How deep are the Israel-Saudi ties?
By Mona Zaid
The answer may lie in the broader context of the crown prince’s grand scheme, he wants to bring about dramatic change in Saudi Arabia. But if you read the Atlantic interview, to say he is a man with a vision is almost an understatement.
Many would criticize how he is going about things – the prosecution of the war in Yemen, for example. But ultimately to achieve his ambitions he needs to exist in a region at peace ,old rivalries need to be resolved , and none more so than the Israel-Palestinian dispute, which appears as hopeless as ever.
The far-from-transparent Saudi-Israel relationship may be about more than just ganging up against Yemenis, but if it is to realize any larger goals.
Evidence is mounting of increasingly close ties between Israel and five of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – none of which have formal relations with the Jewish state, Trump highlighted this accelerating change on his first foreign trip as president – to the Saudi capital Riyadh – by flying on directly afterwards to Tel Aviv.
Hopes for Saudi help with his much-hyped “deal of the century” to end the Israel-Palestine conflict have faded since then. Yet Netanyahu is seeking to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. And there has even been speculation about a public meeting between him and Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Saudi crown prince who was widely blamed for the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi .
That would be a sensational – and highly controversial – moment, which is why Saudis are signaling frantically that it is not going to happen. Still, the meeting with Netanyahu in Warsaw went far beyond anything that has taken place before. The abnormal is becoming normal.
The Mohammed Bin Salman – in effect the day-to-day ruler of Saudi Arabia – said: “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation, I believe the Israelis have the right to have their own land.
He added, “we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations .”
This kind of public recognition of Israel’s right to exist in an area associated with ancient Jewish history is rare from a Arab leader.
Israel in particular has not missed any opportunity to brief, nudge and hint at the growing depth of its dialogue with Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has been much more reticent, but Salman’s comments together with a recent decision to allow Air India flights to and from Tel Aviv to transit Saudi air-space are tangible signs of a shift in Saudi Arabia too.
Notably, President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly backed bin Salman amid a global uproar over his alleged involvement in the October 2 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi mission in Turkey.
There is also a pragmatic recognition in Gulf capitals of the benefits of security, technological and economic links with an unassailably powerful Israel – not only for their own sake, but also because of the US approval that brings, Israel sees ties with the Gulf as an important way of demonstrating its own influence in Washington.
“It is doubtful whether the scope of (US) aid to Arab countries could have been sustained without the support of Aipac (the main pro-Israel lobby group) and Jewish organizations,” suggests Eran Lerman, former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council.
The Palestinian issue has gone away. “Normalization” (of relations with Israel) remains a dirty word for millions of Arabs, which is why autocratic Gulf leaders fear popular opposition to their new cosiness with Netanyahu.
The links are most visible with the UAE, where Israel, uniquely, has an official diplomatic presence at the headquarters of the International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi – though both countries emphasise that they do not have bilateral relations.
The Emiratis “believe in Israel’s role because of their perception of Israel’s close relationship with the US, but also due to their sense that they can count on Israel against Iran,” an Israeli diplomat noted in 2009, adding that in general Gulf Arabs “believe Israel can work magic”
. In 2012, when hackers breached the computer system of Saudi Aramco, the national oil company, Israeli businesses were called in. Israel reportedly sold drones to Saudi Arabia via South Africa, but denied that it had sold its “Iron Dome” system to defend the kingdom from missile attacks Houthi in Yemen.
In 2018 Israeli media were allowed by military censors to report that the Israeli and Saudi chiefs of staff had met at a Washington conference for commanders of US-allied armies.
Intelligence cooperation between Israel and the Gulf states is even more secretive – although Israeli politicians and officials do refer to it occasionally.
“The Israeli intelligence folks who have gone to these countries have met the leaders,” said a former senior US diplomat. “They know each other fairly well.” Obama’s first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, reportedly “knew that the UAE and Saudi Arabia were … working together behind the scenes with the Mossad to counter Houthi .”
“There is now contiguity between the Israelis and Saudis,” says a western intelligence source. “You have effectively the kind of security relations between countries that exist when they share a border. There are practical things that need to be sorted out, so you end up with a routine relationship which can create more senior contact and a more strategic outlook on both sides.”
Israel, it is said, has not always responded to requests for intelligence, even when submitted via the US and there are indeed indications of an internal debate in Israel about the value of links with the kingdom.
Our [Gulf] Arab brothers … have stabbed us in the front and the back, abandoning us politically while embracing Israel,” complained the Palestinian activist Kamel Hawwash. “Israeli flags could soon be flying in the skies of some Gulf states.
The bottom line is that Israel has success to provide the incentives required for the Saudis and their allies to destroy the Yemen and Yemenis.