Saudi-Israeli diplomacy progresses amid looming Middle East challenges

The Middle East will never be quite the same again. The meeting Sunday between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin NetanyahuBenjamin (Bibi) NetanyahuMORE and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), though initially denied by Riyadh, no doubt happened. It almost certainly wasn’t their first meeting — previous maritime assignations on luxury boats in the Red Sea have been rumored — but this was the most transparent, logged by several websites that track flights.

The meeting, held in a palace in the growing futuristic Saudi city of Neom in the far northwest of the kingdom, broke new ground in that, reportedly, U.S. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump transgender ban ‘inflicts concrete harms,’ study says | China objects to US admiral’s Taiwan visit King of Jordan becomes first Arab leader to speak with President-elect Biden Central Asia is changing: the Biden administration should pay close attention MORE was also there, making it yet another Middle Eastern accomplishment for the Trump administration, although rather late in the day.

Two questions spring to mind. Why? And why now? It is not as if the Saudi-Israeli intelligence liaison is anything new. It has been going on since at least the 1980s, and probably before. The British used to chaperone “long dinners at the Mandarin Oriental” hotel in London for teams from both sides to discuss what divided them, and what didn’t.

The obvious area of mutual concern, then and now, is Iran, which already threatens both countries in terms of regional troublemaking and missiles, and could have a nuclear weapon capability all too soon. In recent years, MbS, the 35-year-old heir to the Saudi throne, has indicated that he sees Israel as a natural partner for his plans to develop the kingdom and transform its economy from its dependence on oil.

The timing of this latest meeting appears to relate to securing the level of what has been achieved so far, before the arrival of the Biden administration, which appears to have different views on how to deal with Iran and the current marginalization of the Palestinian issue.

Personalities — a.k.a., egos — no doubt play a role as well. Netanyahu is under growing domestic political attack for incompetence in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and possible corruption involving allegations of fraud, breach of trust and bribery. Pompeo, perhaps, wants an achievement to help with any potential 2024 political ambitions. MbS may feel constrained by the apparent reluctance of his father, King Salman, to shift from decades of support for the Palestinians to joining the normalization bandwagon regarding Israel, on which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan are riding.

An additional Saudi domestic ingredient should be considered as well. MbS was effectively excluded from the Saudi-hosted G20 summit, held virtually over the weekend. King Salman presided, although MbS had been the Saudi face of the summit for the last two meetings in Osaka and Buenos Aires. Perhaps his low profile was the only way to get President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey to attend. For many Western leaders, MbS may remain too associated with the 2018 murder by Saudi agents of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the current detention and mistreatment of women activists.

So, having a top-level meeting with Netanyahu and Pompeo may make Saudi Arabia’s crown prince feel that he has written himself back into the script of who is transforming the kingdom, and who isn’t. At this stage, it is not clear whether King Salman knew the meeting would take place. The Saudi foreign minister, who may not have been there himself either, has tweeted a denial of the media reports.

But “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” as the French would say — “The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.” A reminder of what the Middle East is occurred overnight when a cruise missile launched by Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen reportedly hit an oil facility near the Saudi city of Jeddah. The Saudi-Israeli diplomacy shifts normalization into the fast lane, but much can happen to slow, stop or even reverse it.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

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