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Does Saudi Arabia Have a New Role to Play as Stabilizer of the Middle East?

The Persian Gulf colossus is engulfed by a crisis with no clear route to redemption

Ask General Yaakov Amidror to speak about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and you might think you’d been dropped into a session of family therapy. Amidror, Israel’s stern-faced former National Security Advisor, discusses the Persian Gulf monarchy as if explaining a new and perplexing behavior adopted by a cousin going through a rough patch.

“The American retreat from the Middle East—no, the United States of American has not abandoned the Middle East, but yes, it is in retreat—and the deal with Iran, that are, of course, linked, have exposed the isolation of Saudi Arabia,” he said to a small audience of colleagues at Haifa University, at a symposium on the new regional role of Saudi Arabia.

“They’ve lost their anchor of so many years and the result is a kind of trauma. They have to react to this trauma and see now what can be done. When this came along with the crisis in oil prices, which put them in a serious economic problem, and with the understanding that there are limitations to what they can buy and sell, it made them very, very concerned. If the crisis in oil prices had occurred 20 years ago, when the United States of American was very strong in the Middle East and a deal with Iran was inconceivable, it would have been one thing. But all three of these things together have put them in a tight spot.”

In addition, he said, Saudi Arabia faces the daunting quandary of what to do with a surplus of royal cousins. “The issue of succession in SAusi Arabia didn’t exists 30 years ago, but today it’s a huge problem. From the generation of the founder’s sons to the grandsons, the question is how do you deal with so many cousins in the line of succession?”

It might appear perplexing to hear a grizzled, veteran Israeli military man explain the behavior of a nation with which his country has no military ties, that supports sworn enemies of his state, with such caring and empathy, but Middle East sands are shifting and enemies occasionally develop unexpected affinities for the predicaments of each other.

Israeli officials have openly spoken of a tacit alliance with Saudi Arabia, for whom Iran is an enemy as implacable as it is for Israel. Earlier this month, Ali Larijani, speaker of Iran’s parliament, claims gthat he possessed “definite information” about the kingdom’s security cooperation with Israel. Saudi Arabia gave “strategic” intelligence information to Israel as far back as 2006, during the Second Lebanon War, he claimed, in an interview with the Lebanese satellite TV channel Al Mayadeen, that operates as a media arm of Hezbollah, the Iranian proxy militia.

A more skeptical, less sympathetic tone was struck by Prof. Dan Schueftan, the director of the National Security Studies Center at Haifa University. “In Saudi Arabia they’re not even starting to come out into open [about ties with Israel] because the benefits for them will be low and the price will be very high.”

Schueftan was alluding to the extant but eroded Arab League boycott of the State of Israel, that received body blows when Egypt established diplomatic ties with Israel in the 1980s and Jordan did the same in the 1990s.”

Even if a furtive cooperation were the case, he said, “it will take time to reverse the Obama effect on the region and you need to prepare for hardship. The impact in the region has not been small.” On the other hand, he said, giving credit to Israel’s neighbor and the buffer state between Israel and Saudi Arabia, “I’m not sure Israel would have been what it is today without the alliance with Jordan, and Jordan would not exist if not for Israeli intervention or the threat of it.”

Amidror, however, is significantly more sanguine. Speaking with The Media Line, he said “my ties to Saudi Arabia go back to the late 1970s. At that time, an officer in his early 30s, he was appointed to head the Israeli army’s desk “responsible for ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” which were non-existent.
He recalled “four full days of a briefing about Saudi Arabia” from his then-commander, a colonel who told him that with arid land, meager opportunities for education, almost complete reliance on oil and the oppression of women, in her estimation, “Saudi Arabia as it is cannot survive to the end of the 20th Century.”

What he learned from the experience, he says, is that “we really have to be modest when talking about Saudi Arabia because we really don’t understand what is going on there. It’s the outside and not the inner circles of the ruling family who are making the decisions. What we understood is that Saudi Arabia was a very rich country with very weak tools to implement anything.”

Or, expressed otherwise, the polar opposite of Israel, a poor country populated by immigrants fleeing oppression and persecution that developed significant tools for implementing its own economic miracle.

Now, Amidror told the audience, “a new, better-educated and self-confident generation that grew up in very rich monarchy, knows the world and believes it understands how to act within this world, something the older generation had to learn on the job, and more fit to deal with these problems than the older generation, a very impressive generation,” is beginning to take over.

So how may Israel fit into the new panorama? The younger generation, Amidror says, understands that the main difference between the two main Islamic movements, Shiites [of which Iranians are a predominant power] and Sunnis [the majority in the Arab world, of which Saudis and Egyptians are the predominant powers] is that Shiites are united and they have a single leader, in Tehran, whereas among the Sunni there is huge fragmentation and no natural leader. There is no Iran in the Sunni world.”

“The Saudis,” he said, “tried to take this burden upon themselves and learned that it is not easy. They have disagreement among themselves about what should be done and how to do it. They quickly understood that by themselves they cannot do it. They need other Gulf countries and Egypt, which is the biggest Sunni country with a real army.”

Enter Israel. “In their big dream,” Amidror said, “Israel is a very important factor.”

To great laughter, he quoted Saudi Prince Turki saying, at an event at the Washington Institute, that “with Israeli money and the Arab mind we can change the Middle East.”

“I really believe,” Amidror continued, “that a cooperation of our capabilities and the Saudis, Jordanians and Egyptians we can build another Middle East to stabilize it, put barriers up in front of Iran and stop the success and eliminate the Islamic state.

The key, he says, and a stumbling block Israel for now cannot overcome, is that any real Saudi outreach to Israel “depends on our agreement with the Palestinians. They say this clearly. ‘If you want a real alliance and not just something under the table, something real, on the table, a strong basis to walk together, you have to reach agreement with Palestinians.’ They say it and they mean it.”

Meir Litvak, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University and a senior research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies said that senior Iranian officials now argue “that Saudi Arabia has replaced us and is the top strategic rival to Iran.”

“The Sunni thought that Shiites are worse than Jews is irritating to many Iranians,” he added, in a line that drew knowing nods from the audience.

Sir John Jenkins, formerly the senior Arabist in the British Foreign Office and a British ambassador to numerous Arab countries, who today serves as the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the Middle East, based in Bahrain, recalled living in Ridadh, the Saudi capital, for three years as a young diplomat in the 1980s.

The young generation, he said, feel “exhilaration when they see the young Prince Mohammed bin Salman in power—he’s young, he looks like them– but on the other hand they feel profound anxiety about where this is leading. Its not a particularly stable situation.”

In fact, he told The Media Line, “it is an age of unprecedented upheavals, with a new element over the past 10 years, which is God.”

“A lot of real politics in the Middle East has gone underground and become framed as a religious matter.”

“Look at the way politics is framed now,” he said, “constructed around the performative expression of loyalty and contest for authenticity within religions. Regarding the Palestinians too,” he added, alluding to the challenge laid down by Amidror, “the issue has become Jerusalem, with a religious hinge that needs to be tackled.”