In the aftermath of the Geneva agreement over Iran’s nuclear program, a large number of articles have appeared in the international press speculating whether as a consequence Israel might be drawn into a new partnership with Saudi Arabia. This idea might at first appear to be far-fetched, given Saudi Arabia’s historical role in the Arab-Israel conflict.
After all, it was Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal who launched the Arab oil embargo against the West during the 1973 Yom Kippur War that gave the Arab world the political muscle to force Israeli concessions in the years that followed. More recently, during the wave of suicide bombing attacks against Israel in 2000 to 2003, Saudi Arabia was providing anywhere from 50 to 70 per cent of the budget of Hamas, whose leadership was hosted by major Saudi Arabian charities. Of course today, Saudi Arabia has been replaced by Iran as the principal funding arm of Hamas.
Moreover, during the 1990s, while Israel managed to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs in the Persian Gulf, with Qatar and Oman, where it opened economic offices, nothing to this extent was achieved with Saudi Arabia. True, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan, attended the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference as an observer, and the Saudis participated in multilateral negotiations on the Middle East that were launched in Moscow, but Israeli-Saudi public contacts were limited and no Israeli delegation was ever hosted on Saudi soil. There appeared to be strong ideological constraints on Saudi Arabia to open contacts with the Jewish state.
But historically, Saudi Arabia has also followed a pragmatic course of action when its most vital interests were at stake. What often placed Israel and Saudi Arabia on the same side of major conflicts in the Middle East was the rise of leaders with hegemonic aspirations who threatened the security of both countries. Last month, one of the CIA’s leading experts on the Middle East in the past, Bruce Reidel, wrote about how Israel and Saudi Arabia were on the same side of another conflict when both sought to contend with the expansionist policy of Nasser’s Egypt.
The focal point of their joint interests was the Yemen War in 1962. Egypt, under the leadership of Gamal Abdul Nasser, backed a military coup against the government of the imam of Yemen, whose royalist army was waging a guerrilla war against the new Yemeni government. The Saudis remained on the side of the imam. They provided his forces with a sanctuary on Saudi soil. Nasser sent an expeditionary force with over 60,000 troops and aircraft.
Within months, the Egyptian Air Force was attacking Saudi border towns near the Yemeni border. Nasserist activism was spreading. By June 1963, a movement rose in Jordan, with Egyptian backing, to overthrow King Hussein. Egypt wanted to replace Arab monarchies with Arab republics under the leadership of former army officers.
President John F. Kennedy, who since his election had sought to build U.S. ties with Egypt, began with an exchange of letters with the Egyptian leader, but slowly came to understand that he was dealing with a regime that had expansionist aims under the flag of pan-Arabism. Reidel writes that at this time Saudi Arabia reached out to Israel to help the forces of the imam of Yemen.
The operation was overseen by the head of Saudi intelligence under King Faisal, Kamal Adham. According to Reidel, Israeli cargo aircraft flew resupply flights to the imam’s guerrilla army between 1964 and 1966. Only after Nasser was defeated in the 1967 Six-Day War did Egyptian forces withdraw from Yemen, by 1970. Saudi realpolitik trumped its ideological aversion to Israel’s existence.
In the 1990s, there were new currents in Saudi Arabia that would eventually influence its approach to Israel. Yitzhak Reiter of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies published a book two years ago about how Muslim scholars were contending with the question of peace with Israel over the last 20 years. He quotes the fatwas of Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti from 1975 through 1999, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, who in 1989 called on Muslims to assist “the jihad warriors” among the Palestinians.
But later in 1994 his legal opinions permitted a policy of reconciliation with Israel, including the exchange of ambassadors, if it was in the national interest of a Muslim leader. On this point, bin Baz sharply disagreed with Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the spiritual head of the Muslim Brotherhood, on whether it was permitted to reach a truce (hudna) with the Jews, including the exchange of ambassadors.
Bin Baza explained that a hudna could be revoked once the balance of power changed, but his debate with Qaradawi opened up the possibility of some limited reconciliation with Israel, which previously had not been voiced at all.
Bin Baz’s position could provide future Saudi leaders with the freedom to attempt diplomatic initiatives with Israel, should such a course of action be decided upon by the Saudi leadership. Whether bin Baz’s fatwa influenced King Abdullah to launch what is known as the Saudi peace initiative is difficult to determine.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which involved 15 Saudi citizens, important ideological changes began to occur in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, after supporting the Muslim Brotherhood since the early 1960s, and providing sanctuary for some of its most radical members, Saudi Arabia turned strongly against the organization.
In 2002, the late Prince Nayef, who at the time was the Saudi interior minister, publicly attacked the Muslim Brotherhood and spoke about the importance of “battling ideological extremism.” A year later Riyadh itself was hit by a triple suicide bombing ordered by the al-Qaida leadership based in Iran.
The Saudis soon also banned the writings of Sayyed Qutb, one of the most important ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was at this time that Saudi support for Hamas was curtailed. Finally in 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, Saudi religious leaders attacked Hezbollah. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, along with Qaradawi, backed Hezbollah and Iran. The Saudis did not entirely close the door to the Muslim Brotherhood in cases where it served their interests. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is anti-Iranian and might be eligible for Saudi support.
Today, from the perspectives of both Saudi Arabia and Israel, the hegemonic power threatening the Middle East is Iran. It has sought to encircle Saudi Arabia, by supporting the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, the Shiite insurrection in Bahrain, the Shiite-led government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq, and in Syria, by its direct intervention in the civil war with its Revolutionary Guard forces.
Additionally, Iran has penetrated Saudi Arabia’s Shiite population in the Saudi Eastern Province, through whom it established Hezbollah al-Hijaz. The Iranians tried employing a similar policy of encirclement against Israel, using arms supplies and training for Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
What is clear is that despite their differences, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been on the same side of a number of Middle Eastern conflicts, from the time of Nasser to Saddam Hussein (who launched his missiles in 1991 at both countries). Now they are on the same side with respect to Iran.
Historically, states facing an immediate mutual threat have surmounted their historical differences and found ways to work together. That is precisely what happened to France and West Germany when the Soviet threat emerged after the Second World War and Soviet armored divisions were poised against Central Europe. It took enormously creative diplomacy to make their new relationship happen. Whether this can occur in the same way in the Middle East, with all its ideological complexity, is still difficult to determine.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.