After UAE and Bahrain, will other Gulf states start to get closer to Israel?
First came the United Arab Emirates, then Bahrain. According to Middle East experts, other Gulf countries could follow this path to normalising relations with Israel as set out by Abu Dhabi and Manama. Karim Sader, political scientist and consultant specialising in the Gulf, explains what this expanding normalisation means for the Gulf region.
The first signs of this rapprochement are still emerging with the repeal of the Emirati law concerning the boycott of Israel and the first ‘commercial flight’ that linked the two countries at the end of August. And now Bahrain in turn has announced a "historic" agreement to normalise its relations with Israel.
Observers expected other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) monarchies to follow in the footsteps of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
During a Middle East tour in late August which took in Israel, Sudan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, even said he was "optimistic" at the idea of seeing "other Arab countries" follow the example of the Emirates.
Confronting Iran and Turkey
"The Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia, have been seeking to normalise their relations with Israel for some time," explains Sader, speaking with FRANCE 24. “This agreement was an open secret they are all involved in to varying degrees, because there can be no single player when it comes to such a sensitive issue. Riyadh is in cahoots with Abu Dhabi on this issue".
A coordinated strategic change of direction, taken at the expense of the Palestinians, it has been created to deal with a new regional geostrategic situation.
According to Sader, the common objective of the Gulf monarchies, who still fear American disengagement, is to counter Iran and Turkey, the two non-Arab powers threatening their interests in the region. Sadler believes "this can be achieved, and it is almost logical", through a rapprochement with the Hebrew state, the dominant military power in the Middle East.
"The Palestinian cause has become secondary in the eyes of the petromonarchies obsessed by the Shiite Iranian rival, this rapprochement is in fact mainly based on their common animosity with Israel towards Iran," he says. “Moreover, like Israel, which is wary of Turkey's ambitions in the Mediterranean, the Gulf monarchies financed by petrol dominance are worried about the regional neo-Ottoman pretensions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan".
However, Saudi Arabia, which at the end of August authorised a Boeing 737 of the El Al company to cross its airspace as it was heading towards the Emirates, appears to be stalling. King Salman recently expressed the "kingdom's keenness to reach a lasting and fair solution to the Palestinian cause to bring peace".
For Sader, the Saudi king has taken this position because if Saudi Arabia, which is home to the holiest places of Islam and has a larger population than the Emirates, had embarked on the adventure first, the impact would have caused shockwaves throughout the kingdom and in the Arab world in general.
"One of these monarchies had to start the process of rapprochement, and the country best placed to do so was the United Arab Emirates," he explains. "Modern and open to globalisation, while being ruled with an iron fist, it was the country that risked the least in initiating normalisation, as local public opinion was locked in, and the Emiratis were behind the positions of power".
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi was the first to dare to take this step in order to allow his Saudi ally to follow him later, "by gradually getting this new reality accepted, knowing that the Palestinian question no longer generates as much emotional feeling as before among the populations of the region", he continues.
The experts agree that it is a matter of time, and that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who is closely linked to the Trump administration and in particular to Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, will eventually follow.
"It will depend on developments in the region and the outcome of the US election," says Sader. “If Donald Trump is re-elected, it will be easier for MBS - who is influenced by MBZ - to follow the concerted steps of Abu Dhabi and in turn formalise a rapprochement with the Hebrew state".
New generation of Gulf leaders
The political scientist says that the Saudi Crown Prince is part of this new generation of Gulf leaders who are tired of the Palestinian question and who no longer believe in the two-state solution.
"MBS is banking on delivering a fait accompli on the ground with a balance of power that is unquestionably in Israel's favour and on a future in which Palestinians would be dispersed throughout the countries of the Middle East. In short, it is a total break with the Arab peace initiative of 2002 defended by the late King Abdullah, and which had been rejected by the Israelis".
The 2002 initiative, which involved all the Arab League states, followed a summit held in Beirut. It went so far as to envisage normalised relations with Israel within the framework of a comprehensive peace. This was in exchange for the formation of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and a ‘just solution’ for the Palestinian refugee question.
"The current process is much more political and geostrategic, it is the result of an agreement between a few regional players, who have been playing their own games for a while, in agreement with Israel and the US administration," notes Sader.
After Bahrain, Oman and possibly Qatar?
As everyone watched Saudi Arabia and MBS, experts considered Bahrain and the Sultanate of Oman as the next two states likely to normalise their relations with Israel in the near future.
This has now happened with Bahrain. The agreement was announced on Friday and will officially be signed on Tuesday at the White House. It also suggests that Riyadh could follow soon because, as Sader reminds us, this small monarchy "is in a way a Saudi province, so much power is aligned with Riyadh in terms of foreign policy".
"Oman, which has always sought a diplomatic balance in the region consistent with its position as mediator, is likely to follow the Emirati example".
"Once these two states have followed, it will seem logical then for the Saudis to follow, because that is what has been planned from the start," says Sader.
Joint Statement of the United States, the Kingdom of Bahrain, and the State of Israel pic.twitter.com/xMquRkGtpM— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 11, 2020
The case of Qatar, banned from the GCC since June 2017, remains unresolved. “This is the case even if the emirate was one of the first states in the region to establish relations with Israel and continues to have exchanges with Israeli officials," says Sader.
The first Israeli trade office in the Gulf opened in Doha in 1996, but it closed four years later. The Qatari government shut down this Israeli trade mission after buckling to pressure from Iran and Saudi Arabia, which had threatened to boycott a summit of Islamic nations if the office remained open. When the 2009 Gaza War broke out, Qatar spoke out against Israel calling for an Arab summit in support of the Palestinians. Hamas members attended the summit in Doha, and Qatar broke ties with Israel.
"Due to its ability to start dialogue with both Western countries and Islamist movements such as Hamas, Qatar is a precious asset for the Israelis. For the moment, it is not on the same page as its neighbours, because of its isolation. But as soon as the Saudis lift their embargo, and Doha is restored within the GCC, it is highly likely that Qatar will follow this trend to normalise relations with Israel," concludes the Gulf countries specialist.
This article has been translated from the original in French.
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