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REALIGNMENT IN THE MIDDLE EAST

REALIGNMENT IN THE MIDDLE EAST

Will Israel & Saudi Arabia join Hands against Iran? 

The Middle East has long been considered the world’s most important region, given its strategic, economic and religious significance. It is the world’s largest oil- and gas-producing region – 65.5 percent of OPEC’s total output comes from the Middle East. It is the converging point of the jugular routes of global trade (e.g. Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf) and also the custodian of the holiest places of all three revealed religions of the world — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In addition, this region is the hotspot of wars against the global terrorist networks whose global ambitions and activities are even threatening the liberal orders of the Western countries. All these considerations, coupled with centrality of this region in global realpolitik, have made this area the most conspicuous element in the global and national debates of many countries. 

The political and economic instability that followed the West-sponsored democratization of the Middle East, known as the Arab Spring, is still haunting the region. Chaos, anarchy, civil war and rampant instability have caused near destruction of infrastructure of health, education and other basic amenities in most Middle Eastern countries. The proxy wars and military campaigns against militants resulted into mass killings of civilian people and hundreds of thousands of people have become refugees, migrants or rendered homeless. The toppling of regimes on the pretext of democracy and on fabricated allegations of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) has led bare the fault lines around sectarian, ethnic and religious disputes.

Out of multiple, multilayered and multifaceted underlying reasons responsible for all the chaos, the proxy wars, being waged by Iran and Saudi Arabia to strengthen, reinforce and expand their respective regional clout, is the cause that plagues the region most. From failed adventurism in Yemen on the instigation of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, to diplomatic and economic isolation of Qatar by members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC); from interference in the domestic affairs of Lebanon by Hezbollah, Iran-sponsored and armed Shia militant organization, to Iran’s support to regimes in Iraq and Syria through arming and training Shia volunteers, all indicate the irrefutable role of these regional superpowers in the deteriorating political and economic situation in the Middle East. In this regard, the political and social developments in Saudi Arabia are worth discussing.

The era of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud precipitated many radical social and political changes in Saudi Arabia. Especially the nomination of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman as the Crown Prince of the Kingdom has proved earth-shaking in the conservative regime. Being impetuous and ambitious, Mohammed Bin Salman, also known as MBS, is fully determined to bring about radical changes to help Kingdom better deal with the imminent end of the oil boom. He undertook many initiatives that are heralding gradual liberalization of Saudi economy and society. Announcement of the establishment of $500 billion-dollar mega city, termed NEOM, that will operate independently of rigid religious framework of government, the decision of allowing women to drive in 2018 and his intention of returning towards moderate Islam that will be open to every religion, throw light on his strategy to diversify the bases of Kingdom’s economy through attracting tourism and foreign investment. Besides economic reforms, he is consolidating power in his own hands and with the incarceration of more than 200 princes, former ministers and governors and business tycoons under the charges of corruption, he is now being considered the most powerful de facto ruler of the Saudi Kingdom after King Aziz Bin Saud, the founder of the KSA. 

Upheaval at home resulting from Crown Prince Mohammed’s repressive tactics of silencing dissident voices and the ever-growing influence of Iran in the Middle East have prepared the ground for a highly-unusual alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Given the decades-long animosity between the Zionist state and the Sunni Arab Kingdom, this development is unprecedented and carries serious political and religious implications. There are many regional and global changes that are responsible for this informal and behind-the-scene rapprochement.

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as Iran Nuclear Deal, helped Iran to unfreeze its assets worth hundreds of billions of dollars. This money is causing an increase in the regional clout of Iran and it is the main reason of ever-increasing aggressiveness of different militant organizations across the Middle East – popular mobilization in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon (that is more resourceful than the national army of Lebanon) and Houthi rebels in Yemen. So, a financially stable, politically influential and militarily powerful Iran is against the interest of both Israel and Saudi Arabia. This could help explain why both these countries were unanimous in their fierce diplomatic opposition to the Iran Nuclear Deal, thereby providing ground for the establishment of informal diplomatic relations.

The hugely shocking victory of Donald Trump in the United States proved a blessing in disguise for both Israel and KSA as the man in the White House is as fierce critic of Iran as are Israel and Saudi Arabia. President Trump has long enjoyed strong business relations with Israel and even his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is a well-recognized Zionist. The very presence of anti-Iran US president has emboldened both these countries. Israel has fast-tracked its programme of expansion and legalization of the settlements in the West Bank and Saudi Arabia has moved ahead with aerial bombardment in Yemen and mobilization of rebels in Syria. Trump’s continuous bashing of JCPOA and ultimately his decision to not certify Iran’s compliance to the agreement have convinced both countries to launch joint or complementary lobbying to influence the congressmen not to ratify the agreement.

The conservativeness of the Saudi society and the deeply-entrenched hatred against the Zionist regime due to its usurpation of Palestinian land and unspeakable miseries it inflicted upon the Palestinians, is the main hurdle in the way of establishing formal diplomatic relations and official recognition of Israel as a legitimate state. In this regard, Prince Mohammed’s well-thought-out and thinly-veiled strategy of liberalizing the society through provision of recreational facilities and reducing the powers of religious police is a clear indication that the ambitious Prince is fully determined to eradicate this roadblock as well. Although this alliance is clouded in secrecy, the leaks do indicate that Saudi Arabia and Israel are developing diplomatic cooperation and intelligence-sharing on many regional fronts. The resignation of Iran-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri provides irrefutable evidence in this regard. Hariri was forced to read out his resignation letter giving the reasons of increased Iranian influence in his country. This queer development, which shocked the whole diplomatic world, had the diplomatic backing of Israel that was revealed by the Israeli diplomatic memo that found instructing diplomats to back the Saudi version of events and denounce the Houthi rebels.

This unnatural and unusual alliance would have profound diplomatic, political and religious repercussions in the region and across the Muslim world.

Backing of Israeli stance by the region’s most powerful Muslim state would definitely deal a death blow to the cause of Palestine. This would ensure the tacit acceptance of Israeli version over its legitimacy as official recognition of Israeli state implies that KSA is fully agreed with justifications offered to legitimize the establishment of the Zionist state. Being the most influential Sunni state, Saudi Arabia would be able to convince other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to either establish diplomatic relations with Israel or face isolation as it has done in the case of Qatar. Thus, Israel, emboldened by allies in the form of Sunni Arab states, would move rapidly in its strategy of gradual annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, and eliminating even the slightest chance of materializing the international-community-backed two-state solution.

This emerging alliance would eliminate the prospects of peaceful resolution of dispute as the fault line along sectarian divide would be intensified and the sharp regional schisms would convince Iran to sustain and expand its strategy of arming and financing different Shia organizations across the Middle East and thus the chain reaction of widening gulf between Iran and Israeli-Sunni bloc and increased proxy wars would ravage the already-chaotic region. The battleground for this regional war seems to be Lebanon where the prospect of war between Hezbollah and Israel is rapidly increasing, especially the recent drama around forced resignation of Saad Al-Hariri and leaked Israeli memo; all indicate the looming threats of war. The conduction of largest-ever aerial and land drill by Israeli army within one month is further fuelling the fears as Israel has long desired to reduce the arsenal of Hezbollah.

The proposed alliance would have religious repercussion as well. All those Salafi groups that aspire to emulate the Saudi model of religious state in their respective countries would find it difficult to justify the very existence of their ideology. This may moderate their view or they will resort to violence against Saudi regime as this alliance, in many ways, would have tremendous impacts on the religious and political underpinnings of the Salafi school of thought.

The much-appreciated stability of Kingdom even shows that the sign of disturbance during Arab Spring would face the biggest threat ever. As the Economist observed, the Saudi royal family has rested upon three sources of its legitimacy: the balance of power across the Saudi royal family, the blessing of religious establishment and cradle-to-grave system of benefits. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s planned strategy of amassing more and more powers, social reforms and austerity, as well as privatization is undermining all these pillars of stability. Moreover, the overreliance on security establishment to silence the opposition or dissident voices would ultimately lead toward the fate of neighbouring monarchies that were socially liberal and politically repressive where long-suppression of public sentiments erupted as the Arab Spring with the toppling of many dictators.

The proposed and widely speculated Arab-Israel alliance would be, in many ways, disastrous for the region in particular, and for the Muslim world in general. As Israel would benefit the most from backing of Sunni Arab states and purchase of weapons to Kingdom against Iran, Kingdom and its allies would be left ever fighting Iran and suppressing their Shia minorities. The gulf between Shias and Sunnis would further widen as the political animosity arising out of deep-entrenched hatred against Israel would add fuel to the fire. The very idea of alliance between the Zionist state that inflicted indescribable atrocities to the Muslims and Saudi Arabia that is custodian of two holiest places of Islam is disturbing, disappointing, disservice to the cause of Islam and tantamount to nullifying the sacrifices of millions of Muslims.

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