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Saudi Arabia Stretches its Considerable Diplomatic Muscles

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

European leaders are facing an unprecedented, possibly existential, crisis following the British vote to exit the European Union but on Monday, French president took some time out of his harried day to meet a guest from the Middle East.

Before zipping off to Berlin for an urgent summit with German chancellor Angela Merkal and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Hollande took an hour out of his day at the Élysée Palace to meet with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who was also scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Manuel Valls and the French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

France’s ties with Saudi Arabia have flourished under Hollande, and the prince’s visit to France serves “to underline and deepen the excellence of the global French-Saudi strategic partnership,” in the words of the Saudi embassy in Paris.

It is Prince Mohammad’s second Paris visit in a year: his first official visit was in June 2015 to celebrate the inaugural Saudi-French joint committee, following a summit meeting in Riyadh between Hollande and Gulf leaders.

The French and the Saudis are important commercial trading partners and share a rivalry—or a shared interest—in the Middle East, as each champions its own plan to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Saudi ambassador to France Khaled al-Anqari told Saudi media that the Saudi-French political positions and views are “identical towards most of the global issues, particularly with regard to the Middle East issues.”

Not insignificantly, Mohammed, who is referred to by his initials MBS by Saudi youth, the majority population in his desert kingdom, who see him as their personal representative, arrived in France following a visit to the United States, where, amid the ongoing crisis in oil prices, Saudi Arabia is trying to flex its diplomatic muscle.

General Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s stern-faced former National Security Advisor, told The Media Line, his “ties to Saudi Arabia go back to the late 1970s.”

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, at least to the public eye, 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.”

But the principal lesson he took 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, Saudi Arabia 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 a rapt audience at a symposium at Haifa University, in northern Israel, alluding to MBS, “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? For one, Israel, Saudia Arabia (and, to a certain extent,  Europe and the United States) share a formidable regional rival: Iran.

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.”

Provoking laughter from his audience, he quoted Saudi Prince Turki, and uncle of Mohammad telling him 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.

However, Amidror says, the establishment of open diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and 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.”

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. It is 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.”