Saudi Arabia and Israel are unlikely partners with seemingly little in common. For starters, there is no formal recognition between the two countries. Digging a bit deeper, one can see a stark contrast between Israel, which is a resource-poor democracy that depends primarily on its human capital to power economic growth, and the Kingdom, which is a resource-rich monarchy facing population growth that weighs heavily on its economy. Yet their major national security challenges have considerable overlap.
It is often said to be the world’s worst-kept secret that Israel and Saudi Arabia cooperate covertly against a common enemy, the Iranian regime. Their enmity toward Iran does not originate from territorial disputes or geopolitical interests, but from the simple fact that Iran has called for the destruction of both countries, and has taken steps to try and operationalize those declarations. Iran targets Israel and Saudi Arabia because they are key allies of the “great Satan” – America – metaphorically acting as Washington’s stationary aircraft carriers in the Middle East, and because Iran espouses a radical form of Shia Islam which considers both nations to be “usurpers.”
Threatening Israeli and Saudi security is not incidental, rather, it is a key component of the Iranian project for dismantling US security architecture and diminishing American influence in the Middle East. Iran seeks to hold these allies as “hostages” by borrowing from North Korea’s playbook and threatening to decimate American allies in order to constrain the White House so that Iran can act with impunity. In light of Iran’s slow creep toward the nuclear threshold, this strategy is now exceptionally dangerous.
Second, Iran hopes to separate Washington from its partners by targeting US allies and then conveying the message that it will stop only if said allies cease to support US policies and operations in the region. Thus, developing a strategy to mitigate the risks posed by Iran’s malign regional activities is not only an Israeli or Saudi interest, but also an American interest.
Beyond parallel struggles to counter Iran-backed radical Islamic groups that threaten each, Israel and Saudi Arabia also share similar strategic dilemmas and operational threats. As is Iran’s preference, it operates against Israel and Saudi Arabia through proxy paramilitary forces embedded among civilian populations in third countries, and by employing asymmetric tactics (primarily but not exclusively rockets and missiles).
While Israel faces Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to its south and Hezbollah and other Shia militias to its north, the Saudis are coping with the Houthi challenge from Yemen. Ironically, Tehran’s Shia regime is willing to overcome the sectarian divide when it supports equally radical Sunni groups (like Hamas) to undermine US allies.
Although the Israeli Defense Forces have been considerably more successful in its endeavors than the Saudis have been in its campaign in Yemen – despite Israel abiding by considerably more restrictive rules of engagement and facing relentless scrutiny – neither have dealt a decisive blow to the proxy threats posed by Iran. This is because both countries are fighting against non-state actors using similar, American-made platforms that provide precisely the kind of conventional superiority that Iran’s asymmetric strategy was designed to counter.
THE STRATEGIC question of how to cope with Iran’s asymmetric tactics is one that the two countries could pool their collective experiences to answer. The dilemma facing the Saudis in Yemen – in particular balancing the uneasy goals of averting a humanitarian catastrophe and maintain quiet while preventing the Iranian-backed Houthis from growing stronger – echoes the dilemma that Israel faces in Gaza vis-à-vis Hamas. Similarly, the question of how to protect population centers and critical infrastructure from Yemen’s precision-missile threat parallels the objectives of Israeli officials responsible for the northern front. Efforts to overcome these challenges and others while facing adversaries who use their own populations as human shields could benefit from deeper bilateral cooperation and dialogue.
As the then-IDF chief of staff offered in 2017, Riyadh and Jerusalem could also benefit from exchanging intelligence on Iranian-made weapons systems that have been distributed to proxies around the region. Sharing data on Iran’s capabilities and limitations regarding precision-missile accuracy and range, low-signature drones, and air defense would allow the two countries to mount more formidable defenses, as well as offenses, as necessary for deterrence. Equally important as understanding what weapons Iran and its proxies possess is the matter of their tactical use: What have Israel and Saudi Arabia learned from their experiences about the maneuvering of Iranian-trained groups?
In addition to matters of doctrine and intelligence, Israel and Saudi Arabia ought to consider developing joint technological operational solutions under US auspices to shared problems. Building cost-effective active missile-defenses for the purpose of thwarting Iran’s “precision project” might be a good starting point.
If anyone harbored any doubts regarding the gravity of that threat, the September attack on the Aramco facilities in Abqaiq set off alarm bells for both Saudis and Israelis, as the latter face the emergence of an analogous threat along the Northern Front. Because the Kingdom is dependent on desalination plants for around 50% of the water its residents consume, one strike on such a facility could lead to catastrophic results. In the meantime, Saudi Arabia might consider purchasing Israel’s Iron Dome system.
As much as Israel seeks integration in a region that has long ostracized and even sought to destroy it, Jerusalem should proceed with caution in its public engagement with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have an undeniable image problem in US politics and among the general public, even if the private sector has resumed “business as usual” with Riyadh following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. With Israel already facing hostility in some arenas in the West, it can ill-afford to take on the public relations problems of others.
If the Israeli-Saudi non-belligerence pact currently under discussion comes to fruition, Riyadh might succeed in muting some of the international criticism toward the Kingdom that stems in part from its presentation in the media as a closed and intolerant society. Israel should welcome this bold step, which could facilitate deeper cooperation on strategy, intelligence and technology for coping with Iran’s proxy threat, while it must also seek to help Saudi Arabia responsibly mitigate the risks that have led to its self-inflicted diplomatic wounds.
Sander Gerber is CEO of Hudson Bay Capital Management, a distinguished fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Ari Heistein is a research fellow and chief of staff to the director at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Dr. Yoel Guzansky is a senior research fellow at INSS, focusing on Gulf security.