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FRIDAY FEATURE - Alone Together – Israel and Saudi Arabia

Friday Feature

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25 Oct 2019 (All day)
FRIDAY FEATURE - Alone Together – Israel and Saudi Arabia
Reports surfaced on Thursday that on Tuesday evening, a privately-owned, US-registered business jet left Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, briefly landed in Amman, Jordan, then flew to Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia. After less than an hour, it took off again to fly directly back to Israel. Speculation about who was on the mystery flight and what they were up to has been rampant in the Israeli media ever since the news broke, but most analysts agree it could not have taken place without the knowledge and cooperation of governments in both countries. Given the lack of official diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the often harsh criticism of the Jewish State by the Sunni Muslim religious authorities in the Saudi kingdom, this stealthy flight raises many additional questions.

However, it has been an open secret for some time now that although there were no diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the military and intelligence services of the two countries have worked together, usually under the auspices of the US and in cooperation with Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and other NATO allies, to address regional issues of mutual concern. This clandestine cooperation increased dramatically following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, which brought a massive new threat to both Jerusalem and Riyadh, but also was spurred by a mutual interest in confronting jihadist terrorism, piracy in the Red Sea, and other security challenges. Occasionally, it even extended into areas of environmental protection and economic development.

These quiet ties came close to the surface during the 1991 Persian Gulf War when Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein launched Scud missiles targeting both countries, leading to feelings of solidarity and parallel efforts at the UN and other international forums to address the crisis. The friendly public statements faded shortly after the conflict, however, and in the ensuing years, particularly after the outbreak of the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, relations retreated back into the shadows.

However, another public thaw began around the summer of 2015 when Iran and the P5+1 powers signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, which was vehemently opposed by both Israel and Saudi Arabia. Shortly thereafter, prominent members of Saudi Arabia’s strategic community, acting in their capacity as private citizens, began to appear on the same stage with their Israeli counterparts at conferences and think tank events in Western countries, usually as part of panel discussions on the threat from Iran and other regional issues. Regular reports also began to surface in Israeli and Arab newspapers about routine meetings between intelligence officials of Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Many military historians have also speculated that the Israeli raid on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak on 7 June, 1981, was almost certainly coordinated with Saudi Arabia, as the Israeli aircraft which bombed the reactor flew for hours through airspace which would usually be monitored by Saudi radar posts yet went unchallenged.

The rise to prominence in Saudi Arabia of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) sparked even more dramatic changes, with his “Vision 2030” plan to massively reform his country in almost every area from economics to foreign policy. Whispers of cooperation with Israel in many of these projects, particularly a plan to build a new hi-tech mega city on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast just a few hundred kilometers south of Israel’s resort city of Eilat, have become a staple in media outlets all over the region.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia’s reforms have also included a thawing in its attitude towards Israel’s Evangelical friends. During last week’s Feast of Tabernacles gathering in Jerusalem, ICEJ President Dr. Jürgen Bühler connected by Skype with Christian author Joel Richardson, who at that moment was leading the first-ever group of Evangelical Christian tourists on a visit to Saudi Arabia. During the call, which was projected onto screens for Feast pilgrims at the Pais Arena in Jerusalem, Richardson held up a Bible and declared that the long-time ban on bringing this book into Saudi Arabia had been lifted, along with many other similar restrictions.

Here is the video of this Skype exchange, captured during a special Feast seminar session “Breakthrough in Saudi Arabia”  (Video starts at 2:02 and goes through 2:45)



The Feast session also featured CBN Middle East bureau chief Chris Mitchell recounting his recent week-long visit to Saudi Arabia as part of an Evangelical delegation led by Joel Rosenberg, which included a first-ever Christian group hosted by Crown Prince bin Salman at his royal palace.

However, in recent weeks, there have been some dramatic regional developments which might force Israel and Saudi Arabia to draw even closer together and perhaps even openly acknowledge their cooperative efforts.

US President Donald Trump’s decision not to respond reflexively to drone and missile strikes on the Saudi Aramco oil processing facility in the Abqaiq and Khurais oil fields in September stunned many in Israel’s strategic community, leading some analysts to openly declare that America is abandoning its regional allies and that “Israel is alone” in its standoff against Iran. Trump’s subsequent decision to withdraw the 1,000 US troops deployed to northeastern Syria in a train-advise-assist mission to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed mostly of Kurdish militias who helped beat back the threat of the Islamic State (IS) terror militia in recent years, led to even more urgent warnings of American retreat from the region.

However, there also were voices in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates saying that if Israel was alone in the standoff with Iran, and the Gulf Arab states also were alone in the same standoff, then the only logical conclusion is that Israel and Saudi Arabia are alone together.

This is the conundrum that now faces both countries. Despite decades of public enmity and mutual suspicion fueled by a vast political, religious, cultural and ethnic divide, can the richest country in the Middle East and the most militarily powerful county in the Middle East come together to effectively confront a common threat without the guiding hand and mollifying influence of their superpower ally which appears to be losing interest?

Israelis and their friends around the world will be watching and praying as this situation, so fraught with danger but also promise, continues to unfold.

 

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