Last month’s Bahrain Summit has been described as the launch of the Trump administration’s “deal of the century” to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. The peace plan has been criticised as narrow-sighted in that it fails to emphasise the Palestinian’s desire for national self-determination. While the summit – attended by representatives and businessmen from a number of Arab Gulf states and prominent Israeli businessmen – will make little ground in resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is hugely significant for the international relations of the Middle East. The significance of the summit lies not in its practical outcomes, but in what it reflects – the normalisation of relations between Israel and a number of Arab Gulf states.
In October last year, Sultan Qaboos invited Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen to the Omani Kingdom. Then in February, Netanyahu met with the Foreign Ministers of Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in Warsaw. Subsequently, Netanyahu confirmed that along with Sudan, Oman had agreed to allow Israeli planes the use of its airspace; and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister told the Times of Israel that Bahrain-Israel relations would “eventually” be normalised. In May, Saudi Arabia permitted an Air India flight that departed from Ben Gurion Airport to use its airspace – the first time Riyadh has ever allowed a flight leaving Israel to do so. And earlier this month, Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Israel Katz visited Abu Dhabi to discuss the threat of Iran. It is largely this fear of Iran that is underpinning the normalisation process.
Iran: the common adversarial interest
Political scientist Charles Glaser contends that international alliances are better conceived as a form of competition rather than cooperation. The rationale for such a position is that alliances are formed in response to a common adversarial threat. While it would be a stretch to refer to the normalisation of Israel’s relations with the Arab Gulf states as a formation of an alliance, this rationale can still be applied to the state of heightened cooperation between these once rival actors.
The regional order of the Middle East is evolving. In a region that was so long defined (at least to a large extent) by Israel-Arab hostilities, what is emerging today is a very different landscape. Iran is quickly supplanting Israel as the chief adversary across a large contingent of Arab states. It is not only the Arab Gulf states, but also, and significantly, Egypt, inter alia, who are becoming increasingly concerned by the ambitions and conduct of the Islamic Republic. It is this regional power competition with Iran that is the primary factor driving enhanced cooperation between Israel and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
The United States: a mediating force?
However, cooperation in response to a common adversary is not the only factor nudging along the normalisation process. The United States, a country whose presence in the Middle East has long been reviled across the region, has also played an integral role.. Following the end of the Cold War, America was in a position of unprecedented hegemony in the Middle East. US regional hegemony had been developing following Egypt’s realignment away from the Soviet Union, which was practically codified in the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Given the absence of any local latent great powers in the Middle East, the dissolution of the Soviet Union meant that there was no state willing or able to check US power and influence.
In the era of Pax Americana, the US had new degrees of access to the Arab world; forming and consolidating close knit relations with Arab monarchs, autocrats and oligarchs. While US hegemony in the Middle East appears to be waning, US influence is still entrenched throughout the region. With the US already in a longstanding “special relationship” with Israel, its influence in the Arabian Gulf states – fostered to a large degree by the oil trade – has enabled it to facilitate the normalisation process, as evinced through its role in organising the Bahrain Summit. Important to note is that the US involvement in this process is at least in part tied to its concerns over Iran’s threat to its regional interests.
Where to next?
Although relations between Israel and the Arab Gulf states still have a long way to go before normalisation is achieved, it would appear that the old anti-Zionist order of the Arab Middle East is long in the past. With news emerging that Iran has breached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by exceeding its uranium enrichment cap, it is deducible that the normalisation process will experience an acceleration. Indeed, ominous questions remain to what measures these states will undertake to stymie Iranian ambitions in the future and the consequences of the changing regional order.
Kevin Fine is in his first year of a Juris Doctor at the University of Sydney. He holds a Bachelor of Arts majoring in International Relations from Macquarie University and a Bachelor of Arts (honors), majoring in Government & International Relations from the University of Sydney. His interest in international affairs was stoked whilst undertaking a gap year program in Israel. Kevin’s main areas of interests are: U.S. foreign policy, international security, Israeli domestic politics and foreign policy, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Egyptian foreign policy.
Kevin is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.