The Middle East and the Israeli Gains – Bridging the Diplomatic Divide
Amb Anil Trigunayat, Distinguished Fellow, VIF
Gloom in Middle East

The Middle East has been wrenching and reeling under an unprecedented pressure during the last decade. In recent times, this has been further accentuated by self-inflicted goals and self-defeating regional diplomatic outreach and senseless military interventions. Beginning with the failed Arab Revolutions, i.e., the Arab Spring turning into Siberian winters with an ever-lurking fear in the minds of the rulers, the Gulf Crisis due to Qatar and Quad-confrontation (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) enforcing sharp divisions and making it irrelevant and defunct, the ongoing unwinnable war in Yemen and Syrian and Libyan hopelessness with vacillating oil fortunes, all these attest to the depths of the gloom the region currently suffers.

Khashoggi Affair

On top of all these, the Saudi botched-up killing gone wrong, of an errant journalist in Jamal Khashoggi, at their Consulate in Turkey has put the largest economy and country on the mat. Consequently, Saudi leadership, especially that of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) - the supposedly unassailable - has come under the scanner for its complicity in the killing of Khashoggi. Some in the West, under the garb of human rights violations, are literally gunning for his ouster. Truth is yet to be out but shifting of stances and statements on almost daily basis in this regard point to the nervousness that the Kingdom and its rulers face.

Even their reliable friend, USA in Trump and Jared Kushner, are not in a position to deflect the focussed criticism though in all fairness they tried. But US is also a functional and claimant of a greatest democracy where different interest groups and leaders occasionally stand up for the rights their country is said to champion. This is what has given the headache to MBS, as like the Saudis, the US President also kept on changing his stance from “wait and watch” to “it will be bad if they are involved”. But on the other hand, US , being mercantilist as it is, wants to have its cake and eat it too, which was evident in Trump sending his Treasury Secretary to the ‘Davos in the Desert’ Investment Summit, despite huge opposition from within.

Saudis may be feeling disgruntled and confused and hence came up with oddly compiled sanctions and courses of action should the big powers go after them. These ranged from pumping less oil and threatening to jack up the price from $100 to $200 to a farfetched rapprochement with Iran. Silly as it may sound, these have some merit as might bring about some normalcy in the region and address various conflicts issues currently prevailing. But that’s a long shot of wishful thinking and no one really took the Saudi outburst seriously.

The Saudi Regime

In this melee, several quick developments are taking place which do not augur well for the until recently all-powerful Crown Prince MBS. One was the release after 11 months of jailed Prince Khalid bin Talal, the brother of powerful and rich Prince Al-Waleed, who bought his way out few months ago when several Princes were rounded up on corruption charges and billions of dollars were extorted in return for freedom. Permission for the family of slain Khashoggi to leave Riyadh was given even though family is demanding for still missing body of Khashoggi. Then there was the return of well-regarded Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, brother of King Salman, from his exile in UK. USA and UK have provided security guarantees to him so that he could emerge as a possible alternate to MBS or could explore the ways to douse the fire. He is a known critic of MBS and the present ruling Royals for arbitrary acts, especially the invasion of Yemen and hostility with Qatar. The royal welcome he received on arrival is a testament to his acceptability and the fact that Royal family is looking to revive a modus vivendi with the West which had been openly critical of the way the whole botched-up “Khashoggi Affair” has gone on.

The outcome of these developments and pressure on the Saudi regime could lead to terminate the Yemen War and Qatar blockade, as demanded by Pompeo and Erdogan. These will probably also determine the endgame whether the King eventually decides to replace MBS with an acceptable Royal or accommodates the competing interests with MBS in the saddle but with reduced powers.

Israel’s Diplomacy

Israel has been unusually quiet on this affair even though much later they have asked for proper investigations, as Netanyahu did not want to rock their newly found friendship with the Saudi ruling Royals, especially MBS. Hence they continue to engage in smart diplomacy by reaching out to other Gulf countries. On October 25, Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Oman and held discussions with ageing Sultan Qaboos and his important Cabinet colleagues. The visit and high-profile interaction occurred after almost a quarter century. Last visit was by PM Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 and in 1996 they agreed to set up Trade representation offices. The one in Oman was inaugurated by Shimon Peres who in the previous year had hosted Yousef Bin Alawi in Jerusalem. Although in the wake of Palestinian Intifada in 2000 the trade offices were closed, the informal relations especially in intelligence and security relations continued. For Israel, neutralising Oman’s back channels with Iran are important while for Oman to appear to be spearheading the revival of Peace Process, interaction with Israel provides the requisite leeway to normalise relations. The Joint Statement after the visit referred to it as “PM Netanyahu and Sultan Qaboos discussed the ways to advance the Peace Process in the Middle East and several matters regarding the achievement of peace and stability in the Middle East”.

This was not the only interaction for Israel’s Gulf diplomacy and outreach. UAE and Saudi Arabia already have reasonable levels of interactions with Israel. Sports diplomacy has been on the upswing too. The Qataris hosted the Israeli sportsmen, in February last year, at the World School Handball Championship stating that “Qatar is a friendly country that seeks to ensure safety and equal treatment of all athletes who come to the country. We love sports and treat with due respect all athletes who represent their country and are Ambassadors of the World”. Israeli national anthem ‘Hatikva’ was played in Abu Dhabi when their athlete Sagi Muki won the gold at the Judo Championship in end October. Even the Israeli Minister of Sports and Culture Miri Regev became the first publicly acknowledged Minister level visitor to UAE at the games while her Prime Minister was visiting Muscat. Also, Israeli Minister of Communications Ayoob Kara was said to have participated at the Cyber Security Conference in Dubai. At the same time, an Israeli gymnastics delegation was participating in Doha at the World Gymnastics Championships (FIG). Since Qatar will be hosting the 2022 FIFA Cup, Israel will have to be a participant. But before that one might witness a closer cooperation between Israel and the region. Sports diplomacy for Qatar gave an edge in its regional conflict.

Not to be left behind, murmurs began in Bahrain too where overtly they have been unwilling to take a clear line on normalising relations with Israel until the Palestinian issue is resolved. But seeing their friends and benefactors in the region Bahrain maintained that they did not need any one’s permission to normalise relations with Israel while decimating the reports that Bahrain would be the first country in the Gulf to establish relations with Israel. In fact, commenting on Netanyahu’s visit to Oman, Bahraini Foreign Minister said “We have never ever questioned the wisdom and farsightedness of HM Sultan Qaboos in trying to help and do their part in trying to reach a solution for the Palestine-Israeli issue and we look forward to Sultan succeeding in his efforts”.

Israeli diplomacy thus gains momentum as Netanyahu said “there will be more” but will the Palestinians and the Peace Process also gain remains to be seen.

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