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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The Relationship between Israel and the Gulf States, INSS, Jan. 28, 2019

Filed under: Israel, The Middle East

Dore Gold: It is clear as day that Israel and many of the Sunni Arab states have common interests. The more westward you go, in the direction of Egypt, the interests are more in the direction of countering ISIS, and I think President Sisi made some disclosures that appeared on American television in that area. The more eastward you go, you find that the common thread is Iran, and the issue is not whether we and the Arabs have common interests. We do. Incredibly close common interests. I’ll share with you something. When I was director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2015, I went to an important Arab state, and one of the things you do when you are a director generals is you talk to other directors general. And I sat with my team on one side of the table, and he sat with his team on the other side of the table. And what you do first is you read bullets of what are your special interests. You want the other side to understand them. So he said, “Dore, you go first,” and I start reading the bullets that were prepared by my ministry, one, two ,three. It must have gotten halfway through, and I look at the director general on the other side of the table, and he’s grinning ear-to-ear. He is laughing, and I’m thinking, “What did I do? What button did I push?” So I said to him, I’ll make up a name, “Mohammed, what’s wrong? Why are you laughing?” He said, “Because your bullets are identical to my bullets!” It’s as though we wrote them, or he wrote ours.

Interviewer: Can I ask the name of the country?

Dore Gold: No. But what is important is to see the identity of interests that exist. So given that you find this identity of interests around the Sunni Arab world, what does that mean? Now, perhaps in the West there’s a desire always for a public expression of that kind of identity of interest, but frankly we’re doing very well working quietly, and if we sometimes can have a public expression it can be useful. I think in the Gulf, it would be extremely useful because it would say to the Iranians, “You’re not succeeding in vetoing, or having any veto power over the relationship between Israel and the Gulf states. But not necessarily in every case. So I think: a) We do have this close relationship that’s emerging, b) It’s not always expressed. In fact one more little story, not from my own experience, but when I was an academic, and we’re in an academic institution. You know, in 1947 and sometimes it’s important to look back at the past. The month is December 1947, and the United States is wondering: What are the implications of the vote in the General Assembly in support of the partition plan – UN General Assembly Resolution 181? What does it mean for the Arab states? And there’s a real concern that the King of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz, is going to take strong measures against America having supported the creation of a Jewish state. The moment of truth comes. There was no ambassador at the time in Riyadh. When the senior diplomatic representative of America went to see Abdul Aziz, and Abdul Aziz dismisses the translators. This is a very secret meeting. He uses the foreign minister to be his translator, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, and what he says is extremely interesting. He says, “We have our differences, Saudi Arabia and the United States, but we have our special concerns, and what I want to know, after you did what you did at the UN, is what are you going to do to protect the kingdom if we face a Hashemite invasion of our country, exploiting what happened there on 29th November?” And then the conversation continues.

What does that show? What that shows is for Saudi Arabia, with its founding king, the father of King Salman, they had other concerns, and those other concerns in certain situations prevailed. So I believe that the special interests between Israel and the Gulf states started very early. I’m not going to go into the Yemen war in 1962, but there are some interesting stories there, and they continue. The critical question which I think we will get into is how overt does that special relationship have to be? How public does it have to be, as if we can go on privately that’s certainly one thing. But if it has to go overt, public, it can be a problem.

Interviewer: Well, back to you. The same issue. Internal dynamics grow more delicate as we get closer to the succession. For the first time, the crown is to be passed to a grandson of ibn Saud, but MBS has yet to stabilize and fully consolidate his role. We can agree upon that. Should we all prepare contingency plans in the event instability occurs?

Dore Gold: Well, it’s always good to have contingency plans. But, on the other hand, if that becomes a matter of public discussion, it’s very bad. Saudi Arabia’s interaction with Israel isn’t quite the same as threats and developments coming out of Syria, or coming out of Iraq. So there’s a sort of a limit on that. Much of this is in the area of our coordination with the United States, and I don’t know whether one has to start preparing contingency operations on Salman and on MBS. MBS is in control of two very key ministries: the ministry that maintains the National Guard and the defense ministry, which is the army. It used to be that these would be under different brothers, so that there is a kind of balance in the Saudi system. If one starts moving, you can balance him off with the other ministry. That’s not the case now, so I don’t really know what the probability is of considerable instability at the top. There are shifts going on in the entire Gulf on the religious side. I mean, Saudi Arabia was the fountainhead of Wahhabism, exported around the world, and I’ve written about that subject. Today there’s a kind of rethink about whether Saudi Arabia wants to maintain that kind of role, so the usual sources of major instability are not really evident to me, but then again, you know I’m not a diplomat serving in Riyadh who can get all the latest nuances from private conversations.

Interviewer: On the same subject, I want to pick your brain on that America and the Kingdom have changed dramatically since Roosevelt and ibn Saud met. Today the world’s largest oil producer is the U.S., not Saudi Arabia. Is Riyadh becoming more of a liability than an asset for the U.S.?

Dore Gold: Well, the whole relationship cannot be summarized by one word – oil. If there have been different levels of American dependence on oil over the years, and I don’t think that that’s the critical factor to look at. I think the critical factor, which hasn’t been mentioned – you mentioned the elephant in the room. How about the saber-tooth tiger in the room? And that’s Iran. Remember, Iran sees itself as the hegemonial power in the region. That’s why we have a struggle with Iran in Syria. But the Iranians for years have been busy in the Arabian Peninsula, trying to extend their influence. Of course, there is the effort of the Iranians to take over Bahrain, where the United States has the base of the Fifth Fleet, but the other Iranian effort has been in Saudi Arabia. I’m not talking about Yemen. The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia has a huge Shiite population. Perhaps 50 percent of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is Shiite. There are Hizbullah branches operating in the eastern province, and Saudi security forces have to deal with that, and therefore what the United States decides to do, if the United States no longer will have carriers in the Persian Gulf or in the Arabian Sea, that has huge implications for the freedom of maneuver of Iran to operate against Saudi Arabia, and therefore I think the concern that the Saudis have with Iran, almost an obsession, really. Okay, Rami Levi – maybe the Saudis want to have a branch of Rami Levi in the Eastern Province.

So, in any event, I think that’s the main thing. I think that’s something we should really consider in depth, and that also is the basis for our special relationship, meaning Israel and Saudi Arabia – the fact that we face this same threat, the same enemy.

Interviewer: Dore, the same question. China’s role.

Dore Gold: I think the other area to monitor and watch very carefully, if you want to understand China’s role in the Gulf, is to extend your vision wider and monitor what’s going on in Africa. There is a very determined Chinese effort to expand into Africa. You mentioned Djibouti, but all through East Africa, and I would anticipate that China’s involvement there will grow, which will give it strategic options. By the way, some of the things that are occurring in Africa, I’ll just share one with you. For example, there is a decision taken by Sudan to break away from their relationship with Iran. They cut diplomatic relations with Iran, and they decided instead to up their relations with Saudi Arabia, to improve them. Now that actually influences us, because one of the remarkable things that happened over the last few years was when Iran lost its access to Port Sudan for dropping off weapons that were headed for the Gaza Strip, and had to come up with different sources of supply, so I know I’m shifting subject. But it is of interest how interconnected developments that are occurring in the Gulf in East Africa are and how they directly influence Israeli interests.

Interviewer: We have a couple of minutes. I want to ask you all the same question. It might be a bit provocative, but I’ll try. CNN breaking news: We are imagining a scenario, right? A simulation, if you may. Mohammed bin Salman, we talked about him a few minutes ago, he came to Jerusalem, he’s praying at al-Aqsa. I want to go back and ask you, the three of you, Martin, you’ll start. What conditions are to be met for this scenario, for Ben Salman to come to Jerusalem?

Dore Gold: Same question, different answer. I think, when we sit here in Israel, we sometimes overstate our importance among the various Arab players. There is no question that public opinion in, among Arab elites, is very, very important, and that leads the Arab leaders to make certain requests of the United States. However, I believe that anyone who studied Saudi Arabia, what influences Saudi Arabia, it is their role as protector of the holy sites of Islam in the Hijaz. Jerusalem is a subject which they don’t have a lot of specialization on. It is also a subject that there are indications at different times that they’d rather stay away from that subject and not get involved, and that’s why a request of MBS to come and pray in the al-Aqsa mosque is a little difficult for me to imagine. Therefore what would be the quid pro quo? It’s a question I don’t think we’re going to face right now.

Now I have to share with you something which contradicts everything I just said. You’ve got to be honest. I had for more than a year a dialogue between my research center, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and a Saudi research center based in Jeddah, led by Gen. Anwar Eshki who is from military intelligence. We met repeatedly in Rome. We had another meeting then later in New Delhi, and finally we did a joint press conference at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, not New York, Washington. Different leaders, different nuances. But in any event, in any event, General Eshki was always invited by me. If he wanted to come to Israel, he arranged for himself an invitation to go to Ramallah as a guest of Abu Mazen, and they used Jibril Rajoub as his minder while he was in this area.  But he made a request, which Israel answered, to lead the afternoon prayers in the al-Aqsa mosque, and he went and he did that. So he’s a very religious man, so you do have here an actual expression of Saudi interest in the Temple Mount area. But generally, I don’t think that was reflective of how the Saudi leadership would operate in the peace process, making this the center of their attention. Their attention will still be drawn to the Iranian threat and their concern that the American defense umbrella may not be there in the future.