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After UAE-Israel deal, all eyes on Saudi Arabia

  • Published at 03:34 pm August 14th, 2020
Saudi Arabia
File photo: Women walk past a poster of Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud during Janadriyah Cultural Festival on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia February 12, 2018 Reuters

Bahrain and Oman welcomed Thursday's bombshell announcement, while Riyadh has been conspicuously slent

The historic UAE-Israel diplomatic deal may prompt other Arab nations to follow suit, but heavyweight Saudi Arabia will be cautious, with more complex political calculations to make, analysts say.

The United Arab Emirates is the first Gulf state to normalize relations with Israel, after years of quiet rapprochement including the hosting of athletes and ministers from the Jewish state.

But the diplomatic flirtation has also reached Oman, which was visited by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018 and Bahrain, which received Israeli journalists last year.

Both countries have welcomed Thursday's bombshell announcement as advancing the prospects for peace in the Middle East, while Riyadh has been conspicuously silent.

Yoel Guzansky, a Gulf politics specialist at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, said he expected Bahrain to be among the first to adopt the UAE's position, possibly along with some North African nations.

"I don't see Saudi Arabia jumping immediately. I think it will wait and see the reactions in the Gulf, the Arab world... and then they will decide how and when, and in what scope," said the former adviser to several Israeli prime ministers.

"I don't think that they will go full ahead like the Emirates."

'A little annoyed' 

In 2002 Saudi Arabia sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative which called for Israel's complete withdrawal from the Palestinian territories occupied after the Six-Day War of 1967, in exchange for peace and the full normalisation of relations.

But the kingdom, the Arab world's biggest economy and custodian of Islam's holiest sites, has also cultivated ties with Israel in recent years, in a shift spearheaded by de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In 2018 Riyadh quietly opened its airspace for the first time for an Israel-bound passenger plane. And it has pursued a bold outreach to Jewish figures in recent years, even as it appears wary of a public backlash.

However it is unlikely it will take the monumental step of establishing official relations "at least not right away", said Hussein Ibish, an analyst at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. 

"My guess is that King Salman will be at least a little annoyed, since this breaks the Arab consensus that the Arab Peace Initiative is the guiding basis for all major diplomacy with Israel."

Common enemy

The spectre of Iran plays a fundamental role in the rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf states, all staunch allies of the United States in its confrontation with the Islamic republic. 

But there are difference in the perception of threat among Gulf states. 

Iran's opponents accuse it of interfering in other nations' affairs by supporting, financing and mobilising armed groups and parties across the region.

Nevertheless, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman have relations with Iran, while hardliners Saudi Arabia and Bahrain maintain a total boycott. 

The UAE has pared back ties without cutting them entirely and the two countries, separated by a narrow waterway, quietly do business with each other.

"The Emirates and Israel agree more on a common regional threat perception" about Iran's regional ambitions, Ibish said.

'Terrible blow' 

Also at stake in Saudi Arabia is its image in the Muslim world, and the expectation that it will uphold the rights of the Palestinian people.

The UAE said the deal included an agreement on stopping further annexation of the Palestinian territories.

But soon after, Netanyahu said the annexation was merely "postponed."

Despite the Emirati insistence that the deal was a "bold step to secure a two-state solution," Palestinian officials reacted with dismay.

"May you never experience the agony of having your country stolen; may you never feel the pain of living in captivity under occupation... May you never be sold out by your 'friends'," senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi said on Twitter.

While it is not clear if Riyadh was informed of the development, "it certainly breaks the consensus about the Arab Peace Initiative," said Ibish. 

"That's a terrible blow for the Palestinians," he said. "It is certainly very good for the Palestinians that annexation is not going forward. But the cost is too high. Much too high."

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