After Bahrain, spotlight on Saudi role amid normalization deals

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The larger picture for Saudi Arabia is more complex. It is the leading powerhouse of the Gulf.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (L) meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (R) during his visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 1, 2020 (photo credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (L) meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (R) during his visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 1, 2020

(photo credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

The announcement that Bahrain would normalize relations with Israel a month after a similar statement was made by the United Arab Emirates brings into the spotlight the role and importance of Saudi Arabia. Officially, Riyadh has stuck to the Arab Peace Initiative it supported in 2002 that envisions a two-state solution with concessions by Israel leading the way to recognition by Arab states.

The larger picture for Saudi Arabia is more complex.

It is the leading powerhouse of the Gulf. From a religious and military perspective, as well as size, Saudi Arabia is the driver behind the Gulf Cooperation Council and also the crisis in 2017 that caused Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Manama to break relations with Qatar.

That means Saudi Arabia is like the quiet calculating giant that has given its support for the UAE and Bahrain to move forward with Israel. Bahrain and the UAE both have different calculations in this. Bahrain was widely considered the country that could normalize relations first. However, its small size and Shi’ite population, as well as memories of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, illustrate that it may have been more vulnerable to threats had it made the normalization leap first.

The UAE by contrast has been termed the “little Sparta” of the Middle East. Abu Dhabi has led efforts against the Muslim Brotherhood and also been clear on concerns about Iran’s aggressive stance in the region. The UAE and Saudi Arabia led intervention in Yemen to stop Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in 2015. This made the UAE the most dynamic of the Gulf states in many ways, including its willingness to carve out relations with Israel.

Juxtaposed to the UAE’s dynamism is the role of Qatar, which sought to punch far above its weight over the last three decades, engaging in influence peddling and support for groups well beyond the heartland of the Middle East. In a sense Qatar’s freewheeling decisions, and its cozy relationship with Iran and Turkey, led to the break in relations in 2017.

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Now we can understand the key role of Saudi Arabia in all this. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is key to Riyadh’s current posture. He supported the war in Yemen and he has also stumbled at times by misreading the power of Qatar’s influence abroad and its ability to embarrass Saudi Arabia.

Yet MBS has weathered that storm and must calculate the kingdom’s next move. It has not defeated the Houthis despite five years of war. The Iranians still traffic drones and missiles to Sana’a and launch them weekly at Saudi Arabia. No amount of hi-tech US military equipment has stopped the problem.

Certainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE would both like more weapons, such as Reaper drones and F-35s, from the US. As we know from the controversy about the F-35 and the Israel-UAE deal, any chance for delivery of the 5th generation system will be met with controversy and also years of discussions.

Saudi Arabia’s stance has likely given a blank check to Egypt to praise the Bahrain deal. The statements by Cairo embracing the deal put wind in Manama’s sails. This is important because it shows a joint work among the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.

We already know that the UAE and Egypt have also formed closer ties over work with Greece and Cyprus to address Turkish aggression in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean. Israel and France have signed on as well. Here we can see a joint front emerging of Egypt-Greece-Cyprus-UAE and possibly Israel.

Where is Saudi Arabia in all this. Because it is focused on Yemen it appears to enable UAE and Egypt to go first. In this Bahrain is a bit of an after thought, since it is not a major military power.

For the US, the strategic partnership between these countries is clear. The US has the important al-Dhafra base in the UAE, where its F-35s fly from during recent drills with Israel; and the US has the 5th fleet headquarters in Bahrain and Udaid airbase in Qatar. Qatar matters here because it is engaging in strategic dialogue, the third round of meetings, with the US. In addition Qatar plays a key role keeping quiet in Gaza through funding.

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Herein lies the riddle of Saudi Arabia’s next calculations. It understands that US President Donald Trump has been a key ally and helped shield the kingdom from criticism during the Khashoggi affair, the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in Istanbul at the Saudi consulate.

Riyadh is concerned about Turkish and Iranian ambitions. It also wants to maintain its power in Islamic forums and also not let Turkey insert itself into Jerusalem. It understands Turkey is trying to undermine Saudi influence in Pakistan, Malaysia and elsewhere.

Riyadh is also concerned it has lost the consensus of support in Western countries and become a partisan issue. At home MBS is trying to push major economic reforms called Vision 2030. At the same time the assessment of Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, is that relations with Israel are inevitable.

Saudi Arabia looks to be ushering in this era of normalization by enabling its Gulf partners to move first, one at a time, like pieces on a chess board, and monitoring the reaction. First the UAE. Then Bahrain.

Riyadh also knows that Oman hosted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018, and Riyadh has enabled Israeli overflights. Sudan, where the pro-Turkish Muslim Brotherhood leader was pushed out in 2019, has also appeared more open to Israel.

In addition, MBS has hosted US evangelical leaders in 2018 and 2019, a sign of its growing interest not only in hearing out this group but also their views on Israel.

The question for Riyadh is when it thinks normalization could come. Could it come before the US election, a gamble on Trump succeeding. Or does it prefer to wait and see?

Another issue it must weigh is whether it wants to be seen as going back on its word about needing to see progress on Israel-Palestinian peace processes. Reports in the region suggest that while the US has pushed for Saudi normalization the kingdom must weigh its key personal relationship with the Trump administration against its long-term image, interests and pragmatism.

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That’s not to say that an October surprise might not be in the making, since the last two months have seen two key peace deals. With a lockdown looming in Israel and the government not appearing to want to make concessions to a Palestinian leadership that is divided, aging and won’t even speak with Israel or the White House, it’s unclear how this could come about.

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