Gulf Normalization with Israel Reshapes Alliances Across the Middle East
An American-sponsored peace agreement was signed by two Arab Gulf states and Israel on Tuesday.
The deal was co-signed by President Donald Trump who promised more of the same by other Arabian Gulf states in the next few weeks. The agreements signal a major shift in regional alliances and an end to historical feuds between Arab nations and Israel.
The landmark step taken by both the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Bahrain — whose foreign minister Abdullah Bin Zayed and Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani signed the deal with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House — is bound to have some dramatic ramifications economically, politically, strategically and above all psychologically across much of the volatile region.
Could the UAE/Bahrain Deal with Israel Save Trump and Netanyahu’s Political Necks?
Although many observers and pundits maintain that the two Gulf signatory nations have had some discreet contact and unpublicized meetings over the past couple of decades at least — Netanyahu claims much longer than that — are not bordering countries with Israel, and have never been involved in any direct wars or military conflict with Tel Aviv.
The timing of this daring step by the UAE and Bahrain plays directly into the hands of Trump and Netanyahu. Trump is facing major troubles at home only two months before the crucial US presidential election, while Netanyahu faces growing internal protests and calls for his trial on corruption charges.
The Culmination of Strenuous Efforts
The ceremony at the White House was a culmination of strenuous efforts and mediation trips made to the Gulf region by Trump’s senior advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner as well as his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Kushner enjoys strong personal ties and interests with both the UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s strongest men, Mohammad Bin Zayed, MBZ (Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi) and Mohamad Bin Salman (MBS).
Kushner was also on board the first public flight by Israel’s national carrier, El Al, on a direct trip from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi two weeks ago along with a number of senior Israeli and American officials and security officers. The Israeli airliner flew across Saudi Arabia’s airspace, crossing over the holy city of Mecca. It was the first time such a flight had occurred and it heralded a major breakthrough in regional politics and alliances engineered by Trump’s closest team, led by none other than Kushner himself.
MBS and MBZ embrace Trump and Kushner’s Deal
Kushner’s and Trump’s staunchest allies in the Gulf, MBS and MBZ have enough troubles on their hands; both are embroiled in a labyrinth of wars, conflicts, disputes intricate, but mainly losing involvements that extend from Yemen, through Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and all the way to the Sudan, Eretria, Somalia and beyond. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE are also deeply embroiled in a lose-lose war in Yemen.
The controversial Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia who Western intelligence agencies concluded ordered the assassination and brutal dismembering of Saudi dissident journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2018, is now facing a fresh lawsuit. This time the lawsuit is in the United States itself and it is on attempted assassination charges of Saad Al Jabri, a defecting senior Saudi advisor and “black box” who knew the secrets of former Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef.
Al Jabri managed to flee Saudi Arabia to Canada some six months ago, straight after MBS had arrested his own uncle HRH Prince Ahmad Bin Abdulaziz, the only surviving brother of the Saudi Monarch Bin Abdulaziz, MBS also arrested his own cousin and arch rival, former Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef. MBS accused both of them of plotting to oust him from power and of communicating with “foreign powers” against Saudi national interests.
The ruthless MBS had previously arrested hundreds of his own cousins and fellow princes, extorted billions of dollars from dozens of top Saudi business men at the Ritz hotel in 2017 and forced them to sign life-long financial concessions before he agreed to release them. MBS also arrested Saad Al Hariri, then Lebanon’s Prime Minister who was humiliated and forced to announce his resignation from Riyadh, to be later released by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Can the Abraham Accord Protect Ramshackle Gulf Thrones from Iranian Reprisal?
The peace agreement between Bahrain, the tiny Gulf emirate turned Kingdom by the current ruler Sheikh Hamad Bin Eissa in 2002 and Israel, is viewed to be far less important than that with the UAE. However, the United States Navy Fifth Fleet’s Central Command (NAVCENT) is based in the Bahraini capital Manama.
The Shiite Muslim community in the country have been waging a series of peaceful popular protests against discrimination by Bahraini authorities. Many Shiite clergymen and activist have been killed or jailed, often without trial. Manama accuses Tehran of instigating and manipulating the Shiites of Bahrain, an accusation Iran vehemently denies.
However, international human rights groups including Amnesty International have repeatedly deplored human rights record and heavy-handed approach by Bahraini police against its own Shiite population. The same applies to Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent to Abu Dhabi as well.
A Peace Pact That Could Easily Spark a Major Regional War
Some Gulf affairs pundits argue that both MBZ and MBS consider an alliance with Israel might be the best shortcut to winning Trump’s protection of their vulnerable thrones and bolstering their shaky position against the Gulf region’s strong power and Saudi Arabia’s bitter enemy, Iran. Whether the so-called Abraham Accord peace pact with Tel Aviv could save them from falling into the abyss or push them closer to the bottom remains anyone’s wild guess.
Optimists on both sides of the Abraham Accord bank on its Biblical connotations and hope that it may be the key to opening up an entirely new chapter in regional peace, stability, and cooperation in various fields. They look forward to reaping economic as well as political fruits of what they deem a historical deal and expect full diplomatic relations including exchange of ambassadors with Israel.
Pessimists on the other hand, warn that any aggressive moves or threats posed by the new alliance could go wrong. Many view it as primarily targeting Iran’s growing role as the major power broker and key player all over the strategic Gulf region, especially if the alliances involve Israeli participation. This gives Tehran the right and pretext to settle some long-standing accounts with both Israel as well as the US-backed proxy Sheikdoms in the Gulf.
The Possibility of a Nightmare Scenario
President Trump claimed at the landmark ceremony at the White House Tuesday that Iran shall be involved soon in talks with Washington, but he failed to elaborate on what and how. This is hard to picture, given Tehran’s previous refusal to answer Trump’s mediation calls or even just talk to the man after withdrew the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2018.
However until Tehran is reassured that the new Arabian Gulf pact with Tel Aviv shall not threaten its national or strategic interests, many observers argue that one can hardly rule out the possibility of a nightmare scenario that threatens most of the world’s already ailing economies. Iran has a massive Shiite presence in many Gulf Arab nations and is bolstered by vital economic links in some cases, such as Dubai, UAE. If Tehran’s fears aren’t assuaged then what started as a peace deal could easily snowball into another catastrophic regional war.