Why go back to this sequence? Because one cannot really understand what is being played out today behind the normalization between Israel, on the one hand, and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, on the other, without getting into the heads of the leaders of the Gulf monarchies. They not only share many interests with the Jewish state, but also a vision of the Middle East, and even more generally of the world, which make a form of alliance between them, whatever one may think of it, almost self-evident.
Make no mistake, normalization between Israel and the Gulf countries has nothing to do with the idea of achieving regional peace. The three countries in question have never been at war. In this agreement, the Palestinian question is not an issue and even less a driving force. It is a taboo, which some allow themselves to break, which complicates the officialization of a romance that has already begun.
The alliance between Israel and the Gulf countries does not herald the beginning of a new era in the Middle East. This is for the simple reason that this era has already begun almost a decade ago and normalization is rather a form of confirmation of trends that have been already underway. The old Arab world is dead and has taken the Palestinian cause with it. The new Arab world is in full morphogenesis, at all levels, and the Gulf region is far from being an exception.
The petromonarchies of the Gulf have gone in a few years from a rather benevolent "big brother" status vis-à-vis the Arab world to that of both prey and predators. The United Arab Emirates became a regional power, while Saudi Arabia, historically adept at cautious diplomacy, went on the offensive. Yesterday they were purring and conservative kingdoms. Today they are hawks motivated by a nationalist ideology and led by young wolves.
The Gulf countries are all obsessed with the future, and in that future they need Israel. The end of the golden age of oil is pushing them to diversify their investments economically. The technologically and digitally advanced Jewish state can be an important partner in making this transition a success. But, more than money, it is the politico-military question that is the sinews of the war.
The Gulf countries feel surrounded by two threats, one Iranian and the other Turkish. The fact that the region itself is plagued by deep divisions with the tug-of-war between Qatar, an ally of Turkey, and the UAE-Saudi axis, or the war in Yemen, where the Saudi coalition is fighting the Iran backed Houthis, reinforces this impression. The petromonarchies see Israel as an objective ally that could help them fight their two enemies and enable them to acquire more sophisticated weaponry from the United States. The US delivery of F-35s, which would give the United Arab Emirates a technological advantage over all other countries in the region except Israel, appears to have been a decisive factor in achieving normalization.
Closer to Bin Zayed than to Merkel
Hostility towards Iran and Turkey, the cult of authoritarianism and the strong man, fascination with a frenetic modernity, the ability to maintain good relations with both the United States and Russia, geopolitics based on the sense of encirclement: the Gulf countries and Israel already share many points in common, even if the comparison has its limits. The Netanyahu cabinet today is much closer in its world view to UAE Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed than it is, for example, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. This is why the alliance between the Jewish state and the peoples of the Gulf, depending on the number of monarchies that will take the plunge and especially on the degree of cooperation it implies, can bring about significant changes in the region.
Israel has been until now a special player on the Middle Eastern scene, endowed with both real military superiority and an inability, by its very nature, to be a regional power in an imperial sense. The Jewish state thought of itself as a fortress besieged by its enemies and which had no vocation to play a regional role beyond the Arab-Palestinian issue. This doctrine has evolved in recent years with the increased air strikes against installations of Iran or its allies in Syria and Iraq. It may reach a new stage with the conclusion of the alliance with the Gulf countries, all the more so as each side is adapting to the progressive withdrawal of the Americans from the Middle East, which is not likely to be called into question by the presidential election next November, whoever the winner may be.
Can we then imagine Israel setting up a military base in the Gulf, a few kilometers from the Iranian coast, and playing the policeman in this region? This seemed unimaginable yesterday and yet this new alliance now opens this perspective.
Many commentators considered the Palestinians to be the main losers of the normalization agreement. This view of things can be questioned. The new generation of leaders in the Gulf barely conceals its disinterest, if not contempt, for the Palestinian cause, even if part of their populations remain sentimentally attached to the issue. The Gulf monarchies sold off the only means of pressure they had on Israel to defend the interests of the Palestinians. But despite all this, normalization is not necessarily going to change the game on this issue.
As true as the Arab peace initiative has not led to a change in Israel's attitude towards the Palestinians, normalization will not necessarily change the attitude of the Gulf countries towards the Palestinians. It may be that at least some of them, like what Jordan and Egypt are doing, will continue to defend the two-state concept, even if they will do so, as they have done for years, just for the sake of principle.
Iran, a big winner rhetorically for it can denounce the betrayal of the Arabs and assert that it is the only one defending the sacred cause, could be the real strategic loser in this new alliance. This is especially true if the Gulf of the future becomes Arab-Israeli rather than Arab-Persian...
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 17th of September)
A year ago, almost to the day, the Aramco oil sites in Saudi Arabia were bombed in an attack blamed on Iran. The US umbrella, including its deterrent force, failed to protect the Saudi sites and the United States did not respond directly to the attack. This event created a trauma in Saudi Arabia, and more generally in the Gulf countries, which concluded that their alliance with Washington –...