For their survival, Saudis need to follow UAE’s lead

{Previously published in The Jerusalem Post}

In the five-dimensional chess board of the Middle East, the United Arab Emirates’ announcement of normalization and formal ties with Israel is equivalent to moving your queen into position, checking your opponent.

As long-time peace negotiator Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment said, I “have to admit, it’s extremely clever… the UAE will say it’s prevented annexation; US prevents annexation too and gets a big breakthrough in Israel’s normalization with Arabs and Netanyahu gets an enormous win and is freed from the complications and traps of annexation… It’s a big win for all three.”

Palestinians quickly denounced the agreement, pointing out that Israel received this enormous prize of diplomatic ties for just delaying its extension of sovereignty in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), while Israel was not forced to give up any settlements over the 1949 armistice line that the Palestinians and much of the international community claim are illegal.

As Natan Sachs, director for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute, said, “The losers… are the Palestinians. The impatience in the Gulf with the Palestinians now comes to full daylight. The Gulf won’t wait for them any longer, asking of Israel only to avoid declarations of a major change to the status quo.”

If US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his special adviser on international relations Avi Berkowitz orchestrated this deal behind the scenes, they deserve tremendous credit, something the international pundits have never offered them.

Marginalizing the Palestinians for their intransigence and for refusing to negotiate with Israel for years, is the best path to a settlement in the future.

According to Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and an Iran sanctions expert, “This appears to be a decisive victory for the Kushner approach, where regional interests and regional peace win out over annexation.”

The UAE is likely the first among at least two other Gulf states (Bahrain and Oman) that will begin the process of normalization with Israel. They are not doing this because they have become Zionists overnight; the much more likely answer is that they want to position themselves well going forward as Iran will become more assertive in the coming years. To the Gulf states and Israel, Iran is a real and growing mutual threat.

If Trump is reelected, despite his claim that Iran will sign a new nuclear deal with him in just a month’s time, the more likely scenario – should Trump sticks to his guns and demands that the Islamic Republic truly end their nuclear project and their ability to enrich uranium – is that Iran will categorically reject it, which will lead to more American sanctions. This would also lead to Iran accelerating its nuclear program, shortening the breakout period for producing enough enriched uranium for a nuclear device.

If Democratic nominee Joe Biden is elected, he has made it clear he will rejoin the JCPOA and will end sanctions if Iran returns to compliance. Iran will jump with joy, getting an economic lifeline to save the regime, with enough new money to finance their hegemonic ambitions – endangering the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Israel. Remember that the JCPOA has no constraints on Iran’s missile development, human rights abuses, destabilization of neighboring countries or terrorist activates.

Both scenarios increase the risk of war, and the UAE and the other Gulf states, along with Jordan and Egypt, want to be on the side of Israel and America if a regional war with Iran is on the horizon.

Status quo may be the best option for Israel regarding the Palestinians, but not for the Gulf states. By making a move toward Israel now, it is a calculated risk that being aligned with the regional superpower Israel is the best chance to preserve their monarchies. The Iranian attack on Saudi oil facilities earlier this year opened the eyes of the Gulf leaders to their future if they are not aligned with the Americans and Israel.

Although the UAE has a formidable and professional air force, the Saudis, despite having hundreds of billions of dollars in weapons, are at best a mediocre fighting force, not a match for Iran. The Iranians, despite their antiquated conventional forces, have a sophisticated missile program, and the battle-tested Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps could bring the Saudis to their knees. Shi’ite Persian Iran wants control of Mecca and Medina, the holiest sites in Islam, taken away from Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia.

Mohammad Bin Salman, the crown prince and Saudi leader, knows and has been told by Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Kushner, and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien that he is in the crosshairs of Iran, and to survive he needs to get out of the closet and openly align with Israel. As Amos Yadlin, director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies said, Saudi Arabia will be closely watching this “trial balloon.”

Some will say that the conservative Wahabi monarchy is not capable of making such a step.  A couple of months ago, the same was said about the UAE.

The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the US Senate, House, and their foreign policy advisers. He is the senior editor for security at the Jerusalem Report/The Jerusalem Post, and is a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, RealClearWorld, JNS, JTA, Defense News and The Forward.

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