The Real Saudi-Israeli Relations

The authors assess a once-covert alliance between Israel and Arab Gulf monarchies and the Trump administration’s election-year hope to normalize it.

By Giorgio Cafiero and Lorenzo Carrieri
Special to Consortium News

Over the past two decades, Israel and Arab Gulf monarchies have forged a tacit partnership, increasingly aligning their interests and agendas, while hiding behind a public perception of being enemies.

Saudi-Israeli links are not new. They’ve made covert contacts through back-channels since Sheikh Kamal Adham’s time, when he ran the Saudi General Intelligence Directorate from 1965 to 1979. Though still having no official diplomatic relations, in recent years the Kingdom and Israel have put far less effort into concealing their unspoken strategic partnership.

Developments in the region — from Iran’s geo-political ascendancy in the region following Iraq’s Ba’athist regime’s destruction in 2003, to Lebanon’s Hezbollah battlefield performance during its war with Israel in 2006, and to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 — have allowed Riyadh and Tel Aviv to be more overt about their connection. The same can be said about the other Gulf Cooperation Council member-states and Israel (with the notable exception of Kuwait.)

Smoke over Haifa, Israel, after a rocket launched by Hezbollah hit the city; Aug. 12, 2006. (Tomer Gabel, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

Turning Point in 2006

The Saudi-Israeli partnership reached a turning point during the Hezbollah-Israel war of 2006, in which Riyadh slammed the Lebanese Shi’a group for taking actions against Israel that amounted to “illegitimate resistance” and a “miscalculated adventure.” Twelve years later, in 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), told The Atlantic that “there are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the [GCC] countries.”

Last year, an Israeli journalist leaked MbS’s comments during a meeting with pro-Israeli leaders in the U.S.: He reportedly said, “It’s about time the Palestinians take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining.” In early 2019, during the Warsaw Mideast Summit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office leaked video footage of Saudi Arabia and other GCC states’ foreign ministers supporting Israel’s right to defend itself while stating that confronting Iran was a higher priority than addressing the Palestinian question.

If Saudi-Israeli relations continue to strengthen, analysts should not be surprised. The two nations agree about the region’s conflicts and Iran’s role, and perceive what they regard as the same emerging threats; thus they have put religious and ideological differences aside at a time of unabated hostilities in Iran’s relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Israel.

As most other GCC states join Riyadh in normalizing relations with Israel, with Egypt and Jordan having established official diplomatic ties decades ago, it is increasingly clear that, despite some Palestinians, Lebanese and Syrians remaining militantly opposed to Israel, it is no longer an “Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Opposition to Democratic Reform

Although many analysts attribute the growth of Saudi-Israeli relations to the perceived Iranian threat, broader concerns about the region’s instability also explain the deeper tactical alliance. Put simply, neither country would welcome an “Arab Spring 2” or any events that could strengthen Islamists, or secular groups’ demands for democratic reforms. For Saudi Arabia, such movements could lead to its citizens’ challenging the rulers’ political, moral and religious legitimacy. For Israel, it is far less risky to have pro-U.S. regimes in Arab states led by strongmen such as Egypt’s Abdel Fateh el-Sisi, who keep their countries at peace with the Jewish State, than to have Arab societies’ electing governments that could adopt a fundamentally different approach to Israel and the Palestinians.

Doubtless, if Saudi Arabia (or any GCC state) and Israel officially normalize relations, it would mark a major diplomatic victory for the Trump administration, which has been pushing for them to move closer and unite against the perceived Iranian threat. If this happens before the 2020 presidential election, Trump could claim a watershed achievement on the international stage.

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in Rihad, Saudi Arabia, 2017. (White House/Shealah Craighead)

However, since overwhelming majorities in the Arab countries oppose their governments’ normalizing relations with Israel, the Saudi leadership would have to accept the risk of serious blowback. Indeed, for leaders in the Arab/Islamic world, the memory of Anwar al-Sadat’s assassination by Khalid Ahmed Showky al-Islambouli remains all too fresh after Sadat made peace with Israel.

Occasional Condemnations

To mitigate such risks, Saudi leaders will probably continue to occasionally condemn some Israeli actions or rhetoric in relation to the Palestinians: A case in point was Riyadh’s reaction to Netanyahu’s pre-election pledge to annex the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea (roughly 30 percent of the West Bank). On Sept. 11, Riyadh condemned Netanyahu’s vow as a “dangerous escalation” and “flagrant violation of the UN charter and the principles of international law.” As the Saudi Press Agency reported, officials also urged an “emergency meeting” of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The next day, King Salman spoke with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas by phone and reiterated Riyadh’s stance against Netanyahu’s pledge to extend Israeli sovereignty.

Regardless of these occasional public disagreements, the odds are good that the Saudis will pragmatically continue unofficial relations with Israel, as will most of the GCC states. However, Riyadh would likely see official diplomatic ties with Israel as a bit too much of a stretch for the Saudi Kingdom–despite Trump’s desires.

Most likely, it would rather wait for either Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to establish official diplomatic relations with Israel before Riyadh would make the move. And because Bahrain lost much of its sovereignty to Riyadh in the post-2011 period, it is difficult to imagine how its diplomatic overtures to Israel during the past few years could have occurred without Saudi authorization—if not the Kingdom’s blessings. 

Forecasting Saudi-Israeli relations is difficult. Still, in a region where both states feel increasingly threatened and most Arab officials only pay lip service to the Palestinians, Saudi and Israeli overlapping interests will likely drive the governments ever closer.

Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Lorenzo Carrieri (@CarrieriLorenzo) is an intern at Gulf State Analytics.

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14 comments for “The Real Saudi-Israeli Relations

  1. Andrew P
    October 4, 2019 at 09:30

    What could go wrong with this picture? There is a report that the Houthis went 300 km into the KSA and wiped out 3 Saudi brigades. What if the Houthis overthrow the House of Saud with the cooperation of the Shiites living under KSA rule?

  2. Zman
    October 1, 2019 at 10:56

    Finally someone brings up Saudi and Israeli cooperation pre 1970. As with the ‘oil embargo’ of ’73, most of what Americans know about US/Israeli/KSA relations is extremely lacking. No one mentions the Saudi fear of Iran and the Shah and his new US/European weapons, which we used to no end. The embargo was the brainchild of US oil companies, not KSA. OPEC was as well. This began the petro-dollar rise and international subjugation by currency. After the Shah got uppity and informed the west that he was going to be the one who controlled oil access and guaranteed stability in the gulf, gee there was an insurrection and the return of Khomeini…and the fall of Iran as a regional power. Then the full turn to KSA (and it’s near endless funds) by the US oil powers and their BFF, Israel. They now controlled the oil output of the world essentially and the decision was made to integrate KSA into the open gradually. Thus was born the first of US weapons sales to KSA (Peace Sun, Peace Sun II) in the early 80s under Reagan, where we sold them the worlds premier fighter, the F-15. NONE of which would have happened if Israel had objected. This was quite the facade, as KSA never amounted to any kind of military power, but they sure did support the MIC in the west and their security was therefore assured. They have continued to pour money into the MIC, their contribution to the cabal. As has been witnessed by their war on Yemen, it was all for naught, as their mercenaries failed to produce victory over the flip-flop warriors. The weapons the US sold to the Saudis are also outed as inefficient and ineffectual, excuses not with standing. Now the lies come hot and heavy as everyone involved try their hands at spinning the truth. So, if KSA and Israel are so involved with each other, why the objection to Israels further annexation? Because, unlike the House of Saud (who are crypto-jews, not Arabs) the population of KSA are Arabs and continue to hate Israel. When I was in KSA in the early 80s (Taif), Americans were as hated as Israelis. You did not leave the compound alone for any reason. Guess what? We and they are still hated…as are the royal family. This is why they rule with an iron hand and use Islam as a weapon against their own people. The royal family fears their own people and is the reason why they have a mercenary military made up of foreigners. It is no surprise to me that Yemen claims to have help inside of KSA. A Saudi, who was in the US for training, told us that if the royal family ever lost complete control, they would all be dead in days. I believe it is still true today.

  3. Martin
    September 30, 2019 at 23:16

    The US Israeli petromonarchy alliance is the the core of the imperialist system. They are opposed by nationalist anti-monarchist antifascist forces. Sectarianism, however potent is merely a tool of those trying to hold back the wheel of history.

  4. JonnyJames
    September 30, 2019 at 18:05

    I think Henry Kissinger visited KSA in 1973 and set them straight on a couple of things: no more oil embargoes, don’t do anything against Israeli interests; also sell your oil exclusively in US dollars, then roll over “petrodollars” into US treasuries, stocks & weapons. This was crucial in maintaining the US $ reserve & numeraire status after Nixon closed the gold window in 1971.

    Since the House of Saud was installed by the British, and has no legitimate right to rule over the territory now called KSA, they could be easily removed if they don’t do as their told. They have to toe the line. The minute they do something against US/Israeli interests or threaten to sell oil in another currency, I think they would be “regime changed” very quickly

    • Sam F
      September 30, 2019 at 19:32

      There is truth there, but the US needs pseudo-Arab proxies to run KSA et al, and would have to do the regime change through proxies or risk a revolution there. When AlQaeda et al finally come home to roost (and it is amazing that they have not) the US Mideast house of cards may collapse, and the sooner the better.

        September 30, 2019 at 20:15

        The OPEC embargo began in October 1973.

      • Fred
        October 4, 2019 at 12:55

        Daesh, or what ever they are calling it this month, is not going to bite the hand that feeds it.

    • Broompilot
      September 30, 2019 at 20:04

      The entire narrative about the Arab oil embargo rings false to me – billed as evil Muslim Arabs punishing the USA for supporting Israel. In fact, the USA had been printing money to pay for the Vietnam war, the space race and moon shots, and the newly passed Medicare and other parts of Johnson’s Great Society (and this after big JFK tax cuts).

      Meanwhile, dollars of diminishing value were piling up in the MidEast and Europe due to the dollar’s peg to gold and other’s currencies pegged to the dollar. Until that peg was gone and we went off the gold standard, Saudis and everybody else were getting shafted selling anything to the USA. I doubt it had anything to do with “Kissinger setting them straight” though our press probably sold us the usual hooey, and continues to do so.

        September 30, 2019 at 20:19

        Richard Nixon ended the dollar convertibility to gold in August, 1971.

    • Broompilot
      September 30, 2019 at 21:23

      I believe that there was a 2 step process. They had to prevent governments from demanding gold for their dollars, but went off the gold standard later or currencies were still pegged to the dollar. The situation was NOT resolved right away. I think the French or British may have even dispatched ships to collect. Not making this up.

    • Broompilot
      September 30, 2019 at 23:43

      From a history of the gold standard, “The gold standard ended on August 15, 1971. That’s when Nixon changed the dollar/gold relationship to $38 per ounce. He no longer allowed the Fed to redeem dollars with gold… The U.S. government repriced gold to $42 per ounce in 1973 and then decoupled the value of the dollar from gold altogether in 1976. The price of gold quickly shot up to $120 per ounce in the free market.”

      So, the point is the inflated dollar problem overseas was not over in October 73. In 1971 Nixon stopped the redemption to prevent a run on Fort Knox, but the dollar was not allowed to free-float until 1976. About that time inflation really took off here domestically.

      Again, the oil embargo had more to do with the value of the dollar than it ever did with the Israelis.

  5. Sam F
    September 30, 2019 at 17:08

    In short, the entire GCC-Israel relationship is based upon GCC fear of the US.
    There is no “petrodollar” risk motivating the US: it controls the GCC and does this for Israel.
    There is no Sunni-Shia divide beyond the conflicts created by the US.
    The GCC has foolishly alienated the much stronger Shia because they are dictators seeking US money.
    And if the US pursued democracy in the Mideast this would not have happened.

  6. Drew Hunkins
    September 30, 2019 at 16:41

    “…Riyadh slammed the Lebanese Shi’a group for taking actions against Israel that amounted to “illegitimate resistance”…”

    Unbelievable. This is after Israel waged relentless and vicious war on Lebanese civilians, shelling residential areas, medical clinics and other non-military sites repeatedly. Only after the Lebanese, in the form of Hezbullah, fight back, do they get maligned and smeared.

    • Nathan Mulcahy
      September 30, 2019 at 18:37

      I have always said that the Palestinian conflict is not a religious one. But it is profitable to market it as such.

Comments are closed.