Saudi Arabia’s claims to be one of the leaders of the Arab and Muslim world prevent it from recognizing the State of Israel’s right to exist within its current borders, while Tel-Aviv in its turn rejects the plan for Middle East Regulation (MER) proposed by Riyadh involving a reversion to the pre-1967 status quo. As a result of various domestic and international factors neither side will change their diametrically opposite positions and maintain official contacts.
However, the absence of diplomatic relations does not prevent unofficial contact between Israeli and Saudi representatives. Recently there have been frequent media reports on meetings between representatives of the two states and there have even been claims that the Saudis are ready to provide Israel with an air corridor and air bases for rescue helicopters, tanker aircraft and drones (unmanned aircraft systems – UAS) in case Israel decides to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Some of these reports have been denied by officials but others have nevertheless been confirmed.
In particular, according to information of a Jerusalem Post correspondent citing diplomatic sources of both countries, since the beginning of 2014 there have been as many as five secret meetings between the Saudis and Israelis, in India, Italy and the Czech Republic. Reports appeared in the Arab press that senior members of the Israeli security forces, including the head of Mossad, secretly visited Riyadh and held discussions there with their Saudi equivalents. Apparently there were even negotiations between the then director general of the Saudi Intelligence Agency, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, with senior officials of the Israeli secret services in Geneva.
On June 5, 2015 Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry Dore Gold met Saudi met with General Anwar Majed Eshki at a conference in Washington, when the latter presented his strategic MER plan. Key highlights of this document are devoted to establishing cooperation between the Arab countries and Israel and the need for joint efforts to isolate the Iranian regime.
King Salman of Saudi Arabia commissioned prince and media magnate Al-Waleed bin Talal to start a dialogue with the Israeli intellectual community with the aim of reestablishing contact with the neighbouring country. Prince Talal called on all inhabitants of the Middle East, which were torn apart by war, to end their hatred of the Jewish people. He also declared that his visit to Jerusalem signifies the beginning of ‘peace and brotherliness’ between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Arab media reported that Saudi Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Ali Al-Naimi confirmed that his country is ready to export ‘black gold’ to any place in the world, including Israel. Saudi Minister pointed out that the majority of the Arab world does not see any obstacles to trade relations. In August 2014 the head of the Saudi Foreign Ministry Prince Saud Al Faisal declared at the world assembly of Islamic scholars in Jeddah: “We must reject planting hatred towards Israel and we should normalize relations with the Jewish state.” Dore Gold, mentioned above, told the news agency Bloomberg: “Our standing today on this stage does not mean we have resolved all the differences that our countries shared over the years. But our hope is we will be able to address them fully in the years ahead and Riyadh can become a strategic partner of the Jewish state”.
It should be noted that this mobilization of contacts between representatives of Saudi Arabia and Israel has been taking place on the eve of and after the signing of the agreement between international mediators and Iran on the latter’s nuclear program. Tel-Aviv called the agreement ‘a historical mistake’ and Riyadh perceived it as a direct threat to its national interests. It is no coincidence that the Saudi King and some of his direct counterparts in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) decided not to participate in the summit of this regional organization on May 14, 2015 in Camp David (in the US). Soon after, on June 18, 2015 at the St Petersburg Economic Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Saudi Defence Minister and son of Saudi King Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud. The King himself is expected to come to Russia on an official visit before the end of this year. In other words, Riyadh made it clear to Washington that the deal with Iran is forcing the Saudi leadership to look for new allies. Time will tell whether these steps are more to do with a genuine desire of the Saudis to diversify their foreign relations, or they are simply a lever to put pressure on the US administration.
The US had to react quickly to the aggressive declarations and actions of its strategic allies and regional partners. Washington assured both Riyadh and Tel-Aviv that the IAEA and American special services will keep a tight watch on Teheran implementing all the conditions of the agreement signed in Vienna and that the sanctions on Iran will only be lifted gradually. The GCC countries were promised to receive supplies of new modern weaponry in increasing amounts and on preferential terms. In the very near future the question of creating a common anti-missile system for the GCC as a whole will be resolved. This system will cover the Arab Peninsula with a ‘reliable shield’ from a possible attack by Teheran. The US also supported Saudi Arabia in its bombing of Shiite rebels in Yemen. In order to support the air operation of the coalition led by Riyadh the US fueled the Saudi fighter aircraft and provided intelligence and equipment. It was even reported that Israel, at the request of Washington, also provided its intelligence data on Yemen to the Saudis.
In order to calm the Israelis following the deal with Iran, Washington promised to increase its annual financial aid to Israel for the entire 10-year duration of the implementation of the ‘Vienna Pact’ – by around one and a half billion US dollars. The US additionally accepted responsibility to finance the further development of the Iron Dome anti-missile system and to increase Israel’s missile supplies, which were depleted following last year military operation in Gaza. The Israeli air force will also get a squadron of the latest F-35 fighter-bombers on favourable terms. At the same time, in the near future joint exercises will be held with the air forces of Israel, the US and several European countries for the first time in six years. These exercises will include perfecting ‘missile attacks and bombing raids on targets located in far-off countries’.
This way, the agreement between the international mediators and Iran over its nuclear program apparently encouraged sworn enemies to look for compromises and common ground to counter the threat they both face from Iran. Neither the Israeli nor Saudi leadership believe that the Vienna agreement will help to restrict further Iranian expansion in the region. For them, the myth of the ‘Shiite Arc’ or ‘Shiite Crescent’ is an objective reality. Tel-Aviv is worried that Teheran will nevertheless end up possessing nuclear weapons and will break Israel’s hegemony in the Middle East. Moreover, Israelis expect Iran to start actively aiding anti-Israeli radical half-military half-political groupings (Hamas, Hezbollah and others). Riyadh, in its turn, is sure that with the lifting of restrictive sanctions the Islamic Republic of Iran will make significant progress in scientific, technical, trade, economic, and other areas, and will improve its combat readiness and the fighting capacity of its armed forces. In this case, Teheran’s ability to support the Shiite majority in Iraq, the government of Bashar Assad in Syria and Shiite communities in countries of the Persian Gulf, Lebanon and Yemen will significantly grow. A real threat will emerge to the ruling Sunni groups in the Gulf countries, especially in Bahrain, where two-thirds of the population is Shiite, in Yemen and in Saudi Arabia itself (its eastern province), and in other countries of the region. The Gulf monarchs are clearly not ready to share power, natural resources or finances with representatives of their large Shiite communities. The apparent Israeli-Saudi alliance, even though hidden from the masses for now, matches the interests of the US in the Middle East and Western Asia. Washington hopes that this will weaken anti-Israeli feelings in the Arab and Muslim world, create a reliable counterweight in the region to a possible strengthening of Iran, and isolate to the extent possible radical islamist Sunni and Shiite groups. The US, it would seem, is happy to see several centers of power at once (Israel, Turkey, Egypt, the Gulf monarchies and Iran) jostling or in competition with each other but dependent on Washington, with Riyadh together with Tel-Aviv assigned the role of regional gendarme. The Saudis’ counterinsurgency operations in Bahrain and Yemen and the support for opposition fighters in Syria confirm this thesis.
Stanislav Ivanov, PhD in History, Leading research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations and at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.