An Uneasy Alliance: Why Saudi Arabia is Key to Israel’s Middle East Entry

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Saudi Arabian crown prince attending the G20 summit to negotiate the normalization of relationship with Israel (Image credit: The New York Times)

Senior US and Palestinian officials recently travelled to Riyadh to re-establish diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The emergence of diplomatic relations between Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Israel, however, is nothing ground-breaking and has been a theme throughout the last couple of years. Such examples include the UAE and Bahrain’s joint 2020 agreement to establish diplomatic relations with Israel and recognize its sovereign status. However, Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most influential Sunni state, refused to follow in the UAE and Bahrain’s footsteps and continues to not recognize Israel’s sovereignty today. However, Israel’s introduction into the Middle East may be dependent on Saudi Arabia, especially if it looks to end the geopolitical isolation present since the state’s founding in 1948. Iran’s looming presence in the region, which poses a threat to Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, may serve as a catalyst for Israel’s introduction into the Middle East.

Israel’s desire to establish diplomatic relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors has long been a goal for the nation. Israel’s previous isolation hampered its economic output as trade with its neighboring countries barely existed. This was evident as the number of goods Israel exported to the UAE increased from $58.5 million in 2020 to $384 million in 2021. Experts also state that their imports increased by 6.9 times, diversifying their economy as well as increasing their revenue from trade. However, further motivation for establishing diplomatic relations is also due to its lack of external sovereignty. Its ongoing conflict with Palestine is no secret, with tensions strained between the countries for decades. Despite Israel’s operation of the Iron Dome, regarded as one of the world’s most capable air defense systems, over 20,000 rockets have hit southern Israel since 2014. Diplomatic ties with Gulf states may calm external pressures on the nation and enable the formation of Saudi-esque strategic alliances.

Saudi Arabia’s regional influence may also be pivotal to Israel’s goals. As a GCC and Arab League member, the country exerts authority in the Gulf with its various strategic alliances. Its land mass – the largest in the Middle East – and abundance of natural resources, make it a powerful economic player in the region. Nonetheless, Saudi influence has faced consistent challenges from Iran, with both countries ultimately amidst a proxy war. This is evident in Yemen, with the ongoing civil war in the between the Houthis, an Iranian-backed armed organisation, and the Saudi-backed government. The Houthis’ 2014 capture of Sana’a sparked tensions and conflict in the Middle East, with both countries representing a bilateral hegemony in the region. Saudi Arabia’s frustrations with Iran may inspire the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel, a potentially valuable ally against the common enemy of Iran.

In 2017, informal diplomatic ties between both countries reportedly began over the common Iranian threat, according to Israeli minister Yuval Steinitz. Their mutual interests in Iran’s threat may encourage and ease an entrance to relations with Saudi Arabia. Although the establishment of diplomatic relations between both countries remains difficult to imagine, given the uncertainty over Israel’s potential concessions to Palestine, Saudi-Israeli talks have gained momentum. The G20 summit played host to negotiations between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and US President Joe Biden, the likely broker for any potential deal.

Written by Arash Moaref

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