President Biden’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, hyped up for weeks by the media, ended up frustrating and disappointing those who expected a breakthrough in Saudi-Israeli normalization. But even if Saudi Arabia and Israel sign a formal Abraham Accord tomorrow, we must remember that as Israel-Egypt and Israel-PA relations show, no amount of diplomacy can substitute for countering prevalent antisemitism in Arab societies. Even though favorable diplomatic conditions are not moving as fast as many wish them to be, they still must be used to reach out to more Arab societies.
Diplomatic normalization between Arab states has its own logic: national interests and savvy statesmanship. Saudi Arabia has given enough signals that normalization is indeed on its horizon. However, they have also signaled such a horizon is not very near, and the path to it isn’t straightforward. This is frustrating enough for all those who anticipated a major breakthrough in the recent visit of President Biden to the kingdom, especially since official Saudi statements seemed to distance themselves from the issue. But such a disappointment should not be taken at face value. The Saudis and the Arab Gulf seem to be more immediately concerned with the recalibration of their relationship with the United States than anything else including their relationship with Israel.
The erosion of trust and sense of reliability between Sunni Arab powers and the US is unmistakable. An American reconciliatory approach towards Iran, complete negligence of the needs of its Arab allies, and the outburst of hostile attitudes towards Saudi Arabia and the UAE in certain American institutions coupled with the perceived decline of the US global standing convinced Arab states of the urgent need to assert themselves, reconfigure their security alliances, and confront the United States with their independent agenda. This is what Arab officials mean when they speak of recalibration, reconfiguration, or diversification of the security portfolio. This is a grand maneuver that is bold as it is uncertain. Within such an emerging geopolitical transformation, normalization with Israel reasserts itself as one of the most meaningful cards Arab states have. And they are not to be expected to play this card before exploiting it for maximum benefit.
An even more important context for this is the Saudi domestic scene. Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman’s consolidation of power is built entirely on the legitimacy platform of being the historical leader who is going to help Saudi Arabia transform itself into a modern nation-state. Economic diversification, dissociation from Wahabism, social liberalization, Saudi nationalism, urban development using cutting-edge sustainable technology, and regional leadership are the pillars of his reign. This ambitious futuristic project, largely inspired by the precedent of the UAE and embodied in Vision 2030, the city of Neom, and so on, is Saudi Arabia’s current national priority and requires major moves to outmaneuver all those who ever claimed the banner of Arab aspirations. This includes Islamists, political dissidents, Qatar, and Turkey enthusiasts.
The fear from Iran is not just a security concern, which is strong enough, but an overriding fear shared by all GCC states that a regional conflict with Iran is going to derail the economic plans and ambitions on which their political stability is built. The stakes have never been higher. And thus, those Arab states are not willing to let what a senior Gulf diplomat described to me as “Western incompetence” foil their ambitions.
Within such a complex terrain, the issue of normalization with Israel then acquires two different, yet somewhat interrelated rationalities. At one hand, it is a precious card in the larger geopolitical game in which GCC countries are trying to skillfully outmaneuver both their regional rivals and an increasingly unreliable, yet still important, American ally with whom serious recalibration of relations is needed. Domestically, it is a central part of the larger program of cultural transformation towards a more tolerant form of Islam, a stronger sense of nation-state nationalism as a bulwark of defense against transnational ideologies which now came to include not just Islamism and Arab nationalism but also the new identity of international anti-authoritarian Left, and a new public perception of identity and the region. The domestic rationality, is what is responsible for the major moves taken in the recent years in educational and religious reforms, which according to objective observers eliminated most of the antisemitic content formerly part of the official ideology. This includes the elimination of most antisemitic content from school textbooks, a more favorable coverage of Judaism, and subtle social media campaigns of friendly ties with Jewish figures all which can culminate in a historical reconciliation between official Sunni Islam and Judaism. This much can be attested from the statements of US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt to the region as well as other observers. Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to a much larger extent, are on a domestic crusade to change the perception of their people about Jews and Israel.
It is important to reemphasize those domestic moves are a part of a domestic project serving internal national interests and will continue regardless of the progress or lack thereof of official normalization with Israel. I have been g for years that there is no Islamism and no radicalism in the Middle East without antisemitism and there is no antisemitism without the Palestinian cause. Today, it is clearly obvious to me that many Arab countries, at the least the ones that matter the most, came to the same conclusions. Thus, de-emphasizing pro-Palestinian sentiments and removing antisemitism from the national ideology becomes a political survival imperative.
Quick or slow, direct or indirect, this is a historic moment in the history of the Middle East and the world, even if our experts and sophisticated observers are too busy to notice. The opening to reintegrate Judaism, and not just Israel, in the Middle East holds a promise to start correcting historical wrongs that devastated the region for decades. In this, American Jews and American Jewish organizations have a crucial role to play, not just because they are half of the world’s Jewry, but because they are uniquely positioned to reach out, connect, and build bridges between societies and institutions. Saudi Arabia may not be normalizing relations with Israel anytime soon and may even move farther away from the traditional American Saudi alliance, but they are willing to openly talk about antisemitism, the holocaust, and Muslim Jewish relations and promote tolerance towards Jews to their people and the reconciliation between Islam and Judaism. This is an opportunity that must not be wasted.
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