Bahrain has normalised relations with Israel. Is Saudi Arabia next?


Earlier this month, it was announced that Bahrain would establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. This makes Bahrain the fourth Arab state to do so, following the United Arab Emirates, which forged a similar agreement in August. Both of these nations are wealthy Petro-states, governed by conservative Sunni monarchies and closely aligned with United States, sharing a particular camaraderie with the current American regime. Thus, one would reasonably expect Saudi Arabia, an ally which shares these characteristics, to follow suit. Demonstrably, this is an outcome which some in the Trump administration are keenly working towards; both Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have repeatedly flaunted the prospect of other Arab states normalising ties with Jerusalem, with the former specifically alluding to Riyadh following the Bahraini announcement. With these developments in mind, what course will Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, take? At this stage, it is difficult to tell.

So far, Saudi officials have been reluctant to publicly take a firm stance on the issue. In a phone call with Donald Trump on September 7, Saudi Arabia's King Salman stressed that a fair and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained a prerequisite for normalising relations with Jerusalem. Upon first glance, this statement indicates a commitment to the status quo established by the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, whereby Arab states predicated the establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel upon the latter's withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip and subsequent consent to a Palestinian state in these territories.

However, there are two immediate reasons not to give much credence to the King's claims. Firstly, now that both Manama and Abu Dhabi (the Bahraini and Emirati capitals respectively) have seceded from the collective strategy and formally recognised Israel despite the ongoing occupation, one could argue that the Initiative is now for all intents and purposes defunct. Secondly, on August 26, merely weeks ago, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa insisted to Mike Pompeo that his country remained committed to the Initiative, and by extension the establishment of a Palestinian state, just like his Saudi counterpart. Yet here we are, discussing a Jerusalem-Manama normalisation agreement.

Furthermore, there exists a concrete political rationale for Riyadh to break with the Initiative and pursue closer ties with Jerusalem, as there was for Abu Dhabi and Manama. For years there has been clandestine correspondencebetween Saudi and Israeli officials on security issues, chief among them being Iran, whose regional conduct is perceived by both interlocutors to be an existential threat to their interests. Normalising relations would ostensibly expand the potential for Israeli-Saudi cooperation vis-à-vis Tehran by facilitating a more explicit coordination of policy between the two states. Notable in this regard is the fact that MBS has both publicly and privately been consistently sanguine about the Jewish state, while issuing harsh, uncompromising diatribes against the Islamic Republic. In a scene described by Ben Hubbard in his biography MBS, the Crown Prince told an incredulous American delegation that “Israel is not our enemy”, adding that “Israelis are not killing Saudis”. The subtext of these statements is clear; MBS sees his country’s traditional antipathy toward Israel as retrograde.

All that said, now is a particularly opportune moment for Riyadh to seek a normalisation agreement. Since the brutal assassination of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a government hit squad in 2018, the Crown Prince has become a persona non grata in Washington, despite being received like a celebrity by American elites mere months prior. While ties with the Trump administration’s upper echelons remain robust, facilitated by the current President’s transactional cynicism on foreign policy matters and MBS’s close personal relationship with Jared Kushner, the Kingdom has undeniably lost prestige in the eyes of Congress and the US foreign policy establishment. A Biden victory come November could prove especially damaging for the Saudis; Washington-Riyadh relations reached a new low under the Obama administration, and Biden (unlike Trump) won’t turn a blind eye to the Kingdom’s most egregious abuses. Israel, on the other hand, retains broad political backing in the US, and Biden, while not proffering unconditional support like Trump, is nevertheless a supporter of the Jewish state who reacted to the UAE-Israel normalisation agreement with great enthusiasm. As such, in establishing diplomatic relations with Jerusalem, MBS might have a golden ticket to restore his credibility in Washington; an urgent priority if faced with a Biden administration.

Despite this multiplicity of factors pushing Riyadh toward normalisation, there remain reasons to doubt that such an agreement is on the horizon. Foremost among them is the fact that the House of Saud, being the custodian of Mecca and Medina, has for decades positioned itself as political vanguard of the Islamic world. The surge in oil revenues resulting from the 1970s price boom left few with the resources or will to resist the millions spent by Saudi Arabia to promote its ultraconservative "Petro-Islam" among Muslims outside its borders. Nevertheless, two key challengers have emerged to Saudi religious hegemony: the revolutionary Islamic regime of Iran, and, more crucially, an increasingly nationalistic, belligerent Turkey.

For much of the last two decades, the actions of Tehran have been of principal concern to Riyadh; while the two have in common their social conservatism, the former espouses a revolutionary politics which challenges regional power structures. This has been exemplified by their backing of the Shi'ite Houthis in Yemen while the latter champions monarchical authority and tacks close to the West. On this basis, Tehran has often challenged Saudi legitimacy vis-a-vis the Islamic cause both rhetorically and concretely, with the issue of Palestinian liberation constituting a particular locus for such efforts. This was vividly illustrated in the immediate wake of the Israel-UAE agreement; while Riyadh was noticeably reticent, only providing an ambiguous, noncommittal response a week later, attacks from Iranian political leaders came hard and fast, with the country's President Hassan Rouhani describing the accord as a "huge mistake".

However, it is Ankara, rather than Tehran, that currently poses a greater threat to the cultural and religious credibility of the Sunni Gulf monarchies. As Kamran Bokhari of the Centre for Global Policy notes, Iran constitutes an "ethno-sectarian 'other'" for much of the Arab world, thus placing a glass ceiling of sorts over its potential influence; in contrast, the Ottoman empire, and Turkish dominance over the Islamic arena, only collapsed at the start of the 20thcentury, following an extended period of pre-eminence. Whether out of ideology or expediency, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has embraced a platform of religiously charged nationalism, a core element of which being the restoration of his nation's politico-cultural prestige within the Islamic world. In line with this, Erdogan has not only marked himself out as a principle backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist organisation resented by the Egyptian, Saudi and Emirati regimes, but has also infused his rhetoric toward Israel with increasing bellicosity, while stepping up his country’s support for Hamas. As such, Ankara issued virulent criticisms of both the UAE and Bahrain for normalising ties with Jerusalem, threatening to withdraw its ambassador from the former, an ironic posture, considering that Turkey itself maintains diplomatic ties with Israel. If Riyadh took the same course, Erdogan would doubtless be first in line to hammer them for betraying the Palestinians, in a manner akin to his humiliation of the Saudis two years prior through the release of evidence contravening their claims of innocence vis-à-vis Jamal Khashoggi.

In light of these developments, Saudi officials have likely concluded that the prospective benefits offered by normalising ties with Israel are outweighed by the resultant loss of credibility their nation would suffer among the wider Islamic body politic, and the subsequent boon this would provide to Ankara. Erdogan is already cultivating Pakistan, which harbours the world’s second highest Muslim population, at the expense of Saudi Arabia through a combination of cultural exports and political backing on key issues (such as Kashmir). A rapprochement with Jerusalem could exacerbate and proliferate this trend.

Indicative of the wedge that normalisation would drive between Saudi policy and popular Muslim sentiment has been the domestic response in Bahrain to the most recent normalisation deal. Al-Wefaq, one of Bahrain's largest political parties prior to its state-sanctioned dissolution in 2016, asserted in a statement that the agreement was illegitimate, insofar as "the Zionist entity is itself illegitimate". This stance is evidently by no means a niche one amongst the country's majority Shi'ite population, which is governed by a predominantly Sunni regime; "Bahrainis against normalisation” concurrently trended on Twitter. There is no doubt such hostility has instilled a renewed caution among Saudi officials, who in their self-styled role as a progenitor of Islam would elicit even more intense criticism and by extension further alienation from the hearts and minds of those sympathetic toward the Palestinian cause.

Nevertheless, if Mohammed bin Salman has shown the world anything in the past few years, it is that he is a loose cannon with a penchant for brash, bold and often ill-conceptualised gambits. Vis-à-vis Turkish and Iranian efforts to be recognised as pre-eminent Islamic powers, Saudi recognition of Israel would be imprudent. For precisely that reason, it shouldn't be ruled out.

Image: The White House Press via Flickr

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