Israel – Saudi Arabia Bonding in Making?

 By Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan

The regional schism in West Asia has been moving to a new direction negating the triangular proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia, Israel and Iran to a single adage- “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. The recent development between Saudi Arabia and Israel in the background is indeed an unofficial secretive alliance to restrict Iran. But these negotiations were stalled post the death of the Saudi origin- American Journalist, Jamal Khashoggi in October last year. Yet there has been no progress in the status of the alliance since the incident. The long lasting proxy conflict between the trios in the region has very much affected other states in the region especially due to the sectarian differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, the old proverb used by Israel is focused on strategic ends. India has been keenly observing the developments in the region, although it maintains independent policies with either of them.

Mutual Advantage

In this case, Saudi Arabia and Israel in background, has changed their traditional policies towards each other to achieve a common goal and cooperation for future. Being a criticiser of the Jewish state on the ill treatment of Palestinians over the last seven decades, Saudi Arabia had started showing warmer tones towards Israel since early 2018. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammed Bin Salman (MBS), had also mentioned in an interview to The New York Times in April 2018 that the “Israelis have the right to exist in their own land”. He also added that Saudi does not have any problems with the Jewish nation. Indeed, the chief of Mossad, the former deputy Intelligence chief and senior aide to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia had various negotiations in the previous year . Last year Saudi also gave permission and cleared its space for an Air India flight flying from New Delhi to Tel Aviv. This is a positive sign for India as well. Even though Israel and Saudi Arabia never had any formal relations till date, the exchange meetings between the senior officials of either nation were clandestinely held until the murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist in the Arab nation’s consulate at Istanbul last year.
Saudi’s warmer approach to Israel and vice-versa can be assessed in strategic fronts. One, that information sharing between the two countries that are the so-called “regional powers” could benefit and possibly could assist in constraining their common enemy. Second, Israel being the only democracy in West Asia would prefer the lone status and Saudi’s monarch would not want the democratic wave to happen again after the experience hit by Arab Spring in 2011-12. Since Saudi is afraid of another democratisation wave in the Arab neighbourhood vis-a-vis Israel which wants to be the only democratic country in the region; both would prefer the existing state of affairs. Three, Saudi Arabia in the past has been a crucial proponent of Palestine state and Islam but the comments made by MBS in recent times might even shape for an enduring interest towards Israel. Building relations with Saudi Arabia will assist Israel to yield a better rapport with the other Arab countries in the region. Fourth, Israel could invest technologically in the -oil rich- Arab countries which would lead to better development in the region overall. But most of the countries in the Levant would be reluctant in opening their economy to Israel but indeed Saudi’s hand would be effective in achieving it. However, it is important for the Jewish state to succeed in establishing a significant though a tactical relation with Saudi Arabia sooner or later.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MBS would be willing to further restrain their primary common threat- Iran and its recent dominance in the region including wider West Asia. The sectarian political rivalry between the Sunni majority Saudi and the Shia dominated Iran has been for decades, being one of the major reasons for the enmity. Another is the influence of Iran in Lebanon which borders Israel, Yemen bordering Saudi Arabia and Syria adjacent to both Saudi and Israel is also a concern for the latter nations. As a result, Israel’s main challenge in the region is Iran because – one, it confronts Israel’s nuclear monopoly, second that Iran also influences the Jewish states’ neighbours’ to restrict its dominance as mentioned earlier and third, the deepening relations between Iran and Russia.  The closeness of both Saudi and Israel towards US is one of the reasons that the negotiation has moved further. US sanctions on Iran have also helped their association to foster but the murder of journalist Khashoggi diverted the engagement since October.

Entangled Power Scenario

Iran has been accused by US and its allies on funding various extremist groups in the region especially to the Shia groups in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. However, containing Iran’s economy with sanctions would lead to a backslash to its economy and thereby restricting its outflow of finance from the state. US President Donald Trump had already mentioned that if Israel needs to survive and sustain in the region, then they would require Riyadh’s assistance . Yet, it is very crucial to note the changing flavour of US’s foreign policy towards West Asia in the recent times. The murder of Saudi-American journalist at Istanbul was a major turn in events as US did go for an enquiry and the crown  prince had to justify their stake in it even though the scene was held in the Saudi Arabian Consulate at Istanbul. The new turn of events in the international media for the last few months has given a pause to the forward approach and secret negotiation between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Optimistic Future

It is assessed that both nations would be interested in establishing the negotiation which might also lead to a further diplomatic and economic relation in the future. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is willing to reach out for full time relations with Saudi Arabia prior to domestic elections in November this year. However, the cooperation can also help to solve a few critical issues in the region other than their main strategic interest in depolarizing Iran. India, on other hand, is closely observing the developments in West Asia. India has been thinking on West of Asia as it has many strategic partners- equally important- in the region which includes Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, the new bonding in making is imperative to India, especially keeping in mind the extended neighbourhood interest.


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Vishakh Krishnan Valiathan is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. He holds an MPhil in International Relations from University of Madras, Chennai. His MPhil Thesis was titled ‘India- Israel Relations: An Analytical Study with Reference to Defence Industry and Equipment Trade Since 1992’. He also has a Master’s in Politics and International Relations from the Department of Politics and International Studies, Pondicherry University (a Central University) and a Bachelor’s in Economics from Mar Ivanios College (Autonomous), University of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram. Prior to CLAWS, he has interned with Middle East Institute at New Delhi ([email protected]), Regional Centre for Expertise Acknowledged by United Nations University- Trivandrum and National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru. His research-oriented areas include West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, India’s Foreign Policy, Energy Security, Economy and Strategic Cooperation.