Magazine article The Spectator

An Unholy Alliance: Israel and the Saudis

Magazine article The Spectator

An Unholy Alliance: Israel and the Saudis

Article excerpt

How Israel and the Saudis found themselves on the same side

Israel's Channel 2 news station improbably made history last week by airing a brief interview with an obscure policy wonk named Abed al-Hamid Hakim. The subject was the blockade of Qatar imposed by the Saudis and a couple of other despotic Sunni Arab rulers to punish the country for its ties to Iran, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It obviously wasn't what Hakim had to say -- religion should not be used to justify violence and extremism; we should all try to live in peace and harmony -- that aroused interest. Rather, it was where he was sitting when he said it: Jeddah, the commercial capital of Saudi Arabia. For the first time ever, here was a Saudi national being interviewed live on Israeli TV, complete with Hebrew subtitles. Perhaps more extraordinary, though, was that after word got out in Saudi Arabia about their little chit-chat there was no serious backlash.

Having worked for a number of years in the heart of the government-controlled media in Jeddah, I know that such an interview could never have taken place without the go-ahead from the very highest levels of the Saudi regime. A few days later, in fact, it appeared to have been just the opening salvo of an orchestrated, pro-Israel propaganda campaign. An equally unprecedented column about the Jewish state duly appeared in the widely read Saudi daily Al Riyadh, which, like all newspapers in the kingdom, is closely guided and monitored by the government. Written by a certain Musaid al-Asimi, it hardly heaped praise on Israel; but it did emphasise that -- in odd phrasing that perhaps reflected the awkwardness of the moment -- there was no reason for Arabs to 'unjustifiably demonise' the country. After praising the peace accords Israel has signed with Egypt and Jordan (another break with protocol), al-Asimi left his readers in no doubt about what his princely overlords want them to believe. Iran, not Israel, he boldly concluded, must henceforth be considered Saudi Arabia's regional enemy.

Neither the TV pundit nor the newspaper columnist have been censured by the Saudi regime, which imposes a decade-long sentence for the flimsiest criticism of government policy. Compare their happy lot with that of Jamal Khashoggi, among the kingdom's most famous and prolific journalists. The world hasn't heard a tweet from him since last year. His crime? In a speech at a pro-Israel think tank in Washington in the run-up to the US Presidential elections, he suggested that the next incumbent in the White House might not see eye-to-eye with Saudi Arabia about how a potentially nuclear-armed Iran may be contained. For that, Khashoggi has been indefinitely banned from writing on, or commenting about, anything, either in Saudi Arabia or the outside world. By promoting some voices while preventing others from being heard, the royal court is testing the Saudi public's reaction to a possible future announcement that the enemy (Israel) of my enemy (Iran) is my friend (Wahhabi-Zionist alliance).

This new geopolitical reality was championed last month by Donald Trump during his visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel. There, he too singled out Iran as the main instigator of terrorism and instability in the region. He gave King Salman (whom he had damned as a promoter of global Wahhabi terror and hatred just months earlier) a huge bear hug. Then he was symbolically flown on Air Force One from Riyadh to Tel Aviv, the first direct flight between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Trump, of course, did not write the speech he had been prepped to read. Truth be told, he would probably not have understood it if he had been in the audience. During the election campaign, he brazenly admitted that he had absolutely no understanding whatsoever of the difference even between (the Shia, Lebanon-based) Hezbollah and the (Sunni, Gaza-based) Hamas. Not since George W. Bush has the White House been inhabited by such an inarticulate, manipulable President with zero foreign policy experience. …

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