Warning: Low Ceiling – the Prospects of Israeli-Saudi Relations

The great British statesmen, Lord Palmerston, captured the pragmatism that permeated the very essence of British foreign policy when he quipped, `we have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow`. Academia was to give this pragmatism a sturdier scaffolding in the decades-long development of the body of thought known as `Realism`, according to which national interest reigns supreme and will necessarily and reliably trump immaterial and symbolic divisions between states. Of perhaps greatest consequence was the Realist hypothesis that regional, and international, balances of power would naturally follow as a corollary of the jostling between states guided by cool-headed, rational thinking.

An increasingly strident, bellicose, and zealous Iran, according to Realism, should produce a balancing act by regional foes, united by a mutual hostility to Iran’s metastasizing influence. As perhaps Iran’s two most prominent, and most powerful, regional opponents, Israel and Saudi Arabia should be finding common ground, and a flourishing relationship should be emerging into the fore.

Some believe this to be happening. A steady drip-feed of reports paint a picture of a gradually developing, if inchoate network of contacts between Riyadh and Jerusalem, perhaps catalysed by the warm relations both capitals share with the current occupant of the Oval Office. Most remarkably, a report recently claimed that the Saudis had purchased a missile defence shield from the Israelis, although this has been denied.

Certainly, a sequence of unmistakeable signals point at the very least to a mild thawing in this frosty, but largely uneventful, relationship. Whether it is Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman publicly recognising Israel’s right to exist in an interview with The Atlantic, or Israeli leader Binyamin Netanyahu’s repeated displays of public concern about Iranian and Iranian-linked groups anti-Saudi activities, something is happening. Riyadh and Jerusalem are united in their loathing of Iran; united in their fear of the destabilising impact of terrorism and terrorist groups; united in their hostility to Iranian influence in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq; and united in their firm belief in their respective relationships with the United States.

Certainly, a sequence of unmistakeable signals point at the very least to a mild thawing in this frosty, but largely uneventful, relationship

Yet analysts and journalists alike are getting ahead of themselves in even characterising the relationship as `frenemies`, as many have done. The constraints on their relationship are crippling. Due to a multitude of factors, the current status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides an almost guaranteed ceiling to any warming between the two governments, and a low ceiling at that. The Arab world, at least at the level of its citizenry, is still united in its opposition to Israel, at least for as long as it continues to occupy Palestinian territories. But more importantly, the legitimacy of the Saudi royal family is inextricably linked with its claim to leadership in the Islamic world. With Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel, and thus the Temple Mount, or Haram Al-Sharif, under Jewish sovereignty, the Saudis cannot be seen making nice with a potential ally in the conflict with Iran. A central tenet of the Islamic world view according to the Saudi religious establishment is the absolute and unequivocal opposition to the non-Islamic control of Islamic sites, particularly those as sacred to the religion as the al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock mosques located at the site in Jerusalem. This is likely to be a red line which cannot be crossed, blurred, or even massaged, no matter how concerned Riyadh is about Iranian influence.

Important to note, also, is that this is not a case of Romeo and Juliet, with two lovers unwillingly kept apart by the vicissitudes of the world around them. It is not even Much Ado About Nothing, in which two mortal enemies are tricked into love by a duplicitous third character. Although the Israeli-Saudi relationship has been an uneventful one, with many accusing the Saudis of insincerity in their commitment to the Palestinian cause, it has still been a tale of mistrust, misunderstanding, and intense and enduring enmity. There is limited, covert and highly circumscribed cooperation, often only tacit, over a very specific issue – Iran. That is likely to be all.

Due to a multitude of factors, the current status of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides an almost guaranteed ceiling to any warming between the two governments

It is not impossible that a genuine, even public, improvement in relations could take place. However, a number of events would have to play out. These include a significant rise in Iranian anti-Saudi and anti-Israeli activity, perhaps entailing concrete and manifest Iranian involvement in the Yemeni Civil War on the side of the Houthi rebels and the active encouragement of Hezbollah in its hostile actions towards Israel. Another sequence of events might entail the establishment of unquestioning authority by MBS over the kingdom, with the intrepid Crown Prince using this to push Saudi Arabia into a definitively more liberal direction, including the establishment of relations with the Jewish state. But both of these will almost certainly require the reinstatement of a peace process between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, including the commitment by Israel to a Palestinian state within most of the presently occupied territories and including a capital in East Jerusalem. Under the incumbent Israeli administration, this is not a plausible scenario.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are therefore likely to see their relationship develop in a similar fashion to its historical development: shared interests, and a lack of real, tangible, disagreements will prevent anything more than frosty rhetorical exchanges. A particularly acute Iranian menace may catalyse some limited cooperation. But ultimately, these supposed frenemies will be little more than mutually hostile work colleagues from different departments who, once in a blue moon, find themselves working reluctantly and unenthusiastically on the same project.

This article was adapted from a postgraduate dissertation on the Israeli-Saudi relationship entitled ‘A Relationship of No Significance? Ambivalent Animosity and the Theorisation of the Israeli-Saudi Relationship`