The news of Saudi-Israeli alliance should not have come as a surprise to any close observer of inter-state relations and of the manner in which geo-political alliances, overt and covert, are formed. It is a well known fact that when interests of two ‘enemy’ states converge, especially because of the common threat they face from a common enemy, they tend to set a common goal and make common strategy against it: hence, the political axiom: enemy of my enemy is my friend.
According to a report of Reuters, Israel and Saudi Arabia have entered into an alliance and are co-operating in developing a computer worm, which would be much more destructive than the Stuxnet malware, to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Iran’s semi-official news agency Fars also confirmed that Saudi Arabia and Israel’s Mossad intelligence division “are co-operating” to develop this program to launch a joint assault on Iran’s nuclear program, especially if the US-Iran nuclear deal comes to fruition. Needless to say, both Saudia and Israel have developed deep difference with the US and both have repeatedly expressed their disapproval of this deal in strong words. Saudia even went to the extent of refusing to accept UNSC membership because of rapprochement between the US and Iran, and declared this deal to be a “West’s treachery”; while, Israeli Prime Minister lambasted it as a “historic mistake.” Their mutual threat perceptions of Iran’s nuclear program have brought the two notorious states of the Middle East somewhat closer to establish a covert, if not an open, alliance.
Paradoxically, Israel and Saudi Arabia are still officially enemies; yet, they appear to be acting in lockstep – almost in a perfect symbiosis – when it comes to undermining and attacking Iran and painting it as a threat to regional and world ‘peace’. An analysis of responses and policies of both countries to matters related to Iran and other areas of mutual concern, such as the course of the uprisings in the Arab world, suggests that the Israeli-Saudi interface has come to represent more than a temporary pact of convenience only. Indeed, the convergence of their interests over Iran constitutes an unspoken strategic alliance that runs deeper than either side cares to admit publicly.
The underlying factor, apart from convergence of interests in the Middle East, reinforcing the possibility of Saudia-Israel alliance is the growing realization in both states that the US is gradually shifting its strategic priorities towards other regions, such as Africa and the Asia Pacific, at the expense of the Middle East. As a matter of fact, both states also interpret the US’ reluctance to use force, such as against Syria, as a sign of that very gradual US shift away from the Middle East, and as a result they question, perhaps more than ever, the credibility of the US’ commitment to their security—hence, the need for establishing new alliances to deal with the ‘common enemy.’
Stuxnet, the viral program, is believed to have been originally developed by the US and Israel, with former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden now only confirming their covert roles in an interview this July, is also suspected to have been actually used against Iran’s nuclear program to sabotage it. As such, the rationale for Saudia and Israel in the development of new and more destructive malware is not merely to spy on or partly damage the nuclear program, but to completely destroy its software structure. The plan would need a great deal of time and funding; and, according to certain reports, the option of a joint program was welcomed by Saudi government with open-arms. According to a 2013 report of Sunday Times, the Israeli Mossad intelligence agency and Saudi officials were working together to develop a contingency plan should the West failed in adequately curtailing Iran’s nuclear program. Both governments also reportedly expressed concerns that the on-going negotiations between the US and Iran could result in concessions being made to the latter, resulting in enhancing vulnerability of both Israel and Saudia in the Middle East along with that of other Gulf states as well.
As such, the security of the entire Gulf region gets compromised if Iran succeeds in developing a fully functional nuclear weapon. Because of the urgency to counter this threat, there is going on, as some reports and leaked documents show, a secret dialogue on the Iranian issue between Israel and some of the Gulf States. Senior officials from both sides have held some meetings, leading Israel to soften its policy on weapons exports to the Gulf States as well as its attempts to restrict sales of advanced weapons by the US to the Gulf, in part as a signal that it sees a potential for partnership with, more than a possible threat from, the Gulf states. This is a very crucial development, since Israel has, historically speaking, been very keen in maintaining its own superior position in the Middle East, and has repeatedly opposed arms deals between the US and the Gulf states; yet, it has now significantly tempered its usual disapproval of the sales of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of arms by the US to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states over the past few years. In contrast to its reactions to similar deals concluded in the past, Israel has remained noticeably silent over the most recent of these sales, counted as among the largest arms-transfer agreements ever concluded by the US with foreign nations.
On the other hand, the Saudis also recognize Israel’s military power as well as its close ties with the United States (and its influence in Congress), and they, as such, see the value in maintaining some level of co-ordination, preferably covert, with Israel. That Saudia has problems with Iran’s nuclear program, and that it has also never publicly denounced Israel’s nuclear weapons, is indicative of the behind-the-scene developments between both states. However, it has to be kept off the public eye because the cost of open relations with Israel would outweigh benefits given the position of the Arab people, who reject recognition of Israel and relations with it. The Arab monarchies are, therefore, currently greatly benefiting from the fact that covert and unofficial relations allow them to enjoy the advantages of ties with Israel without having to pay a price either in the form of public upheaval, which has become more vocal since the outbreak of the “Arab Spring,” or opposition from other Islamic countries too. On the other hand, Israel also sees potential benefits in maintaining a low profile covert alliance because it would allow it to maintain its own upper hand in the Middle East and also enable it to skillfully exploit the deepening division in the “Sunni” Arab world itself. Israel thus would be able to achieve its objectives without having to rely solely on any particular Gulf state, and at the same time, by continuously playing them off against one another. Needless to say, a weak Arab world means a stronger Israel; for, Israel would never forego its own ambitions of establishing hegemony in the Middle East. In fact, its entire foreign policy revolves around achieving this very fundamental objective.
However, Saudia-Israel alliance has its limits too. Despite the convergence of interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia, full normalization of relations does not seem to be forth coming at least until there is a significant political breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians. However, at the same time, there is also a wide range between full diplomatic relations and a total lack of contact, and the two countries are coming closer to take full advantage of this to achieve their objectives. These common interests won’t necessarily lead to full normalization, but it significantly can strengthen the covert coordination and the understandings between them. Additionally, covertly together, they can put enormous pressure on the US to adopt a more aggressive posture towards Iran in the form of re-imposing embargoes or to launch a targeted operation to dismantle Iran’s nuclear program. The alliance thus has a dangerous agenda that can trigger direct and indirect armed conflict in the already highly volatile Middle East.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.