In the Middle East, the month of September was marked by the signing of deals for peace and diplomatic relations between two countries, a very rare occurrence. In a part of the world marked by an extensive history of bloodshed, two agreements brokered by the U.S. and President Donald Trump were reached, with both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain establishing official ties with Israel.
The deals have made quite a splash on the world stage, and have even led Trump to receive nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. These accords, signed by leaders of the three countries at a much-anticipated White House event, are sure to shift the regional dynamics and strategic reality in the Middle East for the benefit of all the signatory nations as well as the U.S.
Unlike other notable agreements over the last 50 years, it appears that the accords signed in September could lead to full and harmonious relationships between Israel, the U.A.E. and Bahrain. Past deals between Israel and Middle Eastern nations, namely Egypt and Jordan, established what has mainly been “cold peace,” where the states primarily communicate about security issues and resource sharing but do not fully normalize relations.
The nature of these ties has almost certainly been influenced by the history of war between Israel and its neighbors to the east and southwest. Yet though Bahrain and the U.A.E have been hostile to Israel for much of its statehood, neither state has ever actually gone to war against Israel. The warm peace officialized through the U.S.-brokered accords will allow the nations to develop public and private economic ties, defense cooperation and coordinated research and development in efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Considering these factors, it is clear that each of the three nations will benefit tremendously from full normalization. Reports have indicated that other countries in the region may be looking to follow in the footsteps of Abu Dhabi and Manama and establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. One such state which has increasingly been involved in rumors of Arab-Israeli cooperation is Saudi Arabia. At one point, it appeared that the Saudis would be the first Gulf state to foster ties with Israel, with its neighboring allies following suit. Instead, the Saudi government curiously stands pat, with rumors of an impending Saudi-Israeli peace agreement continuing to surface.
Among the reasons why officials in Riyadh may be holding out on establishing relations with Israel, perhaps the primary factor thus far has been the opinion of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz. Over the years, the king has avidly promoted the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, and has reiterated that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be a precondition for full relations with Israel, as outlined in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Salman has remained consistent in this position even recently, and all statements from him have indicated that Riyadh will hold out for the creation of a Palestinian state for official relations with Israel to get started.
Salman’s vision has appeared at times to be quite different from that of his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported friction within the House of Saud about whether to follow the U.A.E. and Bahrain’s lead and strike an agreement with Israel. In his considerations, the crown prince appears to place high value in a possible relationship and sees Jerusalem as a key future ally in Saudi Arabia’s longstanding conflict with Iran. The Iranian regime considers both countries — as well as other Sunni Muslim states in the region — as bitter enemies and threats to its goal of a new Middle East, with Tehran as the center of power.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have long dealt with Iranian proxies on their doorsteps that have overturned or destabilized local governments and significantly hurt populations in the area. Further, both nations are recipients of significant military aid from the U.S. With their common challenges and regional perspectives, a collaborative diplomatic relationship could be significantly beneficial for both states. To his credit, Mohammed has realized that if Saudi Arabia wishes to maintain and improve its standing in the region, it must look to any possible friends for support against the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially one with such substantial economic, technological and military prowess.
It is also possible that after diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel are established, the prospects for a two-state solution could be even greater. Palestinian officials may be more inclined to seriously come to the negotiating table once they realize that their cause is no longer a barrier towards growing Arab reconciliation with Israel.
Additionally, Israel’s leaders may feel more secure in reaching an arrangement if they feel that their Arab allies will assure that the Palestinians honor their commitments and fully abide by the terms of a future peace accord. The strife between Israel and the Palestinians has its roots in a conflict that has spanned over a century. With no immediate end in sight, Riyadh should not wait for a resolution to strengthen its position in an ever-turbulent region.
With these potential outcomes in mind, Salman should become the next in what will hopefully be a long list of leaders to take advantage of the opportunity to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. With full normalization, Saudi Arabia will be able to secure the economic and strategic benefits that come with having Israel in one’s corner, while taking a step to promote the Israeli-Palestinian peace for which he has advocated for years.
In international affairs, that certainly qualifies as a win-win situation, and Salman should not be afraid to make the move. Though normalization with Israel might not appear to be popular domestically, Saudi citizens will surely benefit from a strong, often like-minded partner, as well as the influx of foreign investment and financial opportunities. If such a deal also brings Israelis and Palestinians closer to a solution, few Saudis will be able to argue against it.
In a region where violence often begets more violence, perhaps some peace will lead to even more peace. As states in and out of the Mideast continue to discover the advantages of making Israel into a friend, the House of Saud should waste no time in doing so itself. With threats mounting and a crisis developing around the globe, ties with the Jewish state will only increase Riyadh’s well-being and stability at home and abroad.
Noah Ente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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