King Salman’s Chess Moves on UEA-Israel Intimacy

Like the Champions League, the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel is only a quarter-final. There are still two more strategic steps to be taken if Israel and the Arab world are to be on a fully peaceful step. Therefore, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, has not played directly. It’s still not the final round.

However, King Salman is an accomplished politician and an accomplished diplomat. Especially when dealing with America, his strategic brains are good. When the Saudis were involved in the bombings in Yemen, his hands were not completely dirty, as many have accused, because before F15 dropped the bombs intended to weaken the Houthis in Yemen in 2015, the post of defense minister had already been placed in the hands of the favorite crown, Muhamad bin Salman (MbS).

The new Arab Defense Minister in early 2015 suddenly summoned all top Saudi military officials to discuss the Saudi position regarding the spread of the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, which is backed by Iran and Shia militias. None of the top military officers had the thought of being directly involved in Yemen at that time. Everyone thought that MbS would give orders to await American involvement, as usual. But what a shame, MbS surprised all the top brass of the Saudi military. The orders were clear, send F15 to Yemen, bombard Houthi-controlled areas.

What happened then was that the Saudis and the UAE were condemned by many because the decision to bombard the Houthi rebels killed so many Yemeni civilians. But however, King Salman did not talk anything, feeling strategic that the steps of his beloved prince could not be blamed. Wherever Iran and the Shi’a powers wants to threaten Sunni land, it would be the business of the Arab world, which the Saudis command. And the King understands that America will not be too brave to join in condemning it

To that end, the prince’s power was added to a determining level for the future of the Saudi economy. Was given the opportunity to recover his name. But unexpectedly, then the curse of the world grew when journalist Jamal Kashogi’s death went straight to the prince’s hands. Reacting to that, MbS stepped on the gas. On the regional and international front, MbS has been struggling to build a name for himself by shifting issues. MbS introduced a new path to the Saudi economy. The space for foreign direct investment is opened, the digital economy is accelerated (NEOM City), the tourism sector is given priority, and the opportunity to issue debt securities as an alternative to national financing is offered on a massive scale.

Then on the international scene, MbS and Jared Kushner played a major role in lobbying OPEC and Russia, to limit production, to overcome the fall in oil prices several times ago. Kushner’s network to Russia and MbS to OPEC, made their efforts prove quite effective. The role of these two young figures in stemming the fall in oil prices, has more positive effects for MbS, while in America, Jared Kushner’s name is still known as a behind-the-scenes actor, it is Ivanka Trump who continues to enjoy the effects of popularity.

Inevitably, MbS’s name resonates in the international arena as the visionary successor to the  king. It does not erase past sins, but the name of MbS has started to follow behind the big name of his mentor, MbZ, king of Abu Dhabi, Muhamad bin Zayed. However, King Salman understands that the mistakes that are kept covered will be on the table at one time, especially when diplomacy with the west. When the west needs its approval for tough things to agree to, then the west will use the old cards, Yaman and Kashogi, for examples. And he’s already prepared a step.

It’s finally in line with his instincts, Netanyahu finally announced that he would annex a part of the Westbank, which was planned in early July 2020, then postponed due to the pandemic. Now, this was included in the category of things that are difficult to agree with. But like it or not, the King must still play beautifully. King Salman has not yet decided to become a major player, but has given a positive signal on the one hand to the UEA to start playing because of the fact that the proposal to buy weapons (F35 and the others) to the US six years ago, which are needed by the Arab world to face Iran’s aggressiveness, has not been approved.

UEA entered the arena. To Israel, the UAE brought an offer to stop annexation, so diplomacy will be opened with Israel. With America, the UAE reaffirmed its proposal to get advanced F35 fighter aircraft (to protect itself from Iran) and others, plus slowly withdraw troops from Yemen, together with the Saudis. The purchase of sophisticated weapons from America for Arab countries requires Israeli approval because America is bound by a Qualitative Millitary Edge (QME) agreement with Israel. MbZ understands very well, the situation is still shining, Netanyahu and Trump are in need of a surprise, because their respective domestic support is declining ahead of the election (America for November and Israel for 2021)

Negotiations went well. But for the King, this was only the quarter-finals. The annexation option is treated as terminated, which means that it has entered into the category of decisions of the UN Security Council and the Arab diplomacy core (land for peace), although not completely, but has not yet touched the request of the Arab Initiative 2002, which is commanded by Saudi Arabia and the Arab League, where Palestinian and its capital in East Jerusalem must be recognized as well.

But because the direction is not in the opposite direction, the King Salman gave the code only. Israeli delegation aircraft might pass through Arab airspace while heading to Abu Dhabi. And two days later, it was even inaugurated. The next code was sent on Friday (4/9/20), the high priest of Mecca, gave a lecture about possibility to open diplomatic relations with Israel. The Imam gave an example of how the Prophet used to make peace with several jewish tribes. Some Arabs sneered, but the message was sent. In Israel, the news was busy, Israel was absurdly happy. They read, that Arabic will soon be in the house.

But on the other hand, the King was also blowing the wind in another direction. The king seemed to be arranging his chess pieces carefully. Oman turned out to have a negative voice, not yet willing to follow the steps of the UEA, but sticking with the Arab Initiative’s offer. It appeared that Oman has coordinated with the King and was set for the establishment like that. But Bahrain, instead speaking out in support of the UAE, was preparing  for normalization. Then the Saudi foreign minister, even though he agreed to open its airspace for Israeli aircraft, still said the same thing as Oman.

And then King Salman cleared it with a few steps. First, the King told the media that he asked Donald Trump to include the issue of Palestinian sovereignty in the UAE-Israel agreement. Second, the verdict for the perpetrators of the murder of Jamal Kashogi was determined by a Saudi court. This step is necessary, to reduce the tension of US and Israeli pressure on Saudi, which is expected to play the Kashogi card to garner international support to corner Saudi Arabia. And third, to strengthen his steps, the King contacted Putin, talked about many things, including asking for help to raise and bring the issue of Palestine on the table.

Well, we saw that Bahrain, as predicted, finally announced by Donald Trump, has agreed to follow the steps of the United Arab Emirates to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. Not something really new indeed. This is because Bahrain is on the list of countries that Jared Kushner and Netanyahu mentioned will join the UAE. Almost all experts and observers agreed that Bahrain’s move was a step taken after the green light from the Saudis. In the future, we will see whether the ability of the King’s chess move can bring the issue of Palestinian sovereignty to the negotiating table, in the same package with UAE-Bahrain-Israel normalization ties. Let’s see

About the Author
An International Political Economy and Strategic Analyst, A Senior Fellow at Indonesia Economic Action Institution/EconAct
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