The Guardian / September 24, 2020
Saudi Arabia’s interventions could result in seismic shift in region’s geopolitics.
As the UAE and Bahrain prepared to sign a deal to normalise diplomatic relations with Israel this summer, Saudi Arabia – the regional heavyweight – was quietly urging them on.
For several months before the deals were signed at the White House, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had been laying out his rationale for a pact that would overturn regional policies towards a long-term foe.
There were state-of-the-art fighter jets on offer, political favours with Washington to be won and bigger, better access to Donald Trump’s America, with all the connections a nakedly transactional president saw fit to muster.
There was also another inducement: if Saudi Arabia’s allies came to terms with Israel first, it would give the Kingdom cover to follow. Such a move would mark a seismic shift in the region’s geopolitics, easily eclipsing Israeli accords with Egypt in 1978 and Jordan 16 years later.
While a pact between Israel and Saudi Arabia is growing closer, Prince Mohammed is unlikely to give Trump what would be his biggest foreign policy achievement before the US election, according to three sources close to the royal court.
Instead, the Kingdom is likely to continue its role of urging regional allies across the line – effectively in its s name. Sudan and Oman are firm favourites to strike a deal before the year is out. But the old guard of the region, Riyadh and Kuwait, are likely to bide their time and hold out for bigger prizes.
Both countries are ruled by long-term monarchs, now well into their 80s and ailing, and both remain invested in long-term formulas for Arab-Israeli peace, which have been shredded by the region’s younger leaders, such as Prince Mohammed.
Addressing the United Nations general assembly on Wednesday, the Saudi monarch, King Salman, stuck to the script of the 2002 Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative, which had been seen as a template until the past few years.
“The initiative provides the basis for a comprehensive and just solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict that ensures the fraternal Palestinian people obtain their legitimate rights,” said King Salman. “At the forefront of which is establishing their independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
The heir to the Saudi throne views the region through a different lens to his predecessors, seeing Iranian expansionism as a bigger threat to stability than the seven-decade failure to bring about a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. According to two sources familiar with Prince Mohammed’s thinking, his views have been greatly influenced by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, since the two met in 2017.
“Kushner was just as transactional as his father-in-law,” said one Saudi source. “He was all about user pays; if you back a cause, or a person, they need to have your back. It was a language MBS understood and he wasted little time applying it to new Saudi positions on Palestine and Lebanon, both of which had become a never-ending burden.”
Later that year, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was summoned by Prince Mohammed to Riyadh and given a version of what a new Saudi-approved Palestine would look like.
Abbas has never spoken publicly about the meeting, and has not been back to Saudi Arabia since. But Palestinian officials, who insisted on anonymity, like everyone else contacted by the Guardian for this story, said the plan put to the veteran Palestinian leader was a lot like the blueprint of Jared Kushner’s peace deal, which was presented earlier this year with little fanfare.
“The crown prince told him Palestine could be Gaza and part of the Sinai, with a land bridge to what was left of the West Bank,” the official said. “The Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, was involved in this obviously. It wasn’t a Saudi royal’s prerogative to be giving away part of Egypt without consent.”
The connection between Kushner and Prince Mohammed has remained strong throughout his turbulent three years as the kingdom’s effective leader. The stain of the state-sanctioned murder of Jamal Khashoggi by aides and guards of Prince Mohammed, barely reached the doors of the White House.
Instead, the Trump administration’s blend of transactional power politics, commercial ventures and a narrow range of global interests – securing the fate of Israel and diminishing Iran being first among them – have gelled with the crown prince and the Saudi system, which knows how to deal with regional political families – and now has a replica in the US.
One former western intelligence official said the model was a factor in getting things done. “We go to see them in a nice new suit, sit in their palaces, feel briefly empowered and real,” the officials said. “Then we fly home and take the tube to a shared flat in Elephant and Castle. People on our end are seduced by the access, no matter how hard they try not to be. On their end, they often find the interactions quaint.”
The Kushner-MBS bond remains so strong, that the latter has advocated that Lebanon demarcate its maritime border with Israel – a central US talking point, partly aimed at securing Lebanese rights to a shared undersea gas field, but also at neutering Hezbollah, which maintains a stronghold in southern Lebanon.
As Trump’s government hurtles towards 3 November, it is ramping up its policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran. Lebanon is seen as a key arena in which to try to dilute Iranian influence, and Prince Mohammed is very much on board.
“Things are all heading in the right direction,” the Saudi official said. “When they pull the trigger on this deal is a very important question. For now, it’s too soon.”
Martin Chulov, who covers the Middle East for The Guardian, won the Orwell prize for journalism in 2015