Middle East Eye / August 20, 2020
The Saudi ruler prefers to keep relations with Israel under the table. But he is dammed if he does join the UAE, and damned if he doesn’t.
It was only a matter of time before the Abraham Accord between the UAE and Israel was signed. The 13 August peace agreement between the two countries will see the Israeli flag raised in Abu Dhabi. But in Riyadh, it will be delayed as King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed opt for hypocrisy and secrecy over openness and transparency.
This is because the Saudi leadership prefers under-the-table relations with Israel that remain hidden from the public gaze. The ageing king perhaps does not want to end his reign with a controversial step. But he is dammed if he does, damned if he doesn’t.
The 13 August Israel-UAE peace agreement creates yet another challenge for the kingdom. Like the UAE, Saudi Arabia had maintained low level and behind-the-scene relations with Israel that intensified during Salman’s reign. The rationale was cooperation against a common enemy, namely Iran. Israeli military, surveillance and technological cooperation was meant to enhance the security of Saudi Arabia.
Silence and hypocrisy
But Mohammed bin Salman is yet to go public with these clandestine initiatives, which are never discussed or debated openly in Saudi Arabia. Most Saudis know about the level of cooperation through what is announced in Israel and reported in the Israeli press.
In the days after the peace agreement was announced, Saudi Arabia dealt with the challenge of the UAE normalisation with Israel through remaining silent. It was only on 19 August that Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan announced that the kingdom honours the 2002 Arab Peace Plan and will not rush to normalise relations with Israel.
In the near future, it is unlikely that Mohammed bin Salman will willingly follow the steps of his close mentor and ally in Abu Dhabi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Without serious pressure from President Donald Trump, he will hesitate to rush into a peace agreement now.
Given the controversial nature of normalising relations with Israel without serious consideration of the original Saudi Arab Peace Plan, in which Jerusalem was to be the capital of a Palestinian state secured with the return to the borders of 1967 between Israel and Palestinians, King Salman may not want to be associated with giving up totally on the rights of Palestinians.
If the king chooses to remain silent and ignore the UAE initiative, he will be damned by his bigger patron in Washington, Trump and his son in law Jared Kushner, who have both proven to be loyal supports in the last four years.
It is doubtful whether Trump will comprehend why Saudi Arabia resists going public with its long and on-going clandestine relations with Israel, as Trump does not fully understand or care about domestic Saudi opinion. If the king bows to pressure, he will render great service to Trump in Washington and Netanyahu in Israel. Both are struggling to survive amidst serious domestic political crises.
So far, not many Saudis have welcomed the agreement. In fact, as always, some took refuge in social media to denounce it and assert their support for Palestinian rights, which the agreement is widely seen to undermine.
If the king and his son ignore Saudi opinion, which remains against normalisation with Israel without serious consideration of Palestinian rights to a state, and rushes to follow the UAE, they will be damned too.
It is not clear how Saudis will react. Journalists and writers may not directly criticise the UAE, which is a taboo, the violation of which may lead to prison. Equally, supporting the Palestinian cause openly in demonstrations or opinion is condemned and always leads to detentions.
In the official press, the so-called historic agreement is treated as a breakthrough, without anyone launching into critical evaluation of the conditions of the accord or overtly praising it.
Most Saudi commentators attributed the agreement to the UAE exercising its sovereignty, thus ending any useful debate about the terms and conditions of the agreement or its general implications for Palestinians.
Uncertainty and silence
But there is a small minority of Saudis who go out of their way to praise the courage of the UAE government and declare how its new agreement paves the way for a lasting peace. Famous Saudi political scientist and novelist Turki al-Hamad declared on Twitter that the Palestinian cause is not his.
But we are yet to see any Saudi broadcasting that Saudi Arabia would be the next Gulf country to sign an agreement with Israel. Most commentators forecast that it is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will follow suit in the near future. Silence and uncertainty are now the best Saudi strategy to diffuse the crisis.
The king and his son know well enough that they are damned if they rush into normalisation with Israel. The best option for the Saudi rulers is to remain silent over a very controversial step that may prove to be fatal for the king’s legacy.
Madawi al-Rasheed is visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics; she has written extensively on the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender issues