere. One of the unknowns, therefore, is whether a hypothetical normalisation of relations with Israel could take place during the lifetime of the current king or whether, in contrast, it will be necessary to wait for Mohammed bin Salman to take over the reins of the country in order for this to happen. 

For the time being, several events have set off the alarm bells in recent months. In September Jared Kushner, President Trump's adviser, travelled to Saudi Arabia to meet the Crown Prince in order to discuss the peace process with Qatar and resume the dialogue between Israel and Palestine. In October, Prince Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, former head of Saudi intelligence and former ambassador of the kingdom in Washington DC, gave a television interview in which he strongly criticised the Palestinian leaders for their negative reactions to the peace agreements signed between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel. According to several press sources, the veteran diplomat would not have made such statements without the previous authorisation of the king or the crown prince, which suggests that this could be an official strategy to "prepare the Saudi population for a possible agreement with Israel". Perhaps the biggest episode of international confusion took place last month when several Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Netanyahu had met Mohammed bin Salman in secret in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government denied the reports and argued that there had only been one meeting with US representatives.   

Responses to these events have not been long in coming, as the hypothetical normalisation of relations with Israel would not only be rejected by many in the Arab world but also, it seems, by some members of the Saudi royal family. That same month Prince Turki bin Faisal, also former ambassador to Washington DC, took part in the Manama security forum, where he compared the Abraham Accords to an open wound that is attempting to be healed with palliatives and painkillers. Furthermore, he accused Israel of being "the last colonial power of the West in the Middle East" and of imprisoning Palestinians in concentration camps. These statements show that a hypothetical agreement with Israel would not be welcomed by everyone in the Saudi leadership, despite the statements of the foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, that the position of the kingdom towards the Palestinian people had not changed. 

PHOTO/REUTERS - The word "Peace" is seen in English, in the Tel Aviv building in Tel Aviv, Israel, on 15 September 2020 
PHOTO/REUTERS - The word "Peace" is seen in English, in the Tel Aviv building in Tel Aviv, Israel, on 15 September 2020 

  If one thing is certain, it is that any approach or public gesture to Israel entails a cost in terms of reputation for Saudi Arabia. The title held by the king of Guardian of the Holy Places of Islam gives him, apart from the economic capacity of the kingdom, a leadership status and a very high level of influence in the Islamic world, an influence that could be degraded if relations with Israel are normalised before the conflict with Palestine is ended. On a regional level, Turkey and Iran have not wasted the opportunity to criticise the UAE and Bahrain for "betraying" the Palestinian people-criticism that would foreseeably be repeated if Saudi Arabia reached an agreement with Israel. Furthermore, it is not very clear what the reaction of the same Saudi population would be. Although normalisation would foreseeably be part of the process of modernising the state, the national population has not called for reforms in this respect as it has been able to demand in terms of gender equality or combating corruption. Finally, it is important to consider the degradation the kingdom would suffer in the eyes of the Palestinian population. It is likely that images of rallies and protests in Gaza and the West Bank, such as those that took place after the signing of the Abraham Accords, will be repeated.   

In conclusion, it is not known if and when Saudi Arabia will normalise relations with Israel. The relationship between the two states is complex, traditionally characterised by enmity and mistrust, with episodes of cooperation when it served the interests of both parties and with the House of Saudi Arabia adopting a role of mediator of the conflict in recent decades. Although Saudi Arabia's rhetoric has traditionally been supportive of the Palestinian cause, in recent years it has been questioned whether the change in the region's geopolitical landscape would bring about a change in the priorities of the major powers, such as Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran. Should this normalisation occur, it will be necessary to monitor closely the internal and external consequences it will have for the Gulf, unlike Israel, which has time on its side and, it seems, the chance to win the game.