Saudi-Israeli co-operation: Worst kept secret in the Middle East

On May 15, 1948, a day after Israel declared its independence, Saudi Arabia assisted Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq with an attack against Israel in the First-Arab-Israeli war. Since the war’s end in 1949, Saudi Arabia and many other Arab nations have refused to establish diplomatic relations with Israel.

The Middle East, to many on the outside looking in, is a region plagued by tension and war. Today, the Syrian Civil War, Iran’s rising nuclear ambitions and Iran’s growing influence in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen are some of the many threats destabilizing relations in the region. Cooperation is needed, as it has historically been a sensitive issue, with many regional unions, coalitions and alliances failing within months of their formation. Nations have repeatedly attempted to assert their dominance and power over others in the region. But in the current state of the Middle East, conversely, Israel and Saudi Arabia, two unlikely countries, are changing the history of the region. They are starting to put aside their disagreements and public reputation to combat mutual threats and help salvage stability and composure in the embattled region.

Since its independence in 1948, Israel has been seen as an outsider in the region. From a bird’s eye view of the Middle East, Israel is not seen as a welcome addition. When it was founded, Arab nations felt that the West was using Israel to insert itself into the region. Today, Israel remains at active war with many of its neighbors, including Syria and Lebanon. However, Israel has formed relations with Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994), though recently, these relations have seemed rigid. Most countries did not extend diplomatic relations following Israel’s independence, and 70 years and 3 major wars later, relations remain limited. Following the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel captured the Golan Heights, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, most Arab nations agreed to the Khartoum Resolution, which became known as the famous three “no’s”: “No peace with Israel, no recognition with Israel and no negotiations with Israel.” As time, has progressed, following another regional war in 1973, not much has changed.

Today, while Israel provides some security in the region, it still faces multiple threats from several directions. In the North, Hezbollah, backed by Iran, has thousands of rockets in Lebanon pointed directly at Israel. Hamas, in the Gaza Strip, has constantly fired rockets into Israel and has engaged in two conflicts with Israel, the latest in 2014. Finally, Iran has been increasing its missile threats, even after signing the international nuclear agreement, the JCPOA. However, with loopholes in the deal, Iran is still able to operate ballistic missile tests that are proving the ability to fire at Israel and other areas of the region.

Israel’s main goal is to search for partners of cooperation, and eventually, peace. The one issue that isolates Israel from most Arab nations today is the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many Arab nations have implied that as an incentive towards finding a solution to this conflict, peace with Israel is possible. This seemed likely in the 1990’s, as Oslo I and II lead to peace with Jordanians and negotiations with the Syrians. But today, with the conflict still stagnant, and the region in turmoil, some Arab nations, like Saudi Arabia, are taking a different approach towards peace.

Saudi Arabia’s desire for power in the Middle East has always been a contest to come out on top. As one of the largest countries in the region, the Sunni-majority nation is one of the leading oil producers in the world and a strong US ally. Recently, Saudi Arabia has been facing internal pressures as the royal family has been pushed towards reforms. The country often finds itself rivaling with Egypt, Turkey and Iran for superiority in the region. While this attempt at a power grab has been back-and-forth since the 1950s, Saudi Arabia enjoys strong relations with the Gulf nations. Countries such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman join the Saudis in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is a coalition for economic and political stability in the region.

Today, Saudi Arabia is heavily concerned, more than ever, with the nuclear ambitions of Iran. Iran has been causing fear and worry to many nations in the Middle East. Iran’s spreading influence via non-state actors and interfering in countries’ governments and wars, such as in Syria, Lebanon, and mostly importantly in Yemen, is concerning to many. Since 2015, the war in Yemen has been a problem for Saudi Arabia, with fighting occurring next to its border. The Shia minority Houthi rebels in Yemen have engaged in a bitter war against the Sunni Hadi government. With Iran backing the Houthis, who have taken control of the Capital city Sanaa and much of the western portion of the country, and the Saudis backing the Hadi Government, Yemen has officially become a proxy war between the competing nations.

With the current situation in the Middle East, cooperation and intelligence sharing between countries seems logical and beneficial. It can serve as a method of identifying movement in troops, weapons and influence. America possesses large-scale intelligence sharing with Middle Eastern countries such as Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia because of their strategic location. In fact, last May when President Trump leaked classified intelligence, Adam Goldman of the New York Times was one of many to report that the “information leaked to [the] Russian officials at the White House was provided by Israel.” Even though America relies on its Middle Eastern allies, it has not increased much regional cooperation between those countries.

Intelligence sharing and assistance have been rare in the Middle East. Jack Donnelly of the University of Denver says in his book, Realism and International Relations, that states will act out towards “egotistic passions and [in] self-interests in international politics” because states value power over security, which means states cannot simply assist each other. Many states cannot form valid cooperation because they lack trust. Conversely, this is where Saudi Arabia and Israel are slowly defying odds, understanding that they can no longer act rationally towards their own interests. Many sources report that the Saudis and Israelis are conjuring together behind closed doors, and it is reported that some of these meetings have actually been occurring for a few years. Both sides clearly understand they share more commonalities in threats that circulate their countries and the region, and understand that working together may be the right decision.

To both countries, while they have many common threats in the region, the biggest threat they share is Iran. From Saudi Arabia’s proxy war with them in Yemen, to Israel’s constant threat of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, these countries are starting to work together to calm tensions and find solutions to their problems. Recent developments in the relationship have tied the two countries together over Israel’s missile defense system, the Iron Dome.

The Iron Dome works when rockets, from Hamas and other groups, are fired blindly into Israel. Israeli sensors detect where the rocket will land and rocket warnings consequently blast in the area. If the rocket is aimed for a populated area, Israel will send a missile up to meet the rocket. If the rocket is aimed towards a deserted area, the defense system will not send a rocket to meet it. This defense system is very expensive, but saves lives. Saudi Arabia has reportedly been interested in acquiring this system, due to common rocket fire coming from the Houthi’s in Yemen. But these negotiations and conversations have been kept secret, and even denied, by both sides.

The relationship between these two countries is quite remarkable. In the past 70 years, Saudi Arabia has refused to issue diplomatic relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia aided the Arab nations in their wars against Israel in 1948, 1967, and 1973, and took part in the Khartoum Resolution. Now, the two countries have reportedly have had diplomatic meetings in the same room as Americans and Jordanians, and even have had multiple closed-door meetings. In 2016, in an unprecedented move, a retired Saudi general, Anwar Eshki, led a delegation to Israel and reportedly discussed taking their cooperation against Iran further. But since this meeting, nothing monumental, such as full diplomatic relations, has emerged. The Saudis have even denied the report that they inquired about Israel’s Iron Dome technology.

However, this past February, Saudi Arabia lifted its airspace regulations against Israel, allowing nonstop Air India flights from Delhi to Tel Aviv to fly over Saudi Arabia. This is big step towards military coordination between the two nations, but it is not official just yet. Large steps, like cooperation, take time, patience, and even criticism.

In regards to Saudi Arabia and Israel, this approach towards peace would not have been imagined 70 years ago. But with shared threats, both sides see the opportunity and benefits of working together for the common good. While many unsolved issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, might prevent permanent peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia, their engaged cooperation may help prove vital in an attempt to solve current and future problems. This secret relationship isn’t so secret anymore- which may pave the road towards stability in a region full of obstacles.

About the Author
Ethan Sorcher is a senior at Boston University majoring in international relations with a concentration in foreign policy and security in the Middle East and North Africa. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East, including studying for 5 months at Tel Aviv University.
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