Bakar Mohamed | Middle East and North Africa Fellow
Image Credit: Avi Ohayan and Bandar Al Galoud via Wikipedia Commons
The suggestion that normalising relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel will lead to peace in the Middle East is a fallacy that ignores the fundamental problems of Middle Eastern stability. Picking apart the normalisation proposal, it becomes clear that this deal is simply an advancement of US interests in the region. To grasp this, a critical concept must be kept in mind when analysing Middle Eastern affairs – that of the Saudi-Iran Cold War.
The Middle Eastern Cold-War
Core to understanding Middle Eastern affairs is the battle over regional leadership between the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran. Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of Islam and was viewed as the representative of the Muslim world until 1979 when Iran’s rise challenged the status quo. The foreign policy of both countries has been to achieve regional dominance by promoting their version of Islam. This has led to ongoing conflict and instability in the region between Sunni and Shia groups as manifested by the Yemen war, the Syrian civil war, the Lebanese division in parliament, the Iraqi wars, and the Bahrain uprising.
But the tide is changing in the region. In this context, this piece will demonstrate how Saudi-Israeli normalisation isn't in the MENA's best interests for two reasons:
The rise of Iran-Saudi normalisation and its potential impact on Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq;
The threat this deal poses to Saudi domestic stability, due to the tribal make up of Saudi Arabia and its Shia population.
The end of an era: Saudi-Iran diplomatic ties
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia and Iran resumed diplomatic relations and agreed to respect each other’s sovereignty and avoid interfering in each other’s internal affairs. This news was welcomed across the Middle East and signalled hope for ending proxy wars in neighbouring countries, particularly Yemen. Following that, the Iranian foreign minister visited Saudi Arabia in August to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme, the Yemeni war, and security across the region’s waterways. But this entire process could be threatened by Saudi-Israeli normalisation as Iran has often characterised this as a ‘betrayal’ and highlighted that it would harm regional peace and stability. It is questionable whether Saudi-Israeli normalisation will bring about much change in the first place. However, to avoid this debate, it appears that the harms against Saudi-Iran diplomatic relations outweigh the potential benefit of Saudi-Israeli normalisation. This is because of the regional implications Saudi-Iran normalisation brings, particularly a hope to eliminate proxy battles in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
A threat to Saudi’s domestic stability
Another fear of the Saudi-Israeli normalisation deal is the resulting potential for domestic instability. The Saudi state, established in 1932, was a unification of two regions, Najd and Hejaz. Unbeknownst to many, the previous region of Arabia was based on tribal allegiances rather than nationhood. Consequently, when the Kingdom was established, active measures were taken to shift the tide away from tribalism to nationhood.
However, tribalism remains a live factor in Saudi politics up to this day. Certain tribes wield more power than others and the Saudi monarchy relies on their allegiance to maintain credibility. This, coupled with the 15% make-up of the Shia population in Saudi Arabia, places the monarchy in a vulnerable position. Core to the Arabian habitus is the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and a Saudi normalisation deal may ignite resistance from the tribes within Saudi Arabia, in addition to the Shia population which Iran kindles at times to lead resistance movements. Despite a tribal uprising not occurring since the 20th century, the family of Saud, the leading tribe of the Kingdom, actively avoid opposing tribal interests that risk threatening stability. As for the Shia concern, this was observed in 2012 when Tehran was accused of using the Saudi Shia population to instigate a cyber-attack against ARAMCO, Saudi Arabia’s oil company.
Importantly, an unstable Saudi state not only affects the people of Saudi Arabia, but the regional and international space at large. The country ranks highest in the Middle East and North Africa in total GDP, plays a pivotal role in humanitarian aid, leads the Arab League, and has a major influence on oil prices. Especially important for Israel and the US, Saudi Arabia is the balancing power against Iran in the region and the front for Sunni Muslims. A declining Saudi Arabia will see the rise of Iranian influence in the region, one of the countermeasures the US aims to achieve by Saudi-Israeli normalisation. This is due to the ongoing foothold Iran and Saudi maintain in several Middle Eastern countries. Finally, a decline in Riyadh’s stability will snowball commotion among other Muslim-populated countries including Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei, as the two holiest sites to the Muslim world will be under threat. Visiting the two holiest sites is an obligation for Muslims, hence these Islamic states will want to intervene and rectify Saudi affairs.
Despite Saudi-Israeli normalisation being hailed as the greatest potential peace process in the Middle East,the harms it brings will outweigh the questionable benefits suggested. A View from Nowhere highlights how this normalisation is an extension of US interest in the region rather than one designed for the Middle East itself. The resumption of Saudi-Iran diplomatic ties signifies great change for the region at large and the Israeli normalisation deal threatens this. Additionally, Saudi-Israeli normalisation puts at risk Riyadh's domestic stability due to its tribal makeup and Shia population. This, in turn, will have a negative impact on the MENA and the international stage at large. Israeli normalisation might be suitable for the region... Just not right now
Bakar Mohamad is the Middle East & North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. Alongside his Master of International relations, Bakar is a content creator on Middle Eastern affairs and has a particular interest in Lebanon.
He recently completed an internship with a political party in Lebanon and is working on developing ties between local Lebanese and the diaspora for study and work exchanges. Bakar has also participated in a New Colombo Plan exchange in South Korea and a Western Sydney University sustainability program in Taiwan.