Editors Note: This is the first installment of a two-part assessment. You can read the second part here.
Threatened by Iran and emboldened by the United States, the Gulf states of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are drawing closer to Israel, as the obstacles that have kept Riyadh and Abu Dhabi from contemplating such a radical move fall by the wayside. Indeed, for the first time in many years, Iranian influence has reached the Mediterranean Sea by land, prompting heightened worries in the Gulf states and Israel. But while the overtures between both camps are real, the nascent relationship remains subject to many of the old rules of Arab-Israeli dynamics. And as the Gulf's two biggest powers contemplate a formal transformation of their relations with Israel for pragmatic gain, they must calculate their willingness to endure domestic backlash, the ire of much of the Muslim world and the possibility that some royal rivals may not wholly support such an endeavor.
The United States has taken its most stridently anti-Iran stance since the Reagan administration at a time when Tehran has deployed power to regions in which it has had little influence for centuries. Iran's rise has alarmed all of its rivals, especially the Gulf Arab states and Israel, ultimately fostering a situation in which countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates could bury their historical enmity with Israel to present a united front against Iran. For the Gulf countries, however, openly working alongside Israel still presents many risks, although Riyadh and Abu Dhabi may yet calculate that they can absorb any backlash.
The Events Spurring Change
For decades, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, like countries throughout the Arab world, used the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a means to bolster domestic legitimacy. By supporting the cause of Palestinian statehood, they emphasized pan-Arab and pan-Islamist themes that helped bind their tribal societies to their rulers and burnished their credentials as a major soft power in the Muslim world. And in the specific case of Saudi Arabia, support for the Palestinians raised Riyadh's credibility as guardian of Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.
The countries could maintain this stance so long as these Arabist and Islamist themes remained effective tools of state-building and their opposition to Israel did not cost them much in terms of power or money. And because the United States has been the Gulf's ultimate security guarantor since the 1970s, rulers in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi had little reason to stray beyond their political and diplomatic comfort zones.
A series of seminal events, however, has steadily undermined the foundations for such behavior. For one, the Arab Spring proved that platitudes about pan-Arabism and the Palestinians could save no regime. Worse, the uprisings, particularly in Egypt, revealed that Islamism was not a glue holding together each of these states but a potential challenge. Then, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama announced its pivot to Asia, raising fears in the Middle East that the United States would completely withdraw from the region, leaving security problems in its wake. Last, the 2015 Iran nuclear deal removed the fetters from Tehran, as the agreement failed to address the Islamic republic's ballistic missiles and regional proxy wars.
With the United States seemingly uninterested in combatting Iran's rise and a pro-Palestinian stance paying fewer domestic returns, the Gulf states turned to the only state that was powerful and committed enough to battle Iran: Israel. Cautiously, they reached out to find out what they could obtain from Israel — and what their own populations would tolerate.
Since the election of Donald Trump as the American president, the United States has resumed its hard-line, anti-Iran stance. Even so, the Gulf Arab-Israeli relationship has continued to grow, in part because the United States has still not signaled that it will do everything in its power to combat all Iranian influence. Washington has, for example, limited its activities in Yemen, where Iran's Houthi allies are battling a Saudi-led coalition. The country has also avoided all non-defensive attacks on Iran's proxies in Syria, and there is no guarantee that it would bomb Iran, either preemptively — a decision the United States finds politically more difficult after the 2003 invasion of Iraq — or in response to any Iranian decision to develop an atomic weapon.
On the home front, obstacles to relations with Israel also continue to weaken. While the United States' decision to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in December 2017 sparked protests and outrage throughout the Muslim world, citizens of Gulf Arab countries displayed a more muted response, while their governments merely offered staid cliches rather than substantive policy shifts. Even after the United States announced its decision, some Gulf Arab media personalities and officials continued to publicly back warmer relations with Israel or quietly meeting with Israeli officials. (Saudi and Emirati officials, meanwhile, largely repeated the traditional, pro-Palestinian line in public.) Most visibly, however, Saudi Arabia quietly granted the use of its airspace for flights heading to or from Israel this spring.
Counting the Cost
Ultimately, if the United States fails to move forcefully against Iran should Tehran decide to restart the country's atomic weapons program, sponsor a militant attack on a Gulf Arab target or engage in other activities that threaten Israel, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, Gulf Arab countries will strengthen their relationship with Israel. In such a case, they will push the boundaries that have so far prevented the consideration of such overtures.
Those obstacles include the domestic reaction. While Israel is no longer the boogeyman in Gulf societies that it used to be, a backlash is possible in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, particularly if the coordination between Israel and the Gulf is overt and — as is likely — a peace deal with the Palestinians fails to materialize.
Of the two, Saudi Arabia will face greater risks in pursuing closer ties with Israel because of its many geographic, demographic and cultural differences, of which the Shiites of Eastern Province represent only the most visible fault line. At the same time, the government must balance the differences between the southern Asir province, which is Sunni but culturally similar to much of Yemen, the ultra-conservative Nejd interior and the more cosmopolitan Hejaz region — all of which is overlaid by urban-rural, young-old, liberal-conservative and other social cleavages.
Domestic reaction is not only limited to the street, however. In Saudi Arabia, a decision to work with Israel could damage the legitimacy of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, prompting rival royal factions to maneuver and take advantage of any popular unrest to stake their claim for the throne. Those who already bear a grudge against the crown prince may invoke the kingdom's traditional values, even as they move against the heir apparent. The United Arab Emirates' rulers could face similar challenges; although the country's seven royal families are secure within their own emirates, warmer relations with Israel could ignite a power struggle among rival royal factions after the eventual passing of the ailing Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi.
What is far more certain is that the wider Muslim world will not look favorably on Gulf Arab-Israeli coordination any more than it did on Washington's decision on Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia claims to not only be the protector of Islam's holiest sites but also a leader of the Sunni world, yet warm ties with Israel will erode that claim in the wider Muslim world, particularly if the kingdom supports any Israeli attack against a fellow Muslim country like Iran. Moreover, such coordination will dent Saudi Arabia's decades-old attempts to build soft power abroad by building mosques and schools.
The wider Muslim world will not look favorably on Gulf Arab-Israeli coordination any more than it did on the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem.
Such anger will benefit the two Gulf countries' chief Sunni rivals, Turkey and Qatar. Turkey, which has its own religious outreach program to buttress its soft power ambitions around the world, is well-placed to exploit public distrust of Saudi institutions throughout the Sunni world — all while balancing its own pragmatic relationship with Israel. Accordingly, Turkey, along with Qatar, could become a greater patron of aid throughout the Muslim world if Muslims refuse Saudi or Emirati cash on principle.
The American Question
The key question is what the United States will do against Iran — as well as how Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates perceive that action. Israel desires closer coordination with the Gulf states, both for strategic and commercial purposes, but it must wait for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi to become more comfortable with such a relationship. That timeline will accelerate if Riyadh and Abu Dhabi believe Washington is failing to halt Tehran's activities — a distinct possibility given that the legacy of the 2003 Iraq War means that even a hawkish White House is unlikely to eliminate the Iranian threat to the full satisfaction of the Middle Eastern trio. Moreover, the United States' stridently anti-Iran administration must leave power eventually, casting doubts on Washington's long-term commitment to opposing Iran.
Joining hands with Israel to oppose Iran is a step with many risks and rewards for the Gulf Arab states. But regardless of the pros and cons of pursuing relations with the Eastern Mediterranean power, it is clear that the Gulf Arabs have much to discuss with Israel. And in Yemen and Iraq, two countries where U.S. action is least likely, the two sides will have a chance to grow even closer.
Read the second part of the assessment here.