A Newsworthy Summit in Manama

Summary: sparks fly in the Bahraini capital as a senior Saudi royal drops the gloves and takes dead aim at Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.
We are grateful to Michael Stephens for the following commentary. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and an Associate Fellow at RUSI. His work focuses on the politics and security of the Middle East and UK Security policy.

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8 thoughts on “A Newsworthy Summit in Manama”

  1. At the peak of the Arab Spring protests in 2011, I was struck by the fact that many friends and family members from the Gulf would make no reference to the seismic events happening around them, yet they would continue to post emotively about Palestine. The power of the Palestinian cause as a fundamental, unifying moral issue – and one of the sole geopolitical files about which it is rarely controversial to express outrage – should not be underestimated. I also agree that normalisation would inevitably throw down the gauntlet to jihadist elements within Saudi Arabia and beyond, for whom the occupation of Palestine has been for decades the foundational narrative (and at the root of the alleged casus belli). This script is yet to be flipped.

  2. Turki’s views on Israel are clearly a product of two elements. First, his father, King Faisal, had a deep attachment to the Palestinian cause. Second, Saudis (and many Arabs) of his generation not only have an emotional attachment to the Palestinian cause, but also see it as a deep moral issue. I find it fascinating that the generation that grew up watching al-Jazeera’s non-stop coverage of the second intifada were not radicalized by the experience as some feared they would be, but instead have decided there are issues they care a lot more about than Palestine.
    I also doubt that Turki got explicit permission for his intervention, as Michael Stephens suggested. Turki’s long time in the intelligence world made him deeply comfortable with ambiguity, and I think he rather enjoys public speculation about how much his views reflect the family’s consensus.

  3. While it is clear that Saudi-Israeli cooperation will continue and probably develop, I am a little surprised at the assumption that formal relations are on their way, sooner rather than later. It seems to me there are a number of factors which fail to appear in much of this debate. Doubtless it can’t happen while Salman is alive, I assume that is agreed by all. However, MbS has to consider how it would affect a number of his ambitions: first and foremost how can the leader of the Muslim world ignore the fact that the third holiest site is under the control of the Israelis? That would seriously damage his claim to such leadership. Second, it would weaken him internally even within the framework of his new ‘moderate’ Islam, but it would certainly strengthen and revive the more fundamentalist elements within SA; they have been well suppressed with his current repressive strategy, but they are still there. In the absence of the very unlikely major concessions from Israel, the only way I can see mutual diplomatic recognition in the near future would be as yet another rash and unthought action on MBS’s part, of course something which is certainly conceivable.

  4. “Normalisation will happen slowly but surely”. Given the evidence of deep unease within the Royal Family, let alone Saudis generally or the Arab Street, about normalisation of relations with Israel with nothing to show for the Palestinians, “surely” seems to me doubtful. And “slowly” is not usually MbS’s mode either. The bumpy road metaphor may be more apt.

    1. Roger thanks for your input. I suspect normalisation at this point is inevitable, a question of when rather than if. MbS is usually in a hurry with most things you’re right, but I sense on this issue he’s had to walk slower, partly because his father the King has tugged hard on his collar. There is clear progress happening though, and norms have been changed…which will be difficult for the Saudis to reverse course on. Norms are perhaps more important than a specific policy taken in a given year…these build up over time. And the Saudi conversation about Israel (and indeed Jews) is a long way from where it was ten years ago. You’re right to point out that no movement on the Palestinian issue is going to be a major stumbling block, that could well delay things for some time.

  5. Certainly some provocative comments here…
    I think it is important to highlight that while Turki al-Faisal lambasted Israel, he did not condemn the UAE or Riyadh’s role in facilitating their normalisation (and Bahrain’s) by opening up their airspace for the Tel Aviv-UAE routes. Moreover, even if we consider there is a divide between the King and his son, the humiliating clip of King Salman asking his son if they had attended last year’s G20 summit lends credence to suggestions that the King is unaware of the decisions being taken or the trajectory the kingdom is headed. Even if Turki al-Faisal ‘represents’ the King’s view, this does not make it Saudi policy in light of Salman’s clear frailty, and Bin Salman may well believe that such statements benefit him in presenting this image that he is the visionary in a ‘backwards’ family to be supported amidst suggestions Biden may embolden rivals in the family.
    I think it is also important to remember that the normalisation process is dependent upon heavy-handed top-down superimposition of ideas on a population clearly averse to it. That has significant implications. While Arabs in the UAE are a small minority in their own country, the demographics of Saudi Arabia mean there are unique risks (and consequences) associated with any normalisation. Bin Salman will need to crack down harder than he is now on opposition to push through normalisation, and history shows that the natural consequence of such repression is either a dogged insurgency or revolution.
    He has already had to imprison Salman al-Oudah, Awadh al-Garni, Safar al-Hawali, AbdulAziz al-Treefe, Suleiman Al-Dawish. This has weakened public sympathy for Saudi in the Muslim World. He has threatened Al-Mughamisy, Aidh al-Qarni, Al-Areefe and others all into submission. This has undermined its Islamic soft power that is a mainstay of its foreign policy in Pakistan, Malaysia, and in large chunks of the Arab World. In other words, it is clear that the government does not believe it has sufficient popular support and is still heavily dependent on international backing from Washington (and potentially Tel Aviv) to resist any backlash. It is one thing to pursue liberal reform. It is another thing entirely to ‘betray’ Islam.
    Add to that the gradual surrounding of the kingdom by a religious Shiite power (Iranian militias in Iraq, Iran mainland in the East, Houthis on the Southern border who are already attacking Saudi positions and appear ever more entrenched), and Turkey’s military expansion into North Africa, and it suddenly looks like any insurgency that emerges as a result of Bin Salman’s forceful imposition of normalisation would have sufficient popular support and could viably draw on regional backing.
    What is fascinating in all of this, is that the excitement over normalisation has resulted in an implicit acceptance that the repression of the popular will is a harsh, but acceptable and necessary measure to secure ‘progress’. In some ways, it is a refreshing break from the superficial narratives of ‘promoting democracy, good governance, and the right to self-determination’ and signals a move to a more honest discussion in the manner French President Macron is pushing when he stated yesterday that it was important to support Egypt in ‘countering terrorism’ regardless of the regime’s repression. This, in my opinion, is the most important dynamic to be celebrated in the normalisation debate.

    1. Michael Stephens

      Tom thanks for the comment…also worth remembering Turki’s strongly worded Op-Ed “Veto a State, lose an ally” https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/12/opinion/veto-a-state-lose-an-ally.html written in 2011. Turki has always been extremely vocal on this issue…but rarely has he attacked the Israelis with such vehement language. His recent interview to Channel 10 in Israel with Barak Ravid in which he made it clear there must be results on the Palestinian question was very different in tone to this statement. He’s switched from talking about Palestinian rights to Israeli crimes…definitely designed to sting.

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