The reports on US network NBC and in "The Financial Times" leave no room for doubt: the normalization contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia are still very much with us. In fact, not only are the talks continuing, but the situation in the Swords of Iron war is making for faster progress than before October 7.
Jerusalem has become fed up with the involvement in the Gaza Strip of the country that hosts senior Hamas figures, Qatar, and has realized that the suitcases of Qatari cash are one of the worst failures of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long political career.
At the same time, although no-one will say so openly, belief in Egypt’s influence in the Gaza Strip has also eroded. This is not necessarily because Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has deliberately done anything to help Hamas against Israel, but rather because Egypt has different priorities, from dealing with Islamic State activists in Sinai to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The dam under construction on the Blue Nile, which represents 85% of the flow in the Nile River, has been a cause of concern in Cairo for over a decade. No less than 96% of Egypt’s water consumption comes from the Nile, and a quarter of its energy is from the Aswan Dam.
The unhelpful Qatar-Egypt axis has given rise to talk of Saudi Arabia leading a group of five Arab countries that will deal with the rehabilitation of the Gaza Strip, subject to an irrevocable Israeli commitment to the formation of a Palestinian state. El-Sisi will presumably be part of that coalition, as will the UAE, which already supports initiatives in eh Gaza Strip, such as the desalination plant. Qatar may remain involved, but it will undoubtedly lose its financial hegemony in the Gaza Strip. That is a central consideration in their attempts to stay relevant in mediation between Israel and Hamas.
The Saudis do not intend to talk to Hamas, and so, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, they are leading the discussions with the US on "the day after". The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is not pro-Palestinian, but as the leader of the Muslim world and the custodian of the holy places it is obliged to provide Arab public opinion, and particularly Saudi public opinion, with concrete evidence of having done something significant for the Palestinians. Averting the annexation by Israel of the Jordan Valley, as in the normalization with the UAE, will not be enough.
Mohammed bin Salman’s basic concern is to halt the tendency of the Swords of Iron war to spread. He sees the Houthis expanding their attacks from merchant ships to US and British warships, and even more importantly that the Iranians are hardly attempting to hide their attacks in the Indian Ocean. In a step designed to pressure the US, Mohammed bin Salman was willing to sustain damage to his country’s economy by cutting oil production, which accounts for a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s GDP. French bank BNP Paribas estimates that as a proportion of GDP oil declined by 7.5% in 2023, the largest decline in a decade.
Unlike the Europeans, who from the first moment were fearful of the effect of the attacks on shipping by the Houthis on trade with the Far East, with 12% of world trade passing through the Red Sea, the Saudis were not much concerned until recently. Their economy is very dependent on oil exports, but 75% of these go to the Far East from the Persian Gulf.
This is exactly where the Iranians pushed Mohammed bin Salman into Israel’s arms. The Saudis realized that if, out of a desire to save the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, Iran activated Hezbollah at low intensity, it can only be imagined what it will do in the event of all-out war in Lebanon. It will be tough for Israel, but given the current situation in Lebanon, Hezbollah will collapse, not just militarily, but because no Lebanese citizen, including the Shi’ites, will forgive Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah for dragging his country into a war when Lebanon’s economy is in tatters.
Never mind Bab el-Mandeb - what about the Straits of Hormuz?
Just today, Israel’s Minister of Energy and Infrastructure Eli Cohen visited the Karish gas production platform, and it’s obvious to everyone that this was no coincidence. "We shall use every means to ensure regular, continuous supply of energy to the Israeli economy," the minister said, after reports in the Arabic press that both pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Hezbollah had attempted to disrupt it. Had there been a hit to the Karish platform, all of the production from which goes to local consumption in Israel, there would have been an immediate declaration of war on Lebanon.
The prospect of Israel’s exchanges of fire with Hezbollah and/or the exchanges of fire between the Operation Prosperity Guardian coalition in the Red Sea and the Houthis rebels in Yemen escalating into all-out war, raises anxiety levels in Saudi Arabia. The main fear is the closure of the most important sea lane in the oil production world, the Straits of Hormuz, which Iran controls. Such a step would, at a minimum, lead to a regional war, and would be a mortal blow to the Saudi economy, because the oil destined for the East would not be able to leave the Persian Gulf.
Mohammed bin Salman fears for his grandiose Vision 2030, for the future of his new mega-city Neom, and for the 2034 World Cup, meant to be a peak event in process he is leading in the kingdom. A regional war would put an end to all these plans, and so, for their sake, he needs Israel. He needs Jerusalem’s agreement to end the fighting and to a Palestinian state, to calm the warmongering in the region. From Israel’s point of view, investment in the Gaza Strip after the war, ensuring the future of the grandiose projects, will be very worthwhile facilitating.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 18, 2024.
© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.