Cynicism runs deep in the Middle East and suspicion, more than any other factor, has shaped relations. A lack of socio-political and economic engagement is one of the reasons for prolonged hostilities. But two new projects (Tracks for Regional Peace and Mega City of Neom) in the region and the Arab Israel Peace Agreement seek to change the status quo by engaging Middle East states in a web of cooperation.
These geo-economic projects will physically connect Israel to the Arab world. Israel has been surrounded by hostile neighbours since 1948, putting it in a huge security dilemma, though it emerged victorious in all the conflicts. The Arab states and Pakistan refused to even recognise it as a sovereign state. Surprisingly, last year, the UAE announced the opening its airline services and diplomatic communication with Israel, followed by Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia and other states.
Saudi has lost credibility amongst Arabs by these plans and now, badly needs a victory to cover it all up. The majority of Arab society still opposes this normalisation, so it has been a government-to-government dealing against public opinion. The Arab world seems to have taken a complete U-turn on its Israel policy, a move that would possibly also mean betrayal to the long cherished “Palestinian issue” and “Pan Islamism” identity.
The agreement signed between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain just formalised a relationship already in place, led by the USA. Normalisation in simple terms is having formal diplomatic relations between states. But something like this happening in the Middle East was unthinkable till recently. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry said on record that the Arab-Israel relationship can’t happen without doing justice to the Palestinians issue. Just imagine the sheer amount of diplomatic manoeuvrability, skills, nuance and hardcore negotiation it takes to achieve a deal like this.
Though each country had different reasons for doing so, there are some overlapping national interests. First is the loss of pan-Islamism based on religious identity and the rhetoric around it in the Arab world itself, specially after the Arab Spring revolution. This also gave a huge geo-political leverage to the cause of Palestinians. Although the process is now in public, it had been happening for a long time behind the curtains: Oman accepting Israeli diplomats, Bahrain hosting Israeli business summits etc.
Saudi even went to the extent of acquiring Israeli weapons. The second important reason was Iran and its nukes as it made difficult for any one Arab state to contain Iranians (this also has the Shia-Sunni angle). As Acharya Chanakya said 2,000 years ago, “Enemy’s enemy is my friend.” The boyz teamed up against Iran through back channel engagements, intel sharing etc. While Iran was busy meddling in Yemen and Lebanon, Israel smartly moved closer to its rivals.
The third reason is the huge economic potential generated by the abovementioned projects and the Saudi plans to diversify its economy from oil dependency. The Tracks for Regional Peace project (supported by the USA) aims to connect Europe to the Persian Gulf, connecting Haifa-Jordan-Saudi Arabia-Bahrain-Oman-UAE through inland ports and railways. Much of the infrastructure already exists except that Jordan will need to build a few more stuff. The project is expected to start generating profit by 2030 with a turnover of $250 billion.
The second project of the Neom megacity ($500 billion investment) on the Gulf of Aqaba in Saudi aims to cash in on the benefits of the first project and the Red Sea trade by providing requisite services, thus rocketing Saudi in a post-oil era. It also aims to connect Saudi to Egypt and Jordan through Tiran Strait with a bridge on the strait. Thus, herein, we understand that Saudi and Israel are the two key stakeholders.
A long-term viability of these projects depends on peace in the area and also takes care of security interests of both. The former Saudi King was favourable to the Palestinians cause, unlike his son Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), who thinks differently. The secret meeting between Netanyahu and MBS has been doing the rounds of strategic circles. Sudan has also joined in. The Palestinians are out on ground, protesting against the entire process, even against MBS.
Social media in the Gulf states and Israel is full of advertisements, marketing each other’s products and services. The recent collaborative video of an Israeli band with an Emirati musician raised many eyebrows. Saudi wants to benefit from Israeli technology, but the peace deal is more than just about economic benefits. MBS is also trying to make his own image of a modern leader, unlike his ancestors of a medieval mindset, and wants a solution to the Yemen conflict. He wants to ascend power without any outside/Western disapproval of the same, especially the USA.
He needs friends in high places. The other partners in the deal have also gone soft on MBS on the Jamal Khashoggi issue of 2018, a good strategic signal. This was sailing well till the time Trump was in power. His son-in-law was allegedly in constant touch with MBS, even at a personal level. With Joe Biden coming in, this is expected to change. MBS has openly made a statement, “One day, we don’t want to wake up and just discover that Iran has made the N Bomb.”
Biden wants to revive the JCPOA and Trump has tried hard to push through the deal before Biden came in, making it impossible for him to reverse Trump’s decisions. It will be interesting to see how the entire game plays out in the long term as public opinion is essential for any genuine Normalisation agreement to succeed, in letter and in spirit.