The current conflicts in the Middle East and the most recent changes in the region’sl leaderships have revealed discreet alliances that have developed in the shadows of the official speeches for decades. The most surprising of which is the one between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
The Middle East is very much influenced by the conflicts between Arabs and Israelis, Sunnis and Shiites, and Saudi Arabia and Iran. The whole array of open fronts imposes limits on the actors involved. But changes in their alliances are possible. This has been the case of Israel and Saudi Arabia, which do not keep diplomatic relations, but do share a close collaboration with the United States and a great interest on weakening the power of Iran in the region.
Iran, the common enemy
The thaw in relations between these two apparently confronted states has been widely covered by the press, after the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. Mohammed bin Salman stated to the North American magazine The Atlantic, “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land”. The Saudi Prince has also assured that “there are a lot of interests we share with Israel ” in a conversation full of praise with the editor of the publication, a journalist with an Israeli passport, Jeffrey Goldberg.
The exchange between the Saudis and Israelis is not new, but it has never been so often mentioned in the press in both countries. For example, the Commander-in-Chief of the Israel Defense Forces has told the Saudi electronic newspaper Elaph that his country is prepared to exchange information of intelligence related to Iran with Riad . On the part of the Saudis, the recent words of the Crown Prince and strongman of the country have been the most convincing and explicit declaration in this regard.
In addition, and in a gesture aimed to garner the sympathy of the Israeli and Western public opinion, Mohammed has compared the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, with Hitler. For the Saudi monarch, “Khamenei makes Hitler look good” because, according to him, “Hitler tried to conquer Europe” but “the supreme leader is trying to conquer the world.”
The reformer prince
The public statements by Mohammed were made on his tour in the United States to attract new investments. Saudi Arabia has an ambitious plan of modernization and diversification of its economy, which still is mostly dependent on oil.
Western media has considered Prince Mohammed as a political reformer since his appointment in June. This is the image of him that they spread. The fact that in November 2017, he ordered the arrest of more than 200 individuals in a spectacular anti-corruption operation has only contributed to this thought. That operation had the dual aim of getting rid of possible rivals in the country, and forging ahead with the image of a modern prince who wants to start a new era.
Among the persons under arrest, who were confined to several luxury hotels in the capital, there were eleven princes, dozens of business executives and some ministers and provincial governors.
Western media has also been dazzled by two recent news: the lifting of the prohibition that for decades has prevented Saudi women from driving and the opening of cinemas in the Arab kingdom after 35 years of prohibition.
The official rhetoric that the Saudi Arabian authorities have maintained for decades with respect to Israel, the Jews and the Western idea of Human Rights is well known. Many articles and studies have been published about it including a work by the Center for the Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom which exposes that the school textbooks of the kingdom encourage Saudi children to hate Christians and Jews. In the case of the Jews, the textbooks assure that the fight with Muslims will last until the Day of the Final Judgement. The texts for children also contain references to the supposed will of the Jews of controlling the world and defend the authenticity of the Russian anti-semitic propagandistic work, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Therefore, Saudi Arabia has not changed as much as the publicity campaign launched by the Wahhabi country wants us tobelieve. For the time being, the changes are superficial or linked to the field of the external image. Among others, Prince Mohammed has made a donation of 930 million dollars to the Yemen Humanitarian Fund, despite the fact that Saudi fighters attack the civil population and the infrastructures there and are turning Yemen into an immense empty lot.
As a matter of fact, in October 2017, the UN included the Saudi kingdom and the Arab coalition that bombs Yemen since 2015 on its black list of groups that murder and mutilate minors. However, that same year, the UN awarded the Saudi regime with the nomination of Faisal bin Hassan Trad to chair the UN Human Rights Council (HRC).
Simultaneously, humanitarian agencies have accused Saudi Arabia of making generous purchases of weapons to the United States in order to silence the critics of the Western powers about the intervention in Yemen.
Syria, Lebanon and Kurdistan
The bond between Israel and Saudi Arabia is a consequence of the confrontation that both countries maintain with Iran. The Tehran regime maintains a very hostile discourse against Israel and questions its very existence. In parallel, it threatens to destabilize the Saudi regime through its support to the opposition.
At the regional level, Iran has managed to place Lebanon, Syria and Iraq under its orbit of influence at the expense of the Arab powers. As a consequence of this, the Saudis consider any Shiite country or government as an enemy. While at the internal level, Riad fears that Iran could threaten the regime through the Shiite population settled in the oriental region, the area where the discriminated and impoverished Shiite population is concentrated and the place where the main oil fields of the country are located.
The confrontation with Iran has already made Israel and Saudi Arabia position themselves in favor of the same factions in three regional conflicts: Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. In the three cases, the anti-Iranian alliances sponsored by the United States have been, for the time being, a failure.
In Syria, Israelis and Saudi Arabians have given support to the armed groups that have been destabilized in the country in their fruitless fight to overthrow the regime of president Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis fund jihadist groups there, while Israel has been intervening in several occasions between the Syrian troops and the groups ideologically close to Al-Qaeda, when the Arab army has besieged and has come close to defeating the rebellious groups at the Israeli border.
Regarding Lebanon, in November, the Saudis forced the resignation of the Prime Minister of the country, the Sunnite Saad Hariri, in the face of his resistance to begin a conflict with the Shiites of Hezbollah. Hariri is the leader of the main Sunni Muslim and is seen by many as the voice of Saudi Arabia in Lebanese political life.
The attempt to exile Hariri from public life has been a gesture of Saudi despair in the face of the increasing power of Hezbollah that is difficult to read. It could mean the renunciation of the Saudis to control the country or their withdrawal from the zone awaiting an eventual Israel attacks to Lebanon in order to weaken the pro-Iranian Shiites there.
Further north, both countries have given support to the secessionist movement in the Iraqi Kurdistan with the objective of weakening the authorities of Baghdad, allies of Iran. In November a referendum of independence was celebrated. The “yes” won, but the Kurdish political leaders were not willing to implement the popular will. They wanted to use the result to press the authorities of Baghdad to acheive more power for its parties. They pushed the country to a conflict that they were not willing to assume. This has bounced back against them and has resulted in a reduction of the region autonomy.
The pro-Iranian government from Iraq sent the tanks and it took control of the main oil regions of the north of the country away from the Kurds. The interests from Israel and Saudi Arabia in the region have also come out prejudiced.
Patriotism vs stagnation
The Hebrew State and the House of Saud, the family that names the country, share interests and that’s why they open the door to tdirect cooperation. Nevertheless, there is a great difference between them that deserves to be highlighted. Israel allies with the main instigator of the most regressive version of Islam -and with whoever it feels more appropriate in every moment- with the purpose of protecting the country and its people.
However, the Saudi monarchy is capable of leaving in the background its commitment with the Palestinian cause, or to contradict the message that the regime scatters across their media and their schools, allying itself with the Hebrew State in order to lengthen the life of the regime. That is, of externalizing its position of power over the rest of the Saudi population.
Jordi Llaonart is an Arabist and an expert journalist on Islam and the Middle East. He has studied at the Universities of Tunis and Damascus. He has covered electoral processes in Iran, Yemen, Kuwait, Bahrain, Lebanon, Syria, Sri Lanka and Nepal, and has interviewed the Taliban and Iraqi insurgents influenced by Saddam Hussein.