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

Why Did Saudi Arabia Change Its Orientation to Iran and the West?

Filed under: Israel, Saudi Arabia

Why Did Saudi Arabia Change Its Orientation to Iran and the West?
The Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, and the Foreign Minister of Iran, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, met in Beijing on April 6, 2023, and agreed to reopen embassies and consulates in their mutual countries. (Foreign Ministry of Iran)
  • Israel is concerned about the renewal of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran and fears that this may slow its normalization process with Saudi Arabia and other countries.

  • Prime Minister Netanyahu cautioned Saudi Arabia of the dangers of this move. “Those who partner with Iran, partner with misery. Look at Lebanon, look at Yemen, look at Syria, look at Iraq. These countries are almost at failed state status,” Netanyahu said.1

  • The general assessment in Israel is that, in the end, the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran will collapse due to their profound differences.

Senior political figures in Jerusalem are concerned about the latest developments related to the regional changes that Saudi Arabia has been leading in recent weeks.

The main concern of the political echelon is the agreement to renew diplomatic ties that Saudi Arabia, the leader of the Sunni world, signed with Iran, the leader of the Shiite world. Saudi Arabia made a 180-degree turn and reconciled with its traditional enemy through the mediation of China.

Not only is Israel worried about this development, but so is the Biden administration. In early April, President Biden sent CIA chief William Burns to Saudi Arabia, where he met with senior officials of the royal house and Saudi intelligence. He expressed Washington’s concern about Saudi Arabia’s rapprochement with Iran and its consequences for the Middle East.

The political echelon in Israel assesses that Saudi Arabia took this step for two primary reasons.

1. A desire to bring a quick end to the war in Yemen that has been going on since 2015.

In March 2015, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman established a coalition of Arab and Muslim countries led by Saudi Arabia that attempted through military means to repel the Houthi rebels in Yemen who are loyal to Iran. The Saudi coalition sought to return power to the legitimate Yemeni government.

Yemen is considered Saudi Arabia’s backyard, and Mohammed bin Salman saw the Houthis’ takeover as an Iranian gambit that threatened the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthi rebels got very complicated. The rebels were no ragtag militia. With Iran’s weaponry and support, the Houthis attacked cities, airports, and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia with cruise missiles and precision drones. As a result, they caused heavy economic damage and paralyzed a large part of its oil industry in 2019.

Damage at a Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq in 2019, caused by an Iranian drone attack
The Abqaiq storage facility in Saudi Arabia after it was damaged in an Iranian/Houthi attack. (U.S. Government/DigitalGlobe)

2. Saudi Arabia fears a significant reduction in American involvement in the Middle East.

The United States has been gradually moving out of the region, which historically was an important political and strategic arena, and Russia, China, and Iran have entered this vacuum.

As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, this process endangers the rule of the Saudi royal house and the political, economic, and social vision that Mohammed bin Salman has set himself to realize by 2030.

The Saudi crown prince concluded that the Biden administration would not protect him from Iranian attacks, nor would it prevent Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons in the future. So he decided to engage Iran without severing his ties with the West but with a clear message that he was not looking for a military confrontation with Iran.

Recently, Saudi Arabia sent a message to the United States, Israel, and Iran explaining the strategic change the Saudi Crown Prince decided upon. On the sixth anniversary of MBS becoming heir to the Saudi throne, the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awast on April 17, 2023, published an article by journalist Badr Al-Kharif under the title: “Muhammad bin Salman, the prince of the East, the hope of the nation, and the supreme state builder.”

The article’s author was probably briefed by the Saudi crown prince, who explained Saudi Arabia’s decision to sign the agreement with Iran.

The author wrote:

By virtue of bin Salman’s also being prime minister, he dealt with the issue of the neighbor (Iran), which for generations was a danger to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries and other Arab countries.

He is convinced that a political solution through dialogue is the right solution, and he estimates that with a country like Iran, which has an ancient history and culture, one cannot resolve the dispute with it through direct military confrontation.

He emphasized that it is impossible to erase the countries from the map just because of problems that can be solved on the table.

Bin Salman does not pay attention to the American and Israeli threats to attack Iran and is convinced that this is a form of political blackmail and chatter that has been going on for decades. There are no indications of their credibility today.2

The Israeli Message

Israeli intelligence estimates that the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran will not last long and may explode in the future.

The assessment says it is impossible to bridge the religious and ideological differences between the Sunni Muslims, who are represented by Saudi Arabia, and the Shia, whom Iran represents.

In addition, there is no indication that Iran intends to stop its policy of spreading the ideological doctrines of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and Iran’s physical expansion in the Middle East through establishing Iranian cadres in Arab countries. Iran is acting according to its national interests now, and its rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is temporary. Iran seeks to weaken the United States and damage Israel’s normalization agreements with the Gulf countries.

Israel is rightly concerned about these developments that could slow the Israeli effort to soon achieve a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia and other Arab and Islamic countries.

Prime Minister Netanyahu considers the normalization process a vital pillar of Israel’s foreign policy. Therefore, he chose to convey a public message to Saudi Arabia that it may regret its decision regarding Iran.

In an interview with the American CNBC channel, Netanyahu said, “95% of the problems in the Middle East stem from Iran.” According to the prime minister, evidence of the “misery” that Saudi Arabia may experience from getting closer to Iran can be found in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq.

“I think that Saudi Arabia and the leadership there have no illusions about who their enemies are and who their friends are in the Middle East. They understand that Israel is a necessary partner,” said the prime minister.

“We would very much like to make peace with Saudi Arabia. This will largely end the Israeli-Arab conflict.” Netanyahu added, “There is no end to the possibilities, and the sky is the limit.”

Netanyahu also called for increasing U.S. involvement in the Middle East. “I think not only Israel, but in many ways, most countries in the Middle East would welcome nothing more than American involvement in the Middle East, greater involvement,” he said. “It is very important that the United States be clear about its commitment and involvement in the Middle East.”

Israel is taking a clear but cautious position regarding Saudi Arabia’s new policy towards Iran. This issue would be one of the main issues to be discussed at a meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Biden at the White House when such a meeting is scheduled.

Senior officials in Jerusalem say that the Biden administration should pay attention to the alarming signals that Saudi Arabia is sending out, increase its involvement in the Middle East, and, above all, strengthen American deterrence against Iran.

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