Israel and Saudi Arabia: Forging Ties on Quicksand

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No. 132/2014 dated 8 July 2014

Israel and Saudi Arabia:
Forging Ties on Quicksand

By James M. Dorsey



Distrust of US-led efforts for a negotiated end to the Iranian nuclear crisis, animosity

towards the Muslim Brotherhood, a shared determination to defeat Al Qaeda, and

questions about the reliability of the US as an ally have persuaded Saudi Arabia and

Israel to go public with their tacit alliance despite the absence of diplomatic relations

between the two erstwhile enemies.




LONG GONE are the days when Saudi Arabia was the only Arab country that had

visa rules to bar Jews from entering the kingdom and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince

Saud al Faisal gave visiting US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger the Protocols of

Zion, a 19th century anti-Semitic tract, as a gift. Saudi Arabia still declines to forge

official ties with Israel as long as it refuses to withdraw from territories it conquered

during the 1967 war. But perceptions of common threats have expanded long-

standing unofficial ties to the point that both the kingdom and Israel feel less

constrained in publicly acknowledging their contacts and signalling a lowering of the

walls that divide them.

As states, Saudi Arabia and Israel share few, if any common values, despite some

cultural values that are common to Wahhabism, the austere form of Islam adopted

by the kingdom, and ultra-orthodox Jews. But they increasingly have common

interests. Both states perceive Iran, particularly an Iran that is a nuclear power, as

an existential threat; both also share a determination to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood

as well as Al Qaeda-inspired groups and defend as much of the political status quo in

the region as possible against change that threatens to replace autocratic regimes

with ones dominated by Islamist militants.

Breaching secrecy

A series of recent events indicate that those common interests have made Saudi

Arabia, which  projects itself as a the leader of the Arab world, less sensitive about

going public about relations with Israel in the absence of a settlement of the Palestinian

problem. As a result, Israel, which has long accommodated a Saudi need for secrecy,

is also becoming more public about cooperation between the two states.

“Everything is underground, nothing is public. But our security cooperation with Egypt

and the Gulf states is unique,” said General Amos Gilad, director of the Israeli defence

ministry’s policy and political-military relations department “This is the best period of

security and diplomatic relations with the Arab. Relations with Egypt have improved

dramatically” since last year’s military coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected

president, Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brother.

Describing Israel’s security border with Jordan, the only Arab state alongside Egypt to

have signed a peace treaty with Israel, as the border between Jordan and Iraq, Gilad

went on to say: “The Gulf and Jordan are happy that we belong to an unofficial alliance.

The Arabs will never accept this publicly but they are clever enough to promote common


Despite repeated Saudi denials of any links to Israel and official adherence to an Arab

boycott of anything Israeli, the kingdom has signalled a relationship in recent weeks

with an encounter in Brussels between former intelligence chiefs of the two countries

and the first time a Saudi publisher has published an Arabic translation of a book by

an Israeli academic.

Step by step

The exchange in late May between Prince Turki bin Faisal al Saud, a full brother of

Foreign Minister Prince Saud who headed Saudi intelligence for 24 years, and General

Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief, constituted the most high

profile Saudi acknowledgement of relations. Saudis and Israelis have met before in

public  but Prince  Turki went out of his way this time to promote a 2002 Saudi-

sponsored peace plan that offers Arab recognition of the Jewish state in exchange for

a full Israeli withdrawal from occupied territory and a solution for the Palestinians as a

step-by-step process rather than a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

The exchange followed the controversial publishing of an Arabic translation of ‘Saudi

Arabia and the New Strategic Landscape’ by Joshua Teitelbaum, a professor at Bar

lan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. While Saudi newspapers

have long published columns by left-wing, dovish Israeli writers opposed to their

government’s policy, Teitelbaum’s book was the first by a mainstream Israeli writer

published by a Saudi publisher.

The openings notwithstanding, Israelis and Saudis appear to differ in their

expectations of how far closer relations can go. Prince Turki signalled in Brussels that

he saw cooperation between the two states on specific issues as a first step towards

a solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That was a far cry from Gilad’s tone who

compared Israel’s improved ties to conservative Arab states as “good weather” and

cautioned that one should not forget that “clouds will come” in a region in which states

are collapsing, tribes dominate and Israeli military superiority is its only guarantee.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International

Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute

of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent

World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.
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