Israel and the Gulf States: Normalisation and Lingering Challenges

Main Image Credit Flags of Israel and the UAE. Courtesy of the TaBaZzz/CC-BY-4.0.

The normalisation of Israel’s relations with the UAE and Bahrain is significant, but incomplete without addressing Israel’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

First came the UAE, and now, Bahrain: in quick succession, two Arab states have normalised relations with Israel, allowing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to engage in a ‘victory lap’ tour of the Gulf. There is little doubt something important is happening in the region, which is the culmination of a process that has been some 20 years in the making.

A Common Enemy

The steadily increasing power of Iran in the region as a result of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 has led the Gulf states to reassess their diplomatic relations and recalculate their policies accordingly. The sense of threat that these states (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular) share with Israel has been the most important factor in bringing them together. But equally important is the impact of the Arab Spring in 2011, and the realisation among younger people living in the Gulf that their immediate environment is more important than a century-old conflict that does not directly affect them. Jobs, housing and economic struggles are more important to people’s everyday lives than the old tropes of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism, which simply don’t resonate with younger generations as they did in the manner of years gone by. These strategic and emotional shifts among both the leaderships of the Gulf and, more importantly, many (although certainly not all) of their respective populations mean that the political and security environment is far more conducive to concluding peace agreements with Israel than at any time since the Jewish state was founded.

A More Granular Landscape

But there are layers to this debate, and placing all the Gulf countries together in one basket obscures the Gulf’s complexities. This is especially the case in an era where the GCC is itself fractured, and the six countries increasingly pursue their own narrow self-interest, often at the expense of their neighbours. So, without diminishing the importance of the announcements of the past month, it is important to remember that neither the UAE nor Bahrain have ever been central to the Israeli–Arab conflict. While both nations have certainly had a role to play in the course of regional affairs, particularly in the 21st century, and both have projected power and influence far beyond their relatively small borders, they have not been – and will not be – crucial arbiters in the Israeli–Palestinian dynamic.

This is not the case for Saudi Arabia, who since the 1970s has viewed its influence in Washington as a crucial lever to ensure progress on both the Palestinian question and broader questions of Israeli–Arab peace. On numerous occasions, from the Yom Kippur War to Operation Defensive Shield during the Second Intifada and the launch of the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002, Saudi Arabia has used its diplomatic and economic clout to ensure Arab pride across the region is at least not further damaged. It is a responsibility that Saudi monarchs and senior princes have taken extremely seriously. Without the benefit of military superiority, it is Saudi Arabia’s great wealth, global influence and (historically at least) diplomatic clout in Washington that has served the Palestinian cause perhaps more than any other state in the region.  

The Saudi Exception

Under the guidance of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, it has been easier to talk of warmer relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but peace might be a step too far. For all his power in Riyadh, the Crown Prince cannot just knock down a core pillar upon which Saudi Arabia stands. Although he has broken many social taboos in his country and almost single-handedly set it on a new course, he has found resistance to his views on the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. For now, at least, the Palestinian issue is still too important for the Saudis to ignore, even if they don’t subscribe to the wild-eyed ‘axis of resistance’ rhetoric emanating from Iran and its regional allies.

Israelis often chafe at the notion of giving away land for peace, noting that the exchange of tangible assets (like land) in return for ethereal promises (like peace) that may not be kept is insufficient to ensure the security of the state. The same dynamic is true for Saudi Arabia – offering normalisation of relations is a no-return policy that, once done, cannot be undone. Something as valuable as this cannot be exchanged for a mere promise that may or may not be kept. The Saudis did not fail to notice that Netanyahu’s position on annexation has been to keep the issue firmly on the table, despite his promises to both the Americans and the Emiratis. This has not been helped by the fact that Jared Kushner cannot guarantee that annexation will never happen, and can only state that annexation would not happen without US permission, and that permission would not be granted ‘for some time’. To put it bluntly, this is not enough for Saudi Arabia to offer normalisation.

This means that Israel will need to produce something better for the Palestinians than is currently on offer before the Saudis will be able to fully get on board. If they cannot, then Saudi Arabia will not make further moves. In truth, Riyadh already made the first move by accepting the diplomatic positions of Bahrain and the UAE, and facilitating the passage of Israeli civilian airliners over its airspace. The Saudis have already indicated they are not opposed to normalisation, and that will be enough for now, particularly given that the enormity of a Saudi normalisation deal would be eclipsed by the US administration’s insatiable need to present foreign policy wins as evidence of Trump’s historic deal-making abilities. The Saudis will not cheapen the importance of the moment for the sake of Trump’s ego.

And Others?

The same goes for Qatar, which was the first Gulf country to formally invite an Israeli diplomatic presence on its soil. If Doha so wished, there is little doubt that Emir Tamim could normalise relations with Israel in a heartbeat. Domestic opposition to his rule is virtually non-existent, and the Qataris already coordinate closely with the Israeli government in handling the volatile Gaza Strip.

But rifts between the Gulf countries have placed Qatar as an outlier, forced to forge its own policy separate from the core of the GCC. Its growing relationship with Turkey, and attachment to Islamist political causes across the region, preclude any normalisation with the Israelis for the moment, simply because that is the direction of Qatar’s policy. Doha certainly gains from its coordination with Israel, but it does not need Israeli normalisation to further its aims for the time being. The Israelis cannot help solve Doha’s dispute with its neighbours, and Qatar does not perceive Iran as an existential threat, so there appears little strategic imperative to normalise relations in the near future.

Oman represents the next best hope for normalisation. Muscat hosted the Israeli prime minister on its soil in 2018, and expressed support for both Bahrain and the UAE’s moves in the past month. Muscat’s foreign policy has always been fiercely independent. If there is one regional country that could maintain strong friendships with both Jerusalem and Tehran simultaneously, it is certainly Oman. Its dire economic situation could do with some Israeli investment, and there is little for Sultan Haitham to lose either domestically or regionally by signing a deal. But it is important to remember that like the UAE and Bahrain, Oman is a bit-part player in the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

The key remains Saudi Arabia, who will observe the events of this week closely, but say little. The path is set for a wider regional peace to emerge, and when Riyadh signs it will be the greatest milestone in the history of the region since Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin shook hands in 1979. And it is precisely because that moment is so important that it will not come now.

Michael Stephens worked as a Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at RUSI for a decade, and is now an Associate Fellow at the Institute.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Michael Stephens

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