A glance at the mutual interests.
Media outlets have been speculating about the emerging alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The International Business Times (December 2, 2013), quoted London’s Sunday Times as saying that “Israel and Saudi Arabia were working together to bring down Iran’s nuclear activities.” Clearly, having a mutual interest in stopping the threat of a hegemonic and nuclear Iran has made the two unlikely allies.
Saudi and Israeli interests have converged more than once before. First, during the Yemen War, Egypt’s dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser sought to sustain the revolutionary republican Yemeni officers who brought down the Hamiduddin dynasty. In the mountains of north and east Yemen, Imam Mohammad al Badr and his royalist insurgent army fought back. In the five-year war (1962-1967) in which the Egyptians committed 70,000 troops (it became Nasser’s Vietnam), the Saudi’s and Israelis, fearful of Nasser’s hegemonic ambitions, helped the royalist forces.
Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institute wrote: “To get more arms to the royalists, the Saudis and their mercenaries turned to another enemy of the Egyptian dictator, Israel. In early 1964, the Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, made arrangements for the Israeli air force to begin flying clandestine supply missions down the Red Sea from Israel to parachute weapons to the royalists. The mission was approved by the senior leadership in Israel, and the flights were code-named Operation Leopard.” In the years 1964 through 1966, the Israelis flew more than a dozen resupply flights to aid the royalists.
In 1991, during the First Gulf War, Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles at both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and the two countries found themselves again on the same side. In the 1990’s, Saudi Arabia accepted the permanence of Israel’s position in the Middle East by agreeing to support the Madrid and Oslo peace processes. Now, in the wake of the recent P5+1 Geneva interim agreement with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabian and Israeli interests have found common ground once more. Both nations are critical of the Obama administration’s handling of Iran.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are threatened by the prospect of a nuclear Iran imposing its hegemonic ambitions on the entire region. Israel is facing the missile arsenals of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, both supplied by Iran. The Saudis face similar threats emanating from Iran. Saudi Arabia feels encircled by the Iranian supported Houthi rebellion in Yemen, a Shiite insurrection in Bahrain, the Shiite-led Iraqi regime of Nouri al-Maliki, and in Syria, by the direct intervention of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah. In Lebanon, a proxy conflict is taking place between the Iran supported Shiite Hezbollah and the Sunni-Lebanese supported by the Saudis. Riyadh is particularly disturbed by Iran’s incitement of the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia.
Shared interests notwithstanding, the points of conflict between the Saudis and Israel have been long and deep, albeit, indirect. The Saudis launched the Arab oil embargo against the US and the West during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, ostensibly to punish the US and its allies for supporting Israel. During the Second Intifada (2000-2003), the Saudis provided a major portion of Hamas’ budget, and sent payments to the families of suicide bombers. Much earlier, in February, 1945, King Ibn Saud expressed his hatred of Jews and to the idea of a Jewish State in a meeting with US President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR). He cautioned FDR against supporting a Jewish state in Palestine, and warned that creation of such a Jewish State would lead to continuous war and undermine US-Saudi relations.
Saudi Arabia is considered the leading Sunni-Muslim state. The Saudi royal family serves as the guardian of Islam’s holiest sites - the cities of Mecca and Medina. Along with being the “guardians,” the Saudi royal family has supported Sunni Muslim mosques and imams worldwide, and funds the spread of Islam in Europe and the US. The Saud family, which created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, has tied its fortunes with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), and Wahhabism.
Wahhabi Islam is a term commonly given to a strict Sunni sect of Islam. Followers of Wahhabi Islam do not refer to their religion as “Wahhabi.” Many merely call themselves “Muslim,” for according to their beliefs, they are the only true Muslims. Some Wahhabists refer to themselves and their religion as “al-Muwahhidun,” or “Salafi Da’wa,” or “Ahlul Sunna wal Jama’a.” Wahhabi Islam is a fundamentalist and strict revivalist vision, and beliefs that were preached by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in the late 1700’s sought to imitate the original ways of the Prophet Mohammad and his four immediate successors.
One reason to be skeptical about a Riyadh-Jerusalem long-term partnership is Saudi concern with the legitimacy of their rule. Since Israel is considered by many as the “enemy” of Islam, and Riyadh the “defender” of Islam, it is far-fetched to talk about an enduring alliance. The Saudi royal family has to balance legitimacy within the Muslim world and personal security, or simply put, the preservation of the royal family. In the long term, the historical animosity between Persians and Arabs, and even with Sunni Muslim negative disposition towards Shiite Islam notwithstanding, we are more likely to see an Iranian-Saudi rapprochement than a Saudi alliance with the Jewish state.
Riyadh has been a vocal advocate of the Weapons of Mass Destruction (nuclear) free zone in the Middle East. With Syria disposing of its chemical weapons, the Saudis hope that Iran will be pressured to abandon its nuclear project in the permanent agreement between P5+1 and Iran. This would leave Israel as the primary target of a Saudi led campaign in the UN, to compel Israel to dispose of its alleged nuclear weapons.
For now, Iran, not Israel, constitutes a real threat to the royal family’s security, and to their kingdom. According to the Beirut based Al-Akhbar, (November 12, 2013) “The Saudi royal family and the Wahhabi clerics never saw a contradiction between their anti-Semitism and their coordination with the Israeli state, especially when the coordination bolstered the Saudi place in US foreign policy plan.” In fact, Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, disagreed with the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, on whether there can be a truce with the Jews. Bin Baz argued that a truce (hudna) with Israel is allowed and even an exchange of ambassadors is permitted, if it serves Islam’s interests. In a fatwa he issued, Bin Baz endorsed the Middle East peace process.
Al-Akhbar added that the “Saudi and Israeli foreign policies have mirrored one another on Egypt and Iran. The two may not have seen eye-to-eye on Syria, but they seem to have put their trust in the Free Syrian Army.” It is true that both the Saudis and Israelis opposed the Muslim Brotherhood, resented the removal of President Mubarak, and supported the Egyptian military coup, which the Obama administration seemed to oppose.
Whatever the ideological differences between the Saudis and Israel may be (and indeed they exist), self-interest in fending off the immediate Iranian threat, for now, trumps ideological considerations. This may not be an alliance, but the two states, as much as they are “unlikely allies,” have good reasons to be in it. It has never been truer in the Middle East that, ones’ enemies’ enemy could be one’s friend.
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.