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Will Israel-Saudi Arabia relations advance peace in West Asia?

Will Israel-Saudi Arabia relations advance peace in West Asia?

Soon after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Saudi Arabia, which the latter has denied, <em>Reuters</em> reports that White House senior adviser Jared Kushner plans to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, better known as MBS, in the Red Sea city of Neom this week.

Kushner's planned visit is apparently to help cement ties between the Saudis and Israel. US President Donald Trump, who is in the last stages of his presidency, is trying his level best to push more Arab countries into accepting Israel—after his success with UAE and Bahrain. Trump knows that if he can get Saudi Arabia, undoubtedly the most powerful of the Arab nations, to formalise relations with Israel it would be a lasting legacy for him personally and help the peace process in a complex conflict-ridden region.

According to <em>Reuters</em>, it was Kushner's team which had earlier brought about the surprise rapprochement between Israel and UAE, followed by Bahrain and Sudan. It goes without saying that any Saudi-Israeli rapprochement would be historic not just for the two countries but also for the entire West Asian region.

Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia and Israel have been on the opposite sides of the fence, the two share many things in common because of US influence in the region, and have been in back channel talks for a while. Recently, Saudi Arabia gave its nod to an Israeli airline to fly over its airspace to the UAE, reportedly after a push by Washington.

For the two countries to come together, the Palestinian cause—which remains an emotive issue not just for the Arab nations but also with the common people—has to be surmounted. In 2018, the Crown Prince opened up the way forward, when he said: "I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land.” He added that there has to be a peace accord to ensure stability for everyone.

If Riyadh and Jerusalem come together under the umbrella of the Abraham Accords, it will also ensure some kind of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Already, the latter has decided not to expand its territory into Palestinian held areas.

If the two nations establish formal ties, it will help them achieve many geostrategic goals. For both, Iran remains an anathema, a threat and a regional power which has to be kept in check. Formal relations will help them keep an eye on Iran on many fronts and curb its influence.

MBS wants to come out of the oil dependency and is looking at the road taken by UAE—a global destination for investment, a tourism-friendly nation and a cosmopolitan hub. For these plans, a country like Israel fits in well with its superior technology and investment. Israel would be equally happy to sell its military equipment to Saudi Arabia besides technology.

Saudi Arabia has changed considerably under MBS over the last few years. The ruler also likes to see himself as a reformer in front of his young Western-educated populace, and that is where empowerment of women, combating corruption and more freedom to its people fit in.

MBS wants his country to move away from its hardline image, look more benign in the global scheme of things. Improved relations with Israel will fit in with that moderate view.  It is only a matter of time, maybe weeks, when the world will know if Saudi Arabia moves decisively to recognise Israel and establish official relations. It has already taken a turn towards that destination incrementally..