Further rapprochement in the MENA region

Celine Madaghjian is a second year International Relations student at Kings College London. She believes that understanding the implications of the region’s current and rapidly evolving politics is vital to our understanding of International Relations. She is passionate about analysing the sectarianism and geopolitics of the Middle East, as well as the effects of GCC relations on the regional and international scale.

Next month, Biden is expected to make his first visit to the Middle East as an American President, firstly to Israel and then to Saudi Arabia. His meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman serve to be emblems of further rapprochement between the Gulf and Israel, which has been initiated between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in the Abraham Accords. The main reason for the potential strengthening of Gulf-Israeli ties lies in the mutually-felt threat that Iran poses to their respective national and regional security.


As stated by Bertrand and Lillis, “The Gulf states are less worried than Israel about a nuclear weapon, and more about how sanctions relief from the nuclear deal could help to fund Iran’s other malign activities.” The threat that Iran poses stems from its military and financial support of terrorist organisations such as the Houthis and Hezbollah, which it uses as part of its expansionist policies. For example, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been targeted by missile and drone attacks carried out by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The Iranian regime has also violated the conditions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by enriching its uranium to 60%, thus increasing the general perception that it is a hostile state in the region seeking increased power and influence through the potential use or threat to use nuclear weapons. 


In response to Iran’s actions, Israel has covertly assassinated the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’s Colonel Sayad Khodayee, two Iranian scientists, and an engineer in May 2022. The Iranian regime has increased its aerospace defence force alert levels in retaliation to recent events, signalling its ability and preparation to respond to an attack. 


Biden’s Middle East visit is not solely a tactic of buttressing a rise in Russian influence in the region and reasserting its central role after an all-time low in American-Gulf relations. Concerns for Iranian escalation are expected to prompt a further diplomatic shift in the region, therefore a direct flight from Tel Aviv to Riyadh is a symbol of the ability that Saudi-Israeli relations can be improved. As explained by American officials to CNN, Israel has been pushing the Biden Administration to meet with the Saudi Crown Prince and initiate a bilateral Saudi-Israeli alliance in constraining Iran to ensure both their national and regional security. In turn, the U.S. can demonstrate to its MENA allies that it is serious about tackling the Iranian threat. 


Although not likely to be diplomatically consolidated, Crown Prince bin Salman has shown more openness towards establishing friendlier ties with Israel compared to his father. For instance, Israel has stated that it is helping build a US-led aerospace defence alliance against Iran called the “Middle East Air Defence Alliance.” States in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman, all of which do not have diplomatic ties with Israel, are part of this coalition and have already avoided attempted attacks. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been allowing commercial Israeli planes to travel in its airspace


In addition to security and stability, the Crown Prince has other reasons for a re-strengthened alliance with the U.S. and relations with Israel. The U.S. remains to be the provider of 80% of Saudi Arabian arms, it has demonstrated its “halfway position” on the Yemeni conflict, and Biden’s visit next month downplays his previous comment about the kingdom being a “pariah” state. Thus, Saudi Arabia has the opportunity to emerge out of its period of political isolation with the U.S. in its decision to jointly tackle the Iranian threat. 


Nevertheless, Saudi’s warming of relations with Israel to counter Iran is a short-term policy. Bin Salman has stated that “we don’t look at Israel as an enemy, we look to them as a potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together… But we have to solve some issues before we get to that.” Most importantly, the Prince has stated his unwillingness to establish official diplomatic ties with Israel “until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.”

Image Credit: https://edition.cnn.com/2022/06/02/politics/mohammed-bin-salman-joe-biden-meeting/index.html

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