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Behind the scenes

To understand why the world’s only Jewish state would be keen on ties with a Sunni Muslim theocratic kingdom is important to make sense of US diplomacy in the region.

Statesman News Service |

US President Joe Biden’s ongoing tour of West Asia is being criticised for Washington’s apparent volte-face on Saudi Arabia. Mr Biden had not so long ago termed the country a “pariah” but is now visiting it to attend a major conference hosted by King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In strategic policy circles, however, most concur that the visit is vital. Not because Saudi Arabia will make any significant strides in its human rights policies or help in controlling global oil prices as a result. Nor is it about America allegedly reverting to type, providing legitimacy to oppressive regimes in the hope that this might advance its strategic interests. President Biden’s engagement with Saudi Arabia is because Iran is Enemy No. 1 for America, and the USA’s closest ally in the region, Israel, is entirely on board with the effort to keep Riyadh onside. In fact, contrary to popular perception, Tel Aviv has over the years had its own, rather hush-hush relationship with Riyadh.

To understand why the world’s only Jewish state would be keen on ties with a Sunni Muslim theocratic kingdom is important to make sense of US diplomacy in the region. According to old West Asia hand Bruce Riedel, Saudi Arabia has taken a complex approach to the recognition of Israel by several Arab countries in the Abraham Accords. It has a long history of clandestine cooperation with Israel against what it terms “mutual enemies” (read Iran). Recently, Riyadh has said public recognition of Israel will come only if there is movement to resolve the Palestinian conflict and create a two-state solution. But the Saudis have tolerated and even abetted the development of diplomatic and military ties between some of their closest allies and Israel.

For its part, Israel clearly values its covert contacts with Saudi Arabia and craves public recognition as a way to ending its isolation in the Muslim world. According to Riedel, clandestine cooperation between the Saudis and Israelis dates to the early 1960s, when both supported the Royalists in Yemen against the Egyptian and Soviet-backed Republican government in Sana’a. Their intelligence services coordinated the delivery of weapons and expertise to the Royalists, who were based in Saudi Arabia. The chiefs of the Mossad and Saudi intelligence met at the Dorchester Hotel in London on one occasion. The 1993 Oslo agreement facilitated more behind-thescenes contacts.

Today, Iran and its non-state allies operating in the region including Hezbollah are the common foes for Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis not only encouraged allies such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates to recognise Israel in 2020, they even allowed direct flights from Tel Aviv to Manama, Abu Dhabi and Dubai crossing over their territory. The endgame is apparent: If push comes to shove, all of Iran’s adversaries must be prepared to ~ de facto even if not de jure ~ stand against Tehran. The pact signed by Mr Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Thursday which aims to ensure Iran “never has a nuclear weapon” will be music to Saudi ears.