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Commentary: Pause on Israel diplomatic deal will buy Saudi Arabia time for plan to ‘de-risk’ Middle East

HOUSTON, Texas: Saudi Arabia and Israel had seemingly been edging closer to a landmark deal to normalise their diplomatic relations – and then the Hamas attack on Oct 7 happened.

Since then, thousands have died in Gaza and in Israel. And fears of the conflict spreading across the region form the backdrop to frenzied diplomacy across the region, including a visit to Israel by United States President Joe Biden on Wednesday (Oct 18).

It also threatens to undermine a key pillar of Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic agenda: The “de-risking” of the region. With Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman set on implementing “Vision 2030” – an ambitious economic, social and cultural programme – and developing the kingdom as a destination for tourism and investment, a renewal of regional instability is the last thing the crown prince needs.

DE-ESCALATING TENSIONS

Certainly, the escalating violence in the Middle East presents a challenge to the shift toward de-escalation of tensions across much of the broader region in recent years.

This has included the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. But it goes further, including multiple-state treaties that have healed rifts across the Gulf, culminating in the signing of a deal in March to restore Saudi-Iranian relations.

These diplomatic breakthroughs opened up a space for greater regional cooperation through initiatives such as the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor unveiled at the G20 meeting in India in September.

The hope of officials across the region was that economic development could integrate the region and move discussion away from the failure to make progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

BALANCING SUPPORT FOR PALESTINIANS AND OVERTURES TO ISRAEL

Violence in Israel and Gaza threatens to knock Gulf states off a delicate balancing act of supporting the Palestinian cause in front of their largely Muslim populations while also making overtures to Israel and the US.

Qatar, for example, has long hosted the political leaders of Hamas while remaining on friendly terms with the US. It will now likely face significant Israeli and US pressure to expel Hamas leadership.

The UAE and Bahrain both normalised relations with Israel in 2020, along with Morocco. But public support for the Abraham Accords across the region was always lukewarm at best and may now dwindle away.

Meanwhile, Dubai, the UAE’s largest city, is gearing up to host COP28, the international climate change conference, starting Nov 30. The UAE will not want the event overshadowed or put at risk by a new regional war.

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DELICATE SITUATION IN SAUDI ARABIA

But nowhere is the tightrope more delicate than in Saudi Arabia. This is by virtue of the kingdom’s religious standing in the Muslim world – it is custodian of the faith’s two most holy sites, Mecca and Medina – and the ambitious raft of economic reforms the kingdom has rolled out as part of Vision 2030.

The campaign for Palestinian statehood has long been a cause celebre in the Muslim world, and the current king of Saudi Arabia, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, has been a staunch supporter of Palestine all his life.

But his son and heir, the crown prince, has increasingly shown an interest in dialogue with Israel. This has culminated in the talks to “normalise” relations between the two countries – something that would represent a historic breakthrough in Israel’s acceptance within the Arab and Islamic world. As recently as Sep 20, Crown Prince Mohammed told Fox News that “every day, we get closer” to a deal.

Indeed, a series of leaks to US media in the days and weeks prior to the Hamas attack suggested that the outlines of an agreement were taking shape, driven by the Biden administration.

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PUBLIC SHOWS, PRIVATE DIPLOMACY

But the Hamas attack and Israel’s response have punctured this momentum. Saudi sources briefed the media on Oct 13 that talks on normalisation had been paused – but not abandoned.

Such messaging is in line with Saudi attempts to balance domestic and external interests. An initial Saudi Foreign Ministry statement on Oct 7 appealed to both the “Palestinian factions” and “Israeli occupation forces” to de-escalate. But at the first Friday prayer at the Grand Mosque in Mecca after the attacks, Saudi authorities were more forthcoming in taking sides, with the state-appointed cleric urging support for “our brothers in Palestine”.

Behind the public shows of support for Palestinians, there is evidence that Saudis are trying to spearhead diplomatic efforts to prevent the war between Israel and Hamas from developing into a wider conflagration that might bring in Lebanon, Iran and others.

On Oct 12, Crown Prince Mohammed discussed the unfolding developments in Israel and Gaza with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi – their first conversation since ties between the two countries were restored in March.

Three days later, the crown prince received US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Riyadh amid media reports of differences between the Saudi and US positions on the conflict and the need for de-escalation.

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