The Unwritten Israeli-Saudi Alliance

Could Saudi Arabia’s Glasnost contribute to peace between Israel and moderate Arab states?

News from the Middle East is generally depressing.  In Turkey, the Erdogan dictatorship is eliminating all vestiges of free press, after it subverted the old Kemal Ataturk secular institutions including the judiciary and military.  Iran’s Islamic Republic dictatorship of the Ayatollahs is repressing its people, and the minority populations (Kurds, Baluch, and Ahwazi Arabs) in particular.  It has squandered a $150 billion gift from the Obama administration on foreign adventures (in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq) and on terror sponsorships.  Leaving Israel out of the picture, the only bright spot in the region is the positive reforms enacted by the young Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. The 32-year old prince has assumed full executive powers and is effectively running the kingdom.   

The Wall Street Journal (January 10, 2018) headlined a story with “Saudis Target Religious Extremism.” The subtitle of the story reads: “Crown Prince spearheads effort to embrace a more tolerant Islam; female drivers and music.”  Considering the past rigidity of the monarchy with its Sunni-Muslim Wahhabi-creed, the recent liberalizing actions by the crown prince are astounding.  According to the WSJ, Mohammed bin Salman’s social liberalization is “a vital part of his radical economic modernization plan, and has vowed to return his country to a more tolerant form of Islam.”

Part and parcel of that liberalization is the new Saudi attitude toward the Jewish state.  An Al-Jazeera (November 21, 2017) story quoted Kobi Michael, senior research fellow at the National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, that the Trump administration figures on closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel in order to break the deadlock of the peace process, which President Trump has described as the “ultimate deal.”  Kobe Michael went on to say that the unwritten alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel is based on shared strategic interests with other countries in the region, which he described as the “pragmatic Arab camp.”  Michael qualified the camp as being Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states with the exception of Qatar (that along with Turkey supports the Muslim Brotherhood jihadists).  The two strategic threats faced by the pragmatic Arab camp are: Iran and the Salafi or radical Islamic terrorism. Michael added that, “Unfortunately, the U.S. left a vacuum in the region which was filled by the Russians in Syria and by the Iranians and their proxies in other parts of the Middle East.  Israel (is therefore) perceived as the most reliable ally, and the Saudis understand pretty well that it is a good time to be good friends with Israel.”

According to Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, “In May 2003, Riyadh was struck by a triple suicide bombing attack in which 18 people were killed and Saudi Arabia shifted from being on the side of those launching these terrorist attacks to those who were victims of terrorism.  Basically, Saudi Arabia from that point onward was on the same side as the U.S. and Israel.”

Dore Gold lists three things that put Israel and Saudi Arabia on the same side:

First, there are the Sunni extremist organizations.  There was al-Qaeda in the past, and in recent years there has been ISIS, and both have mounted a threat to both our countries. Second, Iran looms large in the regional problems that both Israel and Saudi Arabia face. There’s the Iranian nuclear program, which is likely to lead to an operational nuclear weapon in the not-too distant future. The third common thread tying Israel and Saudi Arabia together is that both countries are facing Iranian efforts to destabilize our strategic environment: The Iranians have been seeking to encircle Israel by supporting terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip to our south, in Lebanon to our north, and now in Syria, and possibly even in the West Bank in the period ahead.  Today, it is the Islamic Republic of Iran that is providing the bulk of funding to the Hamas budget.  For Saudi Arabia, it’s clear that Iran has entered into Yemen through the Houthis to the south, they are trying to take over Bahrain, which they regard as a province of Iran, and they have these huge Shiite militias that have been active in Iraq as well.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel consider the Iranian-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.  Due to the crisis with Qatar, whom the Saudis accuse of supporting terrorism, the relationship between Riyadh and Gaza has been tense.  Qatar is a major supporter of Hamas financially and otherwise. Hamas has also rejected the Saudi Peace Plan of 2002, and seeks to liberate Palestine “as a whole,” meaning the destruction of Israel.  The Saudis, moreover, demanded that Doha halt its support for Hamas.

Naturally, Israeli technology and economic prowess has not been lost on the Saudis, particularly for Prince Mohammed bin Salman who seeks to modernize and revitalize the Saudi economy.  On June 17, 2017, The Times (London based) reported that, “Saudi Arabia and Israel are in talks to establish economic ties, a dramatic move that would put the Jewish state on a path to normal relations with the bastion of Sunni Islam and guardian of the two sacred Muslim cities.”

The Swiss newspaper Basler Zeitung is one of several reports over the past two years dealing with Israeli-Saudi cooperation.  It claimed that Saudi Arabia “is not only cooperating with Israel on regional developments, mainly involving Iran, but also considering purchasing defense systems,” such as the Iron Dome and tanks, “which Israel claims ha[ve] proven to be effective in countering rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.”

Saudi Arabia is not exactly experiencing a revolution, but things are changing in a fast pace since the ascent to full power of Mohammed bin Salman.  Only a year ago, the religious police would have shut down ComicCon, which was held in Saudi Arabia for the first time.  This kind of entertainment would have been rejected by the Wahhabi establishment, an arch conservative and reactionary movement of Sunni-Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia.  It is an austere form of Islam that insists on literal interpretation of the Koran.  In July, 2013, Wahhabism was identified by the European Parliament in Strasbourg as the main source of global terrorism.

Founded by Mohammed Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), Wahhabism stresses the absolute sovereignty of God.  It rejects reliance on the intercession of the Prophet Mohammed, and it has forbidden pilgrimages to saint’s tombs and it has pursued the destruction of domes and shrines.  Wahhabism opposes innovation, and advocates the return to the “purity of the first generation of Islam,” or Salafism. Since the foundation of the Saudi kingdom, a close alliance has existed between the Wahhabi clerical elites and the royal family, who has derived its legitimacy from the Wahhabis and in return, provided its foundations with billions of dollars.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that he wouldn’t allow either the Kingdom’s powerful religious establishment or its extremists to stand in the way of his plans for reform.  He has stripped the religious police of their power to arrest, and expanded the role of women in public life. He has also detained dozens of hardline clerics and ordered others to publicly speak respectfully about other religions.  The Crown Prince is betting on the fact that the large youth population in the Kingdom cares more about entertainment and economic opportunities than religious dogma.  Mohammed bin Salman’s success in transforming Saudi Arabia may contribute to open peace between Israel and the moderate Arab and Muslim states.