Saudi-Israeli rapprochement and the nuclear question
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, now popularly referred to as MbS, continues on his chosen path of grabbing eyeballs periodically. He has gradually built up an image of a mover and a shaker.
His latest statement on Israel has churned up conventional wisdom on his country’s attitude towards Israel and rocked the entrenched view of Arab and Islamic countries. In a recent interview to American journal The Atlantic, MbS said Israelis have a right to live peacefully in their own land. His exact words were: “I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.”
In stark contrast, Iran wants to obliterate Israel, a nation it regards as illegal. The Iran-Saudi regional rivalry has now inter alia, sucked in Israel.
There are however, differences that persist between the Kingdom on one side and Israel and USA on the other. Saudi Arabia had condemned the Trump Administration’s announcement to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Though on the issue of an Israel-Palestine Peace Plan, there appears to be far greater coordination in building a new initiative that still remains under wraps.
To balance the pro-Israel statements by MbS, King Salman reiterated his country’s support for an independent Palestinian State. The official Saudi news agency reaffirmed support for the Saudi-sponsored 2002 Arab League Peace Initiative, which offered normalisation of ties with Israel in exchange of full withdrawal from territories it occupied in the 1967 war's aftermath. This position was re-endorsed by the 2017 Arab League Summit.
Except for Egypt and Jordan, no other Arab or Islamic country recognises Israel or maintains diplomatic relations with the Jewish nation. MbS’s full statement is a qualified one -- in the sense that he has stipulated that normal relations with Israel is predicated on an Israel-Palestine peace agreement, which has to address many vexed issues of territory, boundary, Jerusalem and right to return to Palestine for refugees living in other countries.
This is easier said than done. The search for peace in West Asia has meandered endlessly over two-and-a-half decades with no light at the end of the tunnel.
MbS did not abandon Palestinian issues completely. In the interview to The Atlantic he said: “We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people.”
Iranian muscle flexing in the region, particularly in Syria and Yemen, has made Saudi Arabia jittery and forced the Kingdom to seek closer cooperation with Israel, in a classic embrace of the Kautilyan geopolitical doctrine that my country’s enemy is my friend.
MbS openly said in the interview that there were “a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council”.
MbS who took over as the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in a palace coup, supported by his father King Salman bin Abdul Aziz, has shown that he wants to change the way his country has been run since the founding of the Kingdom.
MbS has allowed women to drive, cinemas to start public screening of movies and has publicly announced that women need not cover themselves with the Abaya, the black cloth that women in Saudi Arabia had to drape themselves when around in public.
He has also shattered the cosy club of Saudi princes who milked the country’s oil wealth via crony commercial deals and siphoned off billions of dollars. Under his direction, many corrupt Princes were arrested and incarcerated in a luxury hotel and told to return their ill-gotten wealth.
Those who resisted were allegedly treated very roughly and according to unverified reports, some were even hospitalised for treatment of injuries or ill-health. It seems that most Princes’ bought their freedom and the Kingdom’s treasury was enriched by over $100 billion.
Saudi Arabia has been under financial pressure as a result of persistent low oil prices. The bulk of its revenue accrues from oil sales and expenditure of subsidies for welfare schemes for its nationals have become a huge burden on the national exchequer.
Quiet contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia began over two years ago and is now producing practical results. Hitherto, Saudi Arabia, like many other countries in the region, did not allow overflights of civilian aircraft flying to or from Israel in its airspace. This policy has now scrapped this policy.
India’s national carrier Air-India, has been a beneficiary of this new policy as this makes flights from India to Israel economically viable again.
There are other indicators of warming ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel's Communications Minister has invited Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, to visit Israel.
While visiting the United States, bin Salman also met several Jewish groups and pro-Israel lobbies. MbS and President’s Trump’s son-in-law and senior Adviser, Jared Kushner, has a close relationship with MbS and they seem to be working on a peace plan to break the deadlock in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
While hostility towards Iran is the main push factor for growing Israeli-Saudi rapprochement, the nuclear factor may upset the applecart.
President Trump is against the nuclear deal with Iran and the negative rhetoric from the White House, threatening to cancel the deal and re-impose sanctions on Iran is being ably matched by the rhetoric from the Tehran Mullahcracy.
Washington is not getting much traction globally for its “scrap the deal” rhetoric, with the exception of Israel. MbS has declared publicly that Saudi Arabia does not wish acquire nuclear weapons but will do so if Iran were to acquire such weapons of mass destruction.
As a backup, Saudi Arabia has developed an ambitious plan for acquiring nuclear power by building 16 nuclear power stations over the next three decades for more than $80 billion. The Kingdom hopes that the huge deal, likely to be given to American companies, will make the Trump administration more amenable to agree to permit uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent fuel technologies, essential for acquiring nuclear weapon making capability.
Saudi Arabia is pushing for the same rights as Iran which, under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has frozen its nuclear programme for the period of the agreement and can re-start it after the JCPOA expires.
The American dilemma is complicated by the fact that Saudi Arabia can hand over the lucrative contract for building of nuclear power stations to competitors such as China, France and Russia.
Israel, which actively campaigned for destruction of the Iranian nuclear programme, cannot be comfortable with Saudi Arabia acquiring nuclear weapon capability. Israel had destroyed Iraq’s and Syria’s nuclear installations with a view to ensuring that it alone has monopoly over this capability, given the existential threats posed by its foes in the region, primarily Iran.
The role of Pakistan, a nuclear-weapon power, will be also be a factor, mainly as a leverage for Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom has financed Pakistan’s nuclear programme since the 1970s. After sanctions were imposed, following the 1998 nuclear tests, Saudi Arabia provided generous financial aid to Pakistan to tide over the sanctions. Conventional wisdom has it that Saudi Arabia will demand usable nuclear weapons from Pakistan if the situation so demands.
Can Pakistan comply with such a demand? It is possible that Pakistan has kept nuclear weapons in readiness for use by Saudi Arabia in Pakistan. There is speculation, though far-fetched, that some Pakistani nuclear weapons may already be stored in Saudi Arabia, under dual or triple control of the USA, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia’s indigenous capacity and human resource in the nuclear domain is extremely limited and it will take decades to build up such capacities. Saudi Arabia also lacks capacity for delivering nuclear weapons. It had acquired Chinese Dongfeng missiles in the 1980s but these were inaccurate and are now obsolete, given technological advances in delivery systems. China may have upgraded these missiles in secrecy, in which case Saudi Arabia may have a recessed nuclear deterrence in place, using Chinese missiles and Pakistani nukes.
Israel’s policy dilemma is complicated by the nuclear issue. Can Israel accommodate Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambition? Israel has assiduously maintained its nuclear hegemony in the region and should it risk the new rapprochement with Saudi Arabia by insisting on a non-nuclear Saudi Arabia.
The Kingdom does not have a stable polity and is ruled by a family oligarchy. If Saudi Arabia is taken over by Islamic extremists then Israel will be faced with a nuclear threat it has never faced before. India will, no doubt oppose any new nuclear weapon power in the region.
MbS may have earned some praise as a reformer but his reforms may not lead to building of sustainable institutions in a country lacking democratic institutions and all power is virtually vested in one person. Saudi Arabia faces the dilemma of building a more liberal society under an authoritative state structure. MbS may seem to be in control for now but his longevity in power is not guaranteed.
The fragility of Saudi Arabia’s polity will always be worry many countries including India. So far MbS has managed to gain the support of the Trump Administration and Israel but the young Crown Prince’s misadventures in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon have backfired. A nuclear Saudi Arabia will create another layer of security headache for the region.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow in the Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation and a former Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs; he has served in Indian diplomatic missions in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel