7 years ago

Israel, Saudia Arabia, & tectonic 2017 changes: Kissing cousins?

Netanyahu and Saudi King Salman.  - Reuters photo
Netanyahu and Saudi King Salman. - Reuters photo

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Two historically embattled spiritual cousins, Arabs and Jews, may be opening a new, more cordial chapter. Though driven by disparate factors, that ending has been privately progressing for quite some time. For example, Jordanians and Israelis constantly exchange policy decisions and instruments, while Egypt and Israel turned swords into ploughshares from 1978. Yet, it was during 2017 that that rapprochement took a pivotal turn. Led by Saudi Arabia and Israel, what used to be called the Arab-Israel conflict, traced as far back as Israel's 1948 independence (which Saudi Arabia did not recognise, as too other Middle East countries), has increasingly and expeditiously turned into a Persia-Israel showdown. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia now see Iran as the common enemy, thus liberating Palestinians from under the Israeli yoke. Two Iran-backed groups have instead emerged as dominant 21st Century villains: Hezbollahs for Israel and Houthis for Saudi Arabia.

Many long- and short-term developments point in this direction: the former through Lebanon's demographic changes and Iran's obsessive ayatollah-driven crusade against Saudi Arabia; and the latter by Saudi reforms urgently hastened by the petroleum-price collapse, Israel's belligerent unilateral anti-Palestinian measures, and all unfolding Islamic extremism events in Iraq and Syria. Other factors may also be at play, but only with Donald J. Trump's 2017 entry into the White House, and thereby both the symmetrical treatment of Israel and Saudi Arabia and Muhammad bin Salman's (MBS's) 2017 elevation into Crown Prince, will the long-drawn cold war against Iran get the push it needs to produce a quick and decisive result.

To understand the 'home-plate' in this missile-anchored baseball-game, the historically subjective hindsight must mesh with such secular forces as the role of petroleum as an instrument, rational versus populist preferences in decision-making, particularly in Israel, and converting the front-burner Arab-Israel conflict into an Iran-Israel collision. Before turning to them, it is useful to begin with the 2017 catalysts.

First among them is Saudi Arabia's desire to shift political trajectories. King Salman is the last son of the dynasty's founder, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud (1932-53), making MBS the first grandson to become Crown Prince. Severely pushed by petroleum prices nose-diving, the Crown Prince first neutralised his domestic opponents (mostly clan rivals), before launching Vision 2030, a breathtaking manifesto, at least for a country still retaining so much of its camel culture, to move beyond an oil-economy, boost the private sector, contain the religious wind, empower women, and draw lines about the extent and nature of the country's migrant workers. Perhaps his prize objective was to confront Iran directly and openly. First against Houthis in Yemen, then against Hezbollah in Lebanon and in Qatar, he has utilised Saudi military power and troops within a regional power-balancing panoply that draws heavily upon, and appeals enormously to, Israel's equally seething interpretation of Iran. If ever there was a congruent moment in Israel-Saudi relations, this had to top them all off.

Under Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel has managed to corral Palestinians in a way few others of his predecessors could. Not only that, he has even stepped up pressure to make Jerusalem Israel's capital and roll-back some of the West Bank land amid pressures from new Jewish migrants. His policies may differ from the stereotype: these represent a new, younger, and much more frustrated breed than their ostracised predecessors. Though hemmed in, they may become the spark to light any future fire given a similar demographic change within Lebanon, and one, as if, driven by Iran.

Once a Christian country, Lebanon has, since the 1967 Six-Day War found itself facing not just a Muslim majority, but inevitably a Shi'ite majority. Until the 1960s, Christians formed an absolute majority of the population; but since then, Islam has steadily expanded at a faster rate, so much so that today a solid 55 per cent of the population identify themselves as Muslims, roughly divided between the Sunnis and Shi'ias, with Christians reduced to 40 per cent. Power has remained with the Sunnis: no Shi'ia can hold a position higher than the Speaker of Parliament, while the prime minister must still remain a Sunni.

Shi'ias are not as well of, thus introducing a casus belli possibility, but they have also been fanned by Iran through the Hezbollah paramilitary. Thus, Lebanon's dramatic changes prompted Saudi Arabia to force the billionaire Prime Minister Saad El-Din Rafik Al-Hariri to resign in early November 2017 for becoming too friendly with Shi'ias (before he rescinded this resignation upon returning home in late November, through France and Egypt). This opens a turbulent phase, just as slippery as in South Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has taken an open military campaign to eliminate any Iranian influence, such as to drive out the Houthis. Even though this has produced the world's worst famine, severely stunting the children population, Saudi Arabia, the Custodian Muslim country, is paying two hoots to this humanitarian disaster.

Iran has been very proactive in Lebanon, since that is the one policy-approach that distinguishes the ayatollah regimes since 1979 from the Shah's monarchy. Whereas the Shah's brutal interests were related to his personal domestic security, the ayatolloh counterpart has been to carry Iran's successful Islamic revolution, under Shi'ite banner, to other countries. Iraq has been compromised after Saddam Hussein fell, thus creating a direct link with Iran-friendly Syria, and thence Lebanon. This worries Israel the most, especially now that Russia has made an unholy alliance with Iran and, in conjunction with long-time Syrian friendship, presents a platform that could make more noise than Israel is willing to tolerate.

Then there are Qatar and Yemeni battlegrounds, with Iran-backed dissident local-groups impeding Saudi influence on its two next-door neighbours. This is the conflict of historical importance since Islam's original and most significant division is directly involved here: between Sunnis and Shi'ias. This tussle is back on the front-page. With Iran dictating decisions in Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus, and Sana, Saudi Arabia may find itself too surrounded to not act aggressively. With escalating domestic reform demands, game-changing Wahhabi influences, and a quarrelsome Qatar also contending for attention, it is also not surprising Saudi Arabia needs strong, youthful leadership. That does not legitimise the Crown Prince's hasty actions over far-reaching issues, but as they say, it is 'show-time' in Saudi Arabia where one winner is expected: Vision 2030 or traditional 2018.

Israel has also reached many turning points. Netanyahu struggles to continue, Palestinians now face new settlers rather than the old ones, Lebanon is seething, and Syria continues to crumble. Lighting a match anywhere in the region would spark a wildfire.

In short, with Iranian influence spreading on all sides of both, Saudi Arabia and Israel, that the two erstwhile adversaries should join hands is to no one's surprise. Its most dramatic offshoot of lowering Arab-Israel, or particularly Saudi Arabia-Israel conflict, marks a major historical turnstile. Having been introduced to the players and schisms during 2017, we wait with bated breath how the play will unfold, and, with even more trepidation, how it might end.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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