One evening in January at a hotel bar in Manhattan, I tried to ingratiate myself with an officer from Bahrain’s mission to the United Nations. Munira (not her real name) was a former student of a friend of mine. She was also a regime insider, close to Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, one of the royal family’s more reform-minded figures. I thought she might help me land a visa to Bahrain, which had all but shut out Western journalists since the crackdown at the Pearl Roundabout in February 2011. I can’t have been very persuasive. She promised to ‘assist your quest in any way’, but soon stopped replying to my emails. My visa application was never answered.
The protesters at the Pearl Roundabout, Munira told me that evening, were not fighting for constitutional reform or democracy; they were agents of Iran and Hizbullah. When they called for a republic, they meant an Islamic republic along Iranian lines where drinking would be banned and modern women like her would be forced to cover themselves. Fortunately, she had been rescued by troops from a country where drinking is already banned and women like her are forced to cover themselves. For Munira, the arrival in March 2011 of more than a thousand soldiers from Saudi Arabia, via the King Fahd Causeway between the Eastern Province and Bahrain, was a humanitarian intervention. Thanks to the support of its neighbours – and the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain – her tolerant, cosmopolitan, pro-Western kingdom had narrowly foiled a plot hatched in Tehran and Beirut’s southern suburbs.
I mentioned that the government-sponsored Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, in its report to King Hamad, had explicitly rejected claims of Iranian involvement in the protest movement. Whether or not they were directed from Tehran, Munira replied, the protests represented a Shia bid for power, and therefore a threat to the Sunni-led kingdom. Now that she had seen ‘terror’ in Manama – her word for the largely non-violent campaign of civil disobedience – she understood Israel’s need for stern measures. She had outgrown her youthful infatuation with the Palestinian cause, especially since Israel had proved itself a friend of Bahrain: ‘Our relations with Mossad are very good.’ Together, Israel and the Gulf monarchies were defending the region not only against Iran, but against the no less insidious influences of the Arab Spring.
Munira may have been overstating things for my benefit: what better way to win over an American Jewish journalist than to praise the Jewish state? Still, recent developments in the region – from the fall of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt to the impending strike against Syria – have confirmed that she was saying openly what many leaders in the Gulf privately believe.
Israel and the Gulf states do not have official diplomatic relations, but they have been developing closer ties over the last two decades. After the Oslo accords were signed in 1993, the Gulf states lifted their boycott of countries that traded with Israel; a few years later, Israel opened trade missions in Qatar and Oman. The two top exports from Israel to the Gulf – sold through third parties and shell companies – are security equipment and technology. When Aluf Benn published a report in Haaretz of Israeli arms sales to Arab and Muslim countries earlier this year, there were ferocious denials from Egypt and Pakistan, but not a word from the United Arab Emirates over its buying of drone technology.
In 2002, Saudi Arabia sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative, which proposed a two-state settlement based on Israel’s 1967 borders, in return for full economic and diplomatic normalisation. This spring, Riyadh reaffirmed the 2002 proposal, even accepting the need for land swaps, a further concession to Tel Aviv. Israel has never responded to the proposal. Nor did it show much sensitivity to the amour propre of its friends in the UAE when Mossad assassinated Hamas’s security chief in a Dubai hotel room in 2010. But Israel has relaxed its opposition to arms sales from Washington to the Gulf states, and shared intelligence on Iran’s nuclear activities – the concern which, along with the insurgent force of Arab populism, has sealed their alliance.
That alliance has deepened since the fall of Mubarak. No one was more furious at Obama’s betrayal of a loyal client than the Israelis – well, no one except the Saudis. Not only had Mubarak been a redoubtable ally against Iran and Hamas; he had protected Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation seen by Riyadh and the UAE as a force of subversion throughout the Gulf. The Saudis are religious but they are not sentimental. Given a choice between a dependable secular autocrat like Mubarak and an Islamic populist movement with regional ambitions that might challenge their own, they have always chosen the former. Since the fall of Ben-Ali in Tunisia, the Saudis have fought the wave of insurrectionary movements by supporting conservative religious forces, particularly Salafi groups, and by stirring up sectarian tension.
Israel, too, prefers autocratic neighbours: countering Arab populism has been a pillar of its foreign policy since 1948. It has also tried to stoke sectarian tension in the Arab and Muslim world, supporting Maronite influence in Lebanon and encouraging irredentist groups in Iran and Iraq. But Israel’s ability to influence the domestic politics of Arab countries is limited. It cheered on General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi when he threw out Morsi, suspended the constitution and accused Hamas of trying to destabilise Egypt – as the Americans discovered when they tried in vain to restrain the Egyptian army, the generals and Israel were in constant contact during the coup – but couldn’t offer much in the way of material support. It was left to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to step in with extravagant offers of assistance, while urging Sisi to show the Brothers no mercy. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, pro-Israel lobbyists fought any attempt to suspend military aid to the Egyptian generals. One former American official with excellent ties to the Saudis called it a ‘game of charades, with communication between the players by mime’.
The Israelis and Saudis played the game well – much better than Obama, whose grudging acceptance of the coup has not prevented him from being vilified in Cairo by the military regime’s supporters. (The posters in Cairo of Obama with a jihadi beard look much like the racist caricatures of ‘Barack Hussein Obama’ that used to run in right-wing Israeli tabloids.) Indeed, one could argue that Israel and Saudi Arabia are now closer to each other in their views of the region than either of them is to the United States. The Saudi-Israeli support for the coup in Egypt challenges a central tenet of American policy in the Middle East: that stable government and peace depend on democracy. US support for democratisation is of course limited, and contingent on alignment with American objectives, but in principle the US has supported the integration of Islamist parties. The Americans were not in cahoots with the Brothers, contrary to the rumours in Cairo, but they fear that Sisi’s crackdown will drive Egypt’s Islamists toward violence, and that America might become a target. It is not an unreasonable fear.
In Syria, too, Saudi Arabia and Israel are working together separately, their messages conveyed by ‘friends’ in think tanks in Washington and Doha without any need for face-to-face meetings. At first glance, the Saudi-Israeli opposition to the éradicateurs in Damascus may seem to contradict their support for the éradicateurs in Cairo: the Muslim Brothers are among the leading opposition forces inside Syria, and General Sisi has opposed military action against Assad, recognising a kindred autocrat. But Saudi Arabia wants to take Syria out of the hands of Iran, and Israel is sympathetic to this if it means Syria will cease to be a supply line for Hizbullah, but not if the country ends up in the hands of Sunni extremists. Stalemate, in fact, may be just what Israel wants: its occupation of the Golan Heights has never looked more secure. As Edward Luttwak outlined with brazen candour in the New York Times, ‘by tying down Mr Assad’s army and its Iranian and Hizbullah allies in a war against al-Qaida-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies will be engaged in war among themselves and prevented from attacking Americans or America’s allies.’
The Israelis aren’t sure they want Assad to fall just yet, but they want his supporters in Tehran to tremble. An American punitive strike, as they see it, is a test of whether Obama is willing to confront Iran in the future – or whether they will be ‘forced’ to act alone, a threat that is surely in the minds of American policymakers as they contemplate a strike. By launching a small war, Obama may imagine that he is pre-empting a larger one, but there’s no telling where all this might lead, once America’s ‘credibility’ is restored. The road to peace in Syria may run through Tehran, but it will be the road not taken if the Israelis and the Saudis have their way.