By Muhsin Puthan Purayil
While the attacks on Saudi Arabian facilities have exposed the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities and a precarious global economy that such attacks can trigger in the event of any suffering in the oil industry; geopolitically, there is good reason to believe they could be a game-changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East. Indeed, the attacks have ushered in a geopolitical security environment in which national security threats are both immediate and palpable, not only for Saudi Arabia and its allies, but profoundly so for Israel as well. In fact, the attack on Saudi oil brought the Iranian threat to the doorstep of a large-scale war, warranting immediacy and expediency in containing Iran before it becomes too late.
Even as Iran denied any involvement in the act, there appears to be a broad agreement on Iran’s role. In a classic security dilemma situation, the long-harbored fear of Iranian aggression coupled with the clouds of doubt over Iran’s possible hand in the act could potentially prompt strategic alliance between Saudi and Israel. Clearly, the attack showcased fading US supremacy in the region. For the Saudis, an attack of this scale of escalation exposed the fallacy of the US standing alone as the major or perhaps only power in the region which can protect Saudi Arabia from Iranian threats. Further, it reinforced the need for a powerful regional ally for Saudi Arabia.
The commonality of threat perception harbored by both Israel and Saudi arising out of growing Iranian clout in the region is another point of convergence on the security front. The same security threat is often amplified in the absence of a strong regional security mechanism like in Europe. Thus, obviously, for more than one reason, Israel qualifies, logically and strategically, as a sound option available for the Saudis. While relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel have lately been improving, security threats looming large for both the countries are likely to hasten alliance negotiations to take bilateral relations to the next level. In other words, the attack would possibly render a strong, distinctive strategic objective in the foreign policy calculus of both Saudi Arabia and Israel, to the extent of an open and closer strategic alliance being discussed.
Such a strategic alliance would emerge against the backdrop of the competitive landscape of today’s Middle East politics, where states have markedly turned toward realist and pragmatic approaches to foreign policy, bereft of a major ideational element that had traditionally an enormous stake in foreign policy considerations: Muslim sentiment. That is, there already seems to be a dawning penchant for cultivating and maintaining strong ties with powerful countries. The shift is seemingly propelled by the realization that allowing partisan religious sentiments to inform foreign policy decisions will falter in the standard realpolitik, and particularly in the face of a looming national security threat from Iran.
Implications for the Israel-Palestine Conundrum
If recent trends of growing closeness between Saudi Arabia and Israel are a reliable indicator for continuity of Saudi foreign policy, the attack on Saudi oil could serve as a catalyst to scale up these relations. In such a context, strategic and operational alliance shaping up the Israel-Palestine conundrum seems not so far away. In fact, this purely operational and transactional approach entrenched in pragmatic realistic deal-making, which Saudi has embraced under the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is a harbinger of what is to unfold in Arab support toward Palestine.
In the present scenario, normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel no longer remains a far-fetched dream. In fact, a video leaked by Netanyahu’s office showed during the Warsaw Mideast Summit in February this year the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates defending Israel’s existence and further placing the Iranian threat over the Israel-Palestine conflict as the major concern in the region.
This clearly exposes a waning concern for Palestine and simultaneous push for a closer alliance with Israel. Yet a major hurdle that still remains is popular opposition. For all this time people in the region have developed hatred towards Israel largely instilled and promoted by Arab governments for their political benefit. Therefore, getting around popular opposition is going to be a major challenge before the Saudis can normalize the situation with compromises on existing demands.
As for Israel, increasing religious nationalism in Israel’s politics is unlikely to allow for an easy settlement with Palestine if negotiation is to demand many compromises from Israel. However, the waning religious elements in Middle East foreign policy and the emerging geopolitics of power competition might be able to render a fair chance for normalization.
Given the overall scenario, Israel is seeking to make a deal without hampering its national interests. As such, Netanyahu seems to have rightly gauged the changing landscape of growing cooperation with the Arab states when he said ‘Today we are going there without the Palestinians being involved and it is much stronger because it does not depend on their caprices. The Arab states are looking for links with the strong. Cultivating strengths gives us diplomatic power.’
Thus, in the existing triangular power competition in the region, some sort of a ‘merger’ between Israel and Saudi Arabia will dramatically change the strategic landscape of the existing regional power dynamics and put both the countries on a strategic footing to take on their common enemy. To this point, the present scenario can potentially dispel the historical trust deficit between the two countries. Also, the differences between Saudi Arabia and Israel are likely to take a backseat. At the same time, narratives shaping bilateral relations are likely to find a point of convergence. Fundamentally, such convergence can dramatically transform the geopolitics of the Middle East and have serious implications on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
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