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November 3, 2017 1:30 pm

Don’t Be So Quick to Trust Saudi Arabia

avatar by Martin Oliner


President Donald Trump (left) and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. Photo: Shealah Craighead / White House.

Close ties between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his unofficial counterpart in the US, Jared Kushner, were seen as the basis for US President Donald Trump making Saudi Arabia and Israel the two first countries that he visited as president.

Because of his relative open-mindedness, Saudi Crown Prince Salman has become the darling of the pro-Israel community. As he takes steps to wean Saudi Arabia off oil, he is believed to view Israel’s economy as a model for that of his own country. For years, there have been reports of his contacts with Israeli officials. There is even speculation that he made a discreet visit to the Jewish state in early September.

Notwithstanding the above, Israel and American Jews must proceed cautiously with their coronation of the Saudis as reliable allies. History has proven that in the Middle East, the enemy of your enemy — in this case, Iran — is not necessarily your friend.

The Economist reported last month that Prince Salman has been reaching out to Iranian allies and speculated that genuine Sunni- Shiite rapprochement was on the way. The report spoke of a “grand bargain” between Saudi Arabia and Iran, in which the Saudis would accept Iranian domination of Syria in return for a free hand in the Gulf states.

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“We are ready to cooperate with Saudi Arabia to put an end to violence in Syria, to violence and oppression in Bahrain, not to mention the irrational war in Yemen,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the pan-Arabist satellite TV channel Al-Mayadeen in an interview last month.

There were 85,000 Iranian pilgrims who participated in this year’s pilgrimage to Mecca. Iraqi Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji told reporters in Tehran on August 13 that Saudi officials had asked his government to help their country mend ties with Iran.

It should be noted that the fickle crown prince, who has reversed key Saudi policies before, could do the same regarding his country’s hostile relationship with Iran, especially under pressure from the Russians, with whom the Saudi leadership has become increasingly close in recent months despite a long history of distrust between the two countries.

Indeed, the Russians like playing the “Iran card” against the US — and could use Saudi assistance in doing so.

No one knows what happened behind the scenes in last month’s first-ever meeting in Russia of a Saudi king and a Russian president. Perhaps during the four-day visit, King Salman and Russian President Vladimir Putin were working on that rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran — or at least on enabling Iran to receive the foothold in Syria that Israel has begged Putin to refrain from giving the Islamic Republic.

Given Putin’s reputation for stubbornness, it is more likely that the Saudis deferred to Russian demands on Iran rather than vice versa. During the meetings in Russia, Saudi Arabia reportedly acknowledged that Russian domination of Syria and its growing regional influence would continue. The Saudis reportedly also made huge purchases of arms in Moscow, providing a much needed boost to the stagnating Russian economy.

Putin has been trying to improve his ties with the Saudis since he took power in 2000. He became the first Russian leader to visit Riyadh in 2007, at a time when the Saudis were upset with the US due to its war in Iraq and America’s support for a Shiite government in Baghdad. Saudi relations with the US had been cooling since 2003, when the Saudis forced the relocation of US personnel from the Prince Sultan Air Base, which once hosted 60,000 Americans.

On his spring visit to Moscow, Prince Salman said that relations between his country and Russia were better than ever. When he first met with Putin in 2015, it resulted in the Saudi “sovereign wealth fund” committing to invest an unprecedented $10 billion in Russia over five years. Seen as an attempt by the Saudis to bribe the Russians, Putin ultimately rejected the offer.

The 32-year-old crown prince’s lavish lifestyle and provocative personality have faced criticism. His lecturing of then-US president Barack Obama about the failures of American foreign policy two years ago has not been forgotten, and his war in Yemen has not been successful. Thousands of lives and tens of billions of dollars have been lost in that war, which has failed to defeat the Shi’ite Houthis.

In addition, the US Congress has been trying to end the Saudi participation in the Arab boycott of Israel unsuccessfully for years. Women may finally be allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia next June, but their cars won’t have Mobileye collision prevention technology, because it comes from Israel.

All of this should signal a warning light to Israel and its supporters in the United States: in reaching a relationship with Israel, the Saudis still have a long way to go — and, in fact, may never get there.

The author is co-president of the Religious Zionists of America and chairman of the Center for Righteousness and Integrity. He can be reached at [email protected]

A version of this article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post.

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