• April 14, 2024

Time Is Running Out for Saudi Arabia

 Time Is Running Out for Saudi Arabia

OBIDEN HAS RUINED RELATIONS WITH SAUDIA ARABIA

Time Is Running Out for Saudi Arabia

March 29, 2024

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry issued a statement about the normalization of relations with Israel on February 7. It declared that Saudi Arabia would not establish relations with Israel until the “brotherly Palestinian people obtain their legitimate rights”—the creation and recognition of an independent state with 1967 borders and East Jerusalem as its capital. The statement refined and affirmed comments that Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan made in Davos three weeks earlier.

The announcement leaves Saudi security and interests to chance. The Saudi government is making the realization of relations between two countries, Israel and Saudi Arabia, contingent on the cooperation of a third party, the Palestinians. The need for diplomatic relations between Saud Arabia and Israel grows critical to maintaining security and stability in the Middle East as Iranian aggression escalates and American reliability deteriorates. The longer there are no diplomatic relations, the Saudis become more vulnerable. By conditioning Saudi-Israeli relations, the Kingdom has provided the Palestinians considerable leverage as well as an opportunity to undermine or hold Saudi interests hostage.

The Hamas attacks of October 7 and the subsequent Israeli response froze discussions about Saudi-Israeli diplomatic relations that began during the summer. Realizing relations with Israel is a challenging endeavor for the Kingdom, perceived to be a leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds. Pursuing those relations in the wake of Israel having displaced, maimed, or killed thousands of Palestinians is diplomatic suicide, a public relations nightmare, and a possible source of domestic unrest.

In the short term, the announcement by the Saudi Foreign Ministry is prudent. Calling for a Palestinian state before recognizing Israel demonstrates astuteness. The monarchy reinforces a long-held belief that regional stability begins with a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Defying that belief would be tantamount to abandoning an Arab brother, especially at a critical time of need; the Kingdom’s image in the Arab and Muslim worlds would be tarnished and its leadership questioned.

The announcement also thwarts potential domestic challenges to the monarchy’s rule. The idea of relations with Israel is not popular. According to polling in late 2023, 96 percent of Saudis believe that “Arab countries should immediately break all diplomatic, political, economic, and any other contacts with Israel, in protest against its military action in Gaza.” In the wake of the war, only 17 percent of the Saudis support the establishment of economic ties with Israel.

While the monarchy has attempted to insulate itself from Arab and Muslim criticism and from possible domestic unrest, conditioning relations with Israel on the establishment and recognition of a Palestinian state exposes Saudi Arabia to risks from Iran and the United States.

Each day without Saudi-Israeli diplomatic relations is a day that witnesses the further empowerment and enablement of Iran. Iran strives toward achieving nuclear weapons capabilities. It projects growing power through an array of militias that exacerbate conflicts, wreak havoc on maritime traffic, worsen economies, facilitate corruption, and defy the rule of law.

An ascendant Iran threatens Saudi Arabia and poses regional challenges. An empowered Iran can project its power into Saudi societal dynamics as it has in other Arab countries—by fomenting tension within the Shia community and between the Shia and Sunni communities. An enabled Iran funds and supports hostile actors on Saudi Arabia’s borders (Yemen and Iraq). A nuclear umbrella would provide regime security for Tehran—further empowering and enabling the aforementioned behaviors. A nuclear Iran also puts the region on a path toward nuclear proliferation.

The challenges do not bode well for Saudi Arabia’s security and interests. Domestic opposition and unrest can be galvanized. Saudi citizens and infrastructure can be targeted by drones and missiles from outside the Kingdom.

The challenges also threaten a primary endeavor of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Vision 2030. The Crown Prince’s commitments to diversifying the Kingdom’s economy, making the country a global hub, and modernizing other elements rely on foreign investment, global integration, and visitors. Will foreigners want to visit and invest in a project with a nuclear Iran in the neighborhood, nuclear proliferation on the horizon, and Iranian-supported militias fomenting conflict on its borders and throughout the region? In Yemen, the Houthi movement has demonstrated a penchant for disrupting maritime traffic and the global economy, as well as shooting missiles over and at Saudi Arabia. What is the guarantee that those actions will not happen in the future, especially if Iran is empowered and continues to support the Houthis and pursue regional dominance? Houthi disruption of maritime traffic in the Red Sea and their launching of missiles cannot bode well for the crown jewel of Vision 2030—the Red Sea-situated city of NEOM.

For years, the Saudis have largely relied on the United States for protection. The United States sold the Kingdom large weapons packages. The U.S. has placed and continues to place American soldiers on Saudi soil to assist in defending the Kingdom.

Recently, the Saudi-U.S. relationship has experienced considerable strain and scrutiny. U.S. military involvement in the Middle East is exceptional. Calls endure for shrinking the American military footprint in the region, including in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, progressive elements in Congress and the Biden administration believe allies should reflect the U.S. in image and likeness. They call on allies like Saudi Arabia to adopt Western values in their societies. The Saudis have not done themselves well in currying favor with these progressive elements, most notably in light of the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Obama and Biden administrations have also attempted to impose their vision for the region—a sharing of it between Saudi Arabia and Iran— to the alarm and displeasure of the Kingdom.

The Biden administration and members of Congress repeatedly take actions and produce messaging that questions both the U.S. commitment to Saudi security and the notion of constraining and containing Iran. The president and his congressional allies employ rhetoric or draft legislation that challenges the Kingdom’s security and questions the monarchy’s legitimacy. Weapons sales to the Kingdom are contested on the hill. The administration and Congress have worked to reduce America’s support of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Biden seeks to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka the Iran nuclear deal, a deal opposed by Saudi Arabia. The administration also appeases the militias that Iran backs.

The developments are a cause for concern for the monarchy in Riyadh. Current U.S. behavior gives no assurances that the United States will always come to the aid of the Kingdom and challenge Iranian aggression. Furthermore, the Saudis are unable to effectively confront, contest, and contain Iran on their own. The ineffectiveness of the recent Saudi intervention in Yemen highlights the limitations of their military capabilities.

Saudi-Israeli diplomatic relations become critical and necessary for the current state of Saudi affairs. The countries share the same concerns regarding Iran while their relations with the United States are increasingly tenuous. The realization and fulfillment of those concerns require extensive cooperation that can only be achieved through diplomatic relations. Anything less is insufficient.

The Saudis have made quite the wager on their future well-being by placing the creation and recognition of a Palestinian state ahead of Saudi-Israeli relations. They have placed considerable hope in an outcome, an Israeli-Palestinian resolution, that does not appear likely shortly. What makes the situation even riskier for the Saudis is that they are expecting concessions from Palestinians who historically have been unwilling to compromise, lack effective leadership, and have been captured by the maximalist and confrontational thinking supported by Iran and its scions.

The failed talks at Camp David in 2000 are a glaring example of an unwillingness to make the necessary concessions. The actions or lack thereof by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority demonstrate broken, corrupt, and rudderless leadership in the last few months, let alone the last two decades. The fact that 72 percent of Palestinians (in December) believed the October 7 Hamas attacks were correct demonstrates the relative pervasiveness of maximalist and violent thinking celebrated and supported by Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and others.

History also tells us that countries who attempt to accommodate the Palestinian issue have lived to regret it. Lebanon accommodated the Palestinian cause in 1969 only to witness, six years later, its role in the dissolution of the Lebanese state. Lebanon has never been the same.

The Palestinians—and, to a lesser extent, Iran and its scions—can play the role of the spoiler. They have such an incentive. The Palestinians are not a party to bilateral relations and Saudi-Israeli relations would challenge Iran and its allies. What better way to block Saudi-Israeli relations than by refusing to agree to a two-state solution and making further demands. The Palestinians, Iran, and others have the ability to impede a significant Saudi foreign policy objective while undermining Saudi economic diversification and threatening Saudi security.

Iran’s continued development of a nuclear program and pursuit of regional hegemony, combined with a tenuous American relationship, represents serious challenges to Saudi Arabia. Saudi-Israeli diplomatic relations are becoming obvious and urgent. When does waiting on a Palestinian state do more harm than good for Saudi Arabia? Time is not an ally of the gambit the Kingdom announced on February 7.

Eric Bordenkircher is currently a research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development. Formerly a Visiting Assistant Professor in Government at Claremont McKenna College and Pepperdine University, his writing has appeared in National Review, Newsweek, The American Mind, The American Spectator, The National Interest, Middle East Policy, The San Diego Union Tribune, The American Conservative, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, The Washington Examiner, Review of Middle East Studies,  Middle East Quarterly, 1945, Lobelog, and the Fikra Forum. His Twitter handle is @UCLA_Eagle.

This article was originally published by RealClearWorld and made available via RealClearWire.

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