Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Photo: AFP
Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Photo: AFP

The Saudi Arabian government has a simple and logical claim. If Iran can enrich uranium in accordance with the 2015 nuclear deal, why can’t we?

The plan has been touted as part of the desert kingdom’s efforts to diversify its economy widely speaking and its energy sources specifically in anticipation of the eventual depletion of its reserves. Indeed, unless it changes its consumption trajectory, it will be a net oil importer by the 2030s. The ambitious plan to rectify this calls for the construction of 16 nuclear reactors, which would cover Saudi Arabia’s growing energy demands.

While Saudi Arabia does not publicly admit it wishes to develop nuclear weapons, there are concerns it will use civilian nuclear technology as a balance against potential Iranian nuclear capabilities. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has said that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will too.

In addition, construction would foster nuclear know-how in a country where it is glaringly lacking. There is concern that in the long-term this will allow the Saudis to run an independent nuclear weapons program.

This places Israel in a dilemma. On the one hand, rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is the cornerstone of the Israeli strategy of containing Iran. Much has been made of the depth of cooperation and ties between the two countries in recent months. It would be against its interests to harm the emerging relationship.

On the other, it challenges long held Israeli strategic doctrine. Israel has worked diligently to maintain its nuclear hegemony in the region through diplomatic persuasion, covert acts of sabotage and overt military action. The Saudi efforts are part of a disturbing trend from Israel’s perspective.

Jordan, Egypt and the UAE have also started to develop civil nuclear programs. Converting them into nuclear weapons programs may take a significant amount of time, but Israeli nuclear hegemony is increasingly likely to be temporary.

The House of Saud and instability

In addition, Israel is concerned that the desert kingdom is unstable and power could be seized by extremist groups in the country. After all, Saudi Arabia is the home of Wahhabism and faces violent challenges from terror groups and ideological challenges from reactionary clerics. An even more likely source of a change in Saudi policy is a takeover by less friendly factions of the royal family.

The House of Saud has a notable history of instability due to infighting, coming to the fore most memorably when King Faisal bin Abdulaziz was assassinated by his nephew, leading not only to a change in personnel, but to a completely different direction in its policies. In such an unstable environment, Israel cannot and will not feel comfortable with the possibility of Saudi Arabia attaining nuclear weapons.

With these concerns in mind, Benjamin Netanyahu has been utilizing his impressive influence on Capitol Hill to lobby lawmakers into preventing US companies from providing nuclear technology, materials or equipment to Saudi Arabia. The Israeli prime minister also reportedly asked President Donald Trump that if the deal goes through, a condition be placed that uranium be enriched only externally and then provided to the Saudis.

This may be an uphill battle, since the Trump administration enjoys good ties with Saudi Arabia and have an interest in taking credit for the profits American companies stand to make from the relevant transactions.

The wisdom behind these moves is questionable on two levels. The Saudis have strong relations with Russia and China and should not encounter major challenges in obtaining needed assistance elsewhere. By relying on non-US powers for materials, Israel will lose any leverage it may have to influence the program through its allies.

In addition, it creates public friction with Saudi Arabia at a pivotal moment where the closeness of their relations is pivotal in containing the growth of Iranian influence. There is definite potential for harm and almost no chance that through these limited measures a potential Saudi nuclear military program can be stopped.

Normalization – a tall order

The disagreement over this pivotal issue is a reminder that there are severe limits to the possibility of rapprochement between the two states. Certainly, there are signs of a thawing between the countries on the background of a shared interest in containing Iran. The Saudi government has recently gone as far as to allow flights to Israel to go through its airspace for the first time.

Yet this should not be overstated. The Saudis have insisted repeatedly, both openly and behind closed doors, that it cannot normalize relations fully until substantial progress has been made in the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Open political or economic ties with Israel would likely be contingent on resolving the conflict rather than just on resuming talks – a tall order in and of itself. This is highly unlikely under the current circumstances.

Public opinion in Arab states, which is, of course, unreliable in non-democratic states, has shown ambivalence in regards to ties with Israel. The opponents to normalization are particularly vocal and well organized. In addition, Saudi Arabia is undergoing extensive internal reforms and is facing pressure from Islamic clerics and other opposition forces.

All things considered, it is unlikely the Saudi royal family will spend valuable political capital defending a public rapprochement with Israel that many of their powerful citizens would consider to be an utter betrayal of principle. In addition, by appearing to have abandoned the Palestinians,’ the Saudis will have ceded the Palestinian cause to their hated Iranian rivals.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Saudi Arabia already receives the covert security cooperation with Israel it needs and its incentive to deepen ties is not great.

Israeli-Saudi rapprochement is therefore about as deep now as it is likely to get. A long-term alliance between the two is unlikely to emerge. The nuclear dispute is perhaps the most glaring of several fissures between the states.

The obstacles to Israeli-Saudi rapprochement remind us that in the Middle East, to quote Henry Kissinger, “there are no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

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