Bahrain, Oman could be next to normalize relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia? Not so fast

Bahrain, Oman could be next to normalize relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia? Not so fast

The deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to establish diplomatic relations could lead other countries in the region to carve out their own plans, but it’s unlikely that Saudi Arabia, arguably the most important geo-political Gulf state, will follow suit anytime soon, according to experts who specialize in the region.

Whether any other Gulf state follows the U.A.E.’s lead will first depend upon the domestic reaction and reaction across the Arab world to the agreement, said Dov Waxman, director of UCLA’s Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies.

Autocratic leaders in the Gulf, who are facing economic challenges and can be sensitive to public opinion, might hesitate if there is a major uproar, Waxman said.

Still, it’s a watershed moment in Israel’s relationship with Gulf Arab states which have been happy to have quiet, so-called under the table dealings with Israel until now, he said.

“The U.A.E.’s willingness to go public with this and fully normalize relations is a historic breakthrough in that respect,” Waxman said from Los Angeles.

And it is significant, he said, because “now that the U.A.E. has taken the first step, taken the plunge, so to speak, it will encourage other countries to follow.”

Although the deal requires Israel to halt its contentious plan to annex occupied West Bank land, the agreement will also fortify the alliance that Israel has forged in recent years with the U.A.E.and other Gulf states to counteract Iranian expansionism, Waxman said.

Currently, among Arab nations, only Egypt and Jordan have active diplomatic ties with Israel. Egypt made a peace deal with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994.

Bahrain and Oman

Now, with the U.A.E. deal in place, some experts predict Bahrain and Oman could be next to forge agreements of their own.

“Countries are very influenced by their neighbours, especially their neighbour who are seen to be in relatively similar situations,” said William F. Wechsler, senior adviser for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.

In the case of Oman, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said in a very public meeting that was broadcast across the country in 2018. But following Qaboos’ death earlier this year, and with a relatively new sultan having just assumed power, a deal with Israel may have to wait, Wechsler said.

That means Bahrain, which congratulated the U.A.E. for “taking steps to enhance the chances for Middle East peace,” could be next in line. 

Netanyahu walks with Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said in 2018. A deal with Oman may have to wait; Qaboos died earlier this year and with a relatively new sultan has just assumed power. (Israel GPO via Reuters)

Although the kingdom would want to see the final details of the deal, and gauge domestic reaction, Wechsler said he could “imagine Bahrain moving relatively quickly.”

Saudi Arabia

As for a deal with Saudi Arabia, that would be seen as the “jewel in the crown,” and their willingness to normalize relations with Israel would be the most critical development in terms of changing Israel’s relationship with the Arab world, according to Waxman.

But Waxman said he would be surprised if that happened any time soon. He described Saudi foreign policy as a bit more cautious.

“It doesn’t have necessarily quite the same freedom to focus only on its own national interest in a way that, say, the U.A.E. does, because Saudis want to have this mantle of leadership of the Islamic world,” he said.

More critically, Saudi Arabia is focused on a number of issues, including a conflict with Yemen, declining oil prices, and a reform agenda by presumptive king Mohammed bin Salman, who himself has been mired in a series of controversies.

Israel isn’t likely to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia anytime soon, as the kingdom is focused on a number of issues, such as a conflict with Yemen, declining oil prices, and a reform agenda by presumptive king Mohammed bin Salman, who himself has been mired in a series of controversies. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP)

The power structure of the Saudi kingdom is also complicated; bin Salman’s father is still the top monarch.

“Add all those things up together. It doesn’t really seem to me that now is the time for Saudi Arabia to make this step” Wechsler said. 

Elie Podeh, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said he also can’t see Saudi Arabia taking the risk to normalize relations with Israel, particularly if a halt to annexation is all that Israel is offering.

“If Israel will come with some kind of a gesture, a big concession, that would be a different story,” said Podeh, who is in the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. “But you’re talking just about stopping annexation. I don’t see that as a major incentive to take all the risks involved in recognizing publicly Israel.”

WATCH | Trump announces deal between Israel and U.A.E.: 

President Donald Trump touted the deal as a ‘significant’ step toward a more peaceful and prosperous Middle East. 0:53

It’s more likely that Saudi Arabia will continue to have these back-channel discussions with Israel, Wechsler said.

What’s also key, he said, is if Saudi Arabia doesn’t do anything to prevent other Gulf countries going down the same path as the U.A.E.

Bahrain is not going to take these steps without Saudi Arabia’s acquiescence. And so and so if Saudi Arabia allows Bahrain to do it, that’s a big statement just in of itself,” Wechsler said.

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