The much expected visit of King Salman to the U.S. came at a time when the US-Saudi ties are at a low ebb in the otherwise ‘happy history’ of their bi-lateral relations.
It was perhaps Washington’s failure in Iraq that led the US to fall under Iran’s influence which, in turn, caused a major crack on the otherwise ‘strong wall’ of the US-Saudi relations. The military operation in Syria, and most recently, the US-Iran nuclear deal, deepened that crack.
Yet, the faltering ties have more to do with deep-seated disagreements between the two countries over their respective changing Middle East policies.
Nowhere are those changes more evident than in Saudi Arabia’s rapidly growing covert relations with Israel — an alliance that has a very clear anti-Iran agenda, and which the U.S. is far from comfortable with.
Although the Saudis have been expressing cautious support for the Iran nuclear deal, they are, at least now, not much concerned with the deal per se. On the contrary, it is Iran’s capacity to keep the Saudis and its gulf allies engaged in the conflict that continues to worry the House of Saud.
This lingering Saudi fear was voiced by the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir to the media after the US and Saudi leaders met in Washington.
“Now we have one less problem for the time being to deal with, with regards to Iran,” al-Jubeir said. “We can now focus more intensely on the nefarious activities that Iran is engaged in the region.”
The Saudi concern, shared by Israel, has some substance. Nothing in the US-Iran deal prevents Iran from changing its stance towards Assad/Syria or Yemen or Hezbollah.
Riyadh’s focus on Iran’s activities is, however, not going to be limited to fighting Iran through proxy groups. It also includes formation of new alliances. The most important step in this direction is perhaps its covert relations with Israel. Ironically, Saudi’s shake-hand with Israel is not only a response to the U.S.’ changing regional policies, but also one of the main reasons for the current thaw in the US-Saudi relations.
According to certain reports, the Saudi and Israeli officials have met at least five times since 2014, leading the Saudi-Israel relations to an entirely new level of strategic understanding. As Iran expands its influence throughout the region in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Israel have found themselves increasingly united on a confluence of issues.
Both countries are concerned over the proliferation of Iranian-backed proxy groups throughout the region and the damage these groups have already done and can further do in the region. Saudi Arabia and Israel have similar sort of enemies, using identical tactics, to tackle.
Israel has repeatedly fought the Lebanon-based, Iran-backed Hezbollah, with which it fought a month-long war in 2006. Saudi Arabia, which launched a military operation in Yemen to push back Iran-backed Houthi rebels who had deposed the country’s recognized government, is also experiencing cross-border rocket attacks from the militia group.
Expressing this ‘natural’ connection between Israel and Saudi Arabia and further presenting them as ‘victims’ of Iranian vandalism, Saudi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed al Aseer was recently reported to have said: “Wherever the Iranians are present, they create militias against these countries. In Lebanon, they have created Hezbollah, which is blocking the political process and has conducted wars against Israelis, destroying Lebanon as a result. And in Yemen, they have created the Houthis.”
On the other hand, an Israeli representative, Shimon Shapira, who participated in Israel-Saudi secret meetings, was quoted in a report as saying: “We discovered we have the same problems and same challenges and some of the same answers.”
As far as Saudis are concerned, apart from the policy of doing clandestine operations against Iran, they also hope to use Israeli influence in the U.S. to keep the latter from going too much in the way of favouring Iran. And, as it stands, given Israel’s influence inside the U.S., it can certainly shape things to a reasonable extent.
The extent of Israel’s power vis-à-vis the US can be assessed from the fact that in early 2015, the White House and the US State Department stated that Israel had (deliberately) provided inaccurate information and twisted the official US position in nuclear talks with Iran. They also accused Jerusalem of “selectively” leaking details of sensitive talks, thereby casting Israel in the role of a “villain”, unwilling to accept Iran in a new role.
Although many have interpreted this ‘rift’ as something stemming from tensions at personal level between Obama and Netanyahu, this phase of tension is far more related to the evolving dynamics of the Middle Eastern political landscape and the consequent change in American thinking.
Behind this tension lies the fact that Obama represents a faction in the US establishment that perhaps no longer views Israel as a major strategic asset; rather, it increasingly sees Israel as a burden on the US and, as a matter of fact, a liability in the Middle East.
For the U.S., on the other hand, it is also by no means acceptable that Saudi Arabia would get in line with Israel’s regional moves to weigh down on Iran’s nuclear deal or any other regional issue. Therefore, Obama is trying to find a way to prevent Salman from continuing this approach and Salman’s visit to Washington provided White House with a good opportunity to do this, which however failed to yield any meaningful result.
While the U.S. may continue to express its disapproval of Saudi-Israeli alliance, both states are certainly expanding this alliance through various military and non-military means. For instance, in February 2015, Saudi Arabia reportedly agreed to let Israel use its airspace to attack Iran if necessary, in exchange for “some kind of progress” on the Palestinian issue.
The move, if ever made, would allow Israel to bomb targets in Iran by offering a shortcut, which will save fuel and time. The Saudi position was confirmed during multiple diplomatic talks, according to the report of an Israeli TV channel.
“The Saudi authorities are completely coordinated with Israel on all matters related to Iran,” the European official from Brussels was quoted as saying in that report.
Apart from co-operation on military aspects, certain reports have appeared that claim Saudi-Israel co-operation extending beyond it. For instance, for years now, the Saudis have been turning a blind eye to Israeli products being smuggled inside Saudi Arabia.
If that was not enough as a “good will gesture”, Saudi businessmen were allowed to buy property in Tel Aviv through “third parties.”
According to careful speculations of an Israeli newspaper, “Israel’s exports to the kingdom are estimated to be on a fairly small scale, perhaps a few dozen million dollars — a drop in the ocean compared with the bulk of Israel’s sales abroad. This is taking place despite an official Saudi boycott policy against openly trading with Israel.”
The report also goes to mention the possibility of Saudi oil giant Aramco planning a pipeline that would run through Israel and provide easy export of oil to Europe.
With Iran all set to get free from sanctions, Israel and Saudi are increasingly coming under pressure. In fact, King Salman’s visit to the U.S., which he had previously cancelled, is symptomatic of the pressure mounting on Saudi as Iranian support continues to make life difficult for Saudi in Yemen and Syria.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.
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