Whether US President Donald Trump is too distracted to deal with Iran’s expansionism, or whether there are less charitable ways to interpret US inaction, Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia should not wait for a bailout from an increasingly dangerous situation.
The recent coverage of this defense pact has been largely based in speculation over the future of the Israeli-Saudi relations in general, or the prospects for tension between their leaders.
The truth is, much of this discussion is distracting and unhelpful. Whether Saudi Arabia will ever have better relations with Israel is unknowable, perhaps even by its monarchy, much less by everyone else. Nor is it particularly relevant to dealing with the threat that the two countries are facing now. If we are to move away from the fruitless analysis of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s personality, and whether he’s good for the Jews or, for that matter, for anybody (hint: he probably does not care what Western papers say about him, nor is he going anywhere anytime soon), the reality on the ground is as follows:
Saudi Arabia currently refuses to welcome Israeli chess players or other nonmilitary and non-business visitors. Israeli chess players may sue, as well they should. No one wants to see a weak ally that is dependent on the other side for approval.
Likewise, there is no real effort in place for people-to-people diplomacy or cultural exchanges of any sort. Saudi Arabia has been working with Israel in the shadows for decades, but recently made the possibility of a diplomatic relationship contingent on the peace plan with the Palestinians. That peace plan for all intents and purpose is dead. Hamas and Fatah’s alliance is falling apart.
Mahmoud Abbas refuses to accept the US as moderator, nor is he being particularly flexible despite multiple meetings with his Saudi funders, who are growing increasingly impatient with what they perceive as a distraction from more pressing matters.
Trump’s recent announcement about moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem failed to generate any interest with the crown prince, and Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief, wrote a perfunctory open letter to Trump that largely appeals to the Arab street, and does not exactly have Israelis shaking in their boots.
Israel, meanwhile, is facing the increasingly unwelcome yet imminent prospects of Iran militias in the area of the Syrian border. And Hezbollah now has unfettered access to Syria, and therefore to yet another potential point of entry against Israel.
Turkey is using the ensuing chaos to throw its weight around, and to instigate the Arab street against the Gulf monarchies. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bark may be worse than his bite, but he is slowly making physical inroads elsewhere, recently taking control of the formerly Ottoman Suakin Island in Sudan, likely to the consternation of Egypt and the Saudis.
Turkey and the Saudis are facing off all over Africa, with Turkey investing heavily in Somalia and other countries in the region, while the Saudis are building their business fortifications all along the Horn of Africa. While there is no news of open hostilities thus far, the rivalry hangs in the air. Erdogan is out for blood, his ambition is to lead the neo-Ottoman caliphate and to relegate the Saudis to a backwater role at best. And Iran is right across the Gulf from Saudi Arabia, ready to instigate the kingdom’s Shi’ite minority and perhaps devour weaker Gulf states until it is strong enough to deal with the plum prize directly.
Is Muhammad bin Salman prepared for this eventuality?
The detractors of the crown prince have called him rash, overly aggressive, and poorly prepared for leadership. His supporters praise him for being decisive, committed to the liberalization and modernization of Saudi Arabia, and a visionary. But whether he is a callow, hypocritical amateur or an emerging wise and fearless leader the likes of which have not been seen in the Muslim world in a very long time, he is indeed surrounded by enemies with many centuries, and (in Iran’s case) even millennia, of experience in political intrigue and warfare, while being armed with a poorly prepared military, domestic strife as he consolidates his power, irksome religious clergy, and smear campaigns galore.
Just as Israel cannot afford to spread itself too thin, fighting the battles for the whole world, the crown prince cannot afford to be weak, and in his position the appearance of strength should go far beyond a corruption crackdown inside his own country (which may persuade all the right people in the kingdom, but is of dubious value to the outsiders).
He should not repeat the mistake of his predecessors, who got Saudi Arabia to the complicated place it is in now, by having to rely on foreign special forces to come bail the monarchy out whenever enemies find an opportunity to strike.
Right now, the dubious Israel-Saudi alliance, based on little more than a shared threat, is built on the premises of weakness in both countries. Israel appears to be too small and insignificant to handle the sprawling Iranian neo-empire on its own, with the Jewish state’s well-trained but limited air force and small population, while Saudi Arabia appears to be hiding behind Israel’s back in the hopes that someone else will handle the bad guys – never a great signal to send to your adversaries.
An alliance that is based on complementary weaknesses will inevitably end up with both parties dissatisfied and pointing fingers at each other, while the enemy uses every sign of fear to tear the allies apart.
The concerns over whether Saudi Arabia has what it takes to be of any value to Israel are legitimate. Recently, Saudi Arabia, in an amateur hour show that backfired spectacularly, suffered two significant political losses – the fiasco in Yemen and the failed attempt to fire Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Lebanon.
Yet, this is the army we have. Even an inexperienced, young leader can grow and become a success with the proper guidance and an openness to confronting challenges, particularly his own. There are several priority actions Muhammad bin Salman can take to turn around his image from someone who is well-meaning but struggling, to someone in complete control of the situation:
First, he must develop a sophisticated information-warfare mechanism to push back against Iranian and Qatari propaganda, which goes beyond direct confrontations with the ayatollahs and engagement in mutual name-calling. Iran’s worst damage comes in a subtle form of reputational attacks on its adversaries, sponsorship of human rights organizations filled with toadies, and widespread engagement and appearance of popular appeal at home and abroad.
Second, he must develop a flexible (not necessarily big) intelligence apparatus, modeled after US agencies, perhaps with the help of experienced former US intelligence officers. Recruiting agents from the Iranian minorities will not be enough to understand how the regime thinks. Despite decades of cultural tensions, preceding the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iranian leadership understands the Gulf tribal mentality far better than the Gulf states understand the Persian culture and mindset.
Third, the prince must make the Saudi Army battle-ready. Practicing for engagement through joint efforts with the US forces in Syria and small counterterrorism operations with Israel is key to becoming self-reliant and useful.
Fourth, the key to avoiding political mistakes like those that happened with Yemen and Hariri, is to practice patience and utilize the hybrid methods of persuasion, not merely crude air force attacks or blatant power play moves. He must offer something of value that is greater than whatever Iran is providing. Force is not always appropriate, and respect needs to be earned.
Fifth, Muhammad bin Salman must work on a greater integration with Israel on strategic matters. The two countries are exceedingly different, and yet Israel is much more familiar with the Middle Eastern states than any of the Western countries. However, without developing clear long-term plans for dealing with the likely Hezbollah and other militant incursions into Syria, as well as expansionism everywhere else, this alliance will largely be for show only.
As for Israel, it must act more aggressively in select situations, where it stands to benefit from direct confrontations. It has openly supported the Kurdish independence movement, but has failed to come to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s aid in any substantive way when it had every opportunity to do so. Now Iran and Iraq are controlling the oil fields, Iran and Iraq are pressuring the KRG to change leadership and become another of Tehran’s pawns, and Iran has completed a land corridor to Syria, creating a direct threat to the allies. Israel can still strengthen the Kurdistan Regional Government as a bulwark against the oncoming threat and work with Kurds all over the region to create a unified, militarily sophisticated, and strategically active force.
There may be many obstacles to this alliance, but courage, commitment and dogged determination can yet give it wings and make it a success far beyond what anyone has imagined.The writer is a human rights and national security attorney based in New York, who has written about geopolitics, the Middle East, and US foreign policy for a variety of American, Israeli and international publications.