Normalizing our relations in the Middle East is reflective of broader geopolitical and geo-economic concerns | Opinion
BAGHDAD, IRAQ – MARCH 05: People watch live footage of Pope Francis outside Sayidat al-Najat (Our lady of Salvation) Cathedral on March 5, 2021 in Baghdad, Iraq. Pope Francis began his historic first ever papal visit to Iraq. In his first foreign trip since the start of the pandemic Pope Francis will visit Baghdad, Najaf, Erbil and the cities of Qaraqosh and Mosul, which were heavily destroyed by ISIS. Although the trip is seen as an act of solidarity, the Vatican has been forced to defend the decision to go ahead with the papal visit amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as Iraq is currently seeing a spike in infection rates as it faces a deadly second wave of the virus. (Photo by Taha Hussein Ali/Getty Images)
By Chris Dolan
While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opposes the move, he has little influence with Biden since he was closely aligned with Trump.With Trump’s support, Israel normalized relations with Arab governments in an attempt to build a counterbalancing coalition against Iran.
Biden’s strategy affirms Trump’s promotion of multilateral dialogue between Israel and Arab states and updates Obama’s mitigation of the Iranian nuclear threat through multilateral negotiations with other world powers.
Tectonic forces are shifting the balance of power. For years, Arab states used pan-Arabism as leverage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Sunnir Arab states are more interested in counterbalancing their mutual enemy: Iran.
Moreover, Islamism has faded, especially in autocratic Egypt where President Sisi has targeted the Muslim Brotherhood. The rise of Iran and the decline of pan-Arabism and Islamism are leading to normalization of Arab-Israeli relations.
Also, two massive infrastructure projects are driving Arab states toward one another and Israel. One is a regional land bridge and hub project proposed in 2019 by Israel with the support of the Trump Administration to create a trade corridor linking the Persian Gulf region with Europe.
The benefit for Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Persian Gulf region is that trade would be more secure and travel time decreased as goods would take overland routes that circumvent threats in the straits of Hormuz and Babel Mandap, avoiding Iran and Yemen. The initiative would also help diversify regional economies.
Another project is in the Saudi city of Neom, which sits at the entrance of the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea. This $500 billion megaproject, roughly 33 times larger than New York City, will be the epicenter for biotechnology, digital services, sustainable businesses, and manufacturing in the region.
The Neom initiative is part of a broader Saudi plan to diversify the kingdom’s economy and move it beyond oil. This is the jewel in the crown of Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman’s initiative to integrate regional markets and attract foreign direct investment.
The key component in the Neom megaproject is the construction of a bridge linking Saudi Arabia to Egypt and Jordan in the narrow chokepoint across the Straits of Tiran.
However, the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt protects Israeli access to the Red Sea. Israel already agreed to a Red Sea islands deal with Egypt to make way for the development, but does not have diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. The only way the Neom megaproject can be practical is if Saudi Arabia and Israel normalize relations. However, the Biden Administration seems less interested in playing a major role.
The consequences for Saudi Arabia are very high. As Iran is boosting its influence and Israel is normalizing with key Arab states, Saudi Arabia stands to lose with Trump no longer president. Moreover, Biden recently announced that the U.S. will no longer support the disastrous Saudi offensive military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Biden is more interested in confronting America’s peer competitor China and disruptive Russia by shoring up traditional alliances, such as NATO, and supporting international institutions with diplomacy and multilateral cooperation. Israel and Saudi Arabia are not part of that equation.
Most important, with the U.S. now back in the Paris Climate Accords and promises made to move the U.S. economy beyond fossil fuels, the Persian Gulf region will be less important in U.S. national security.
Biden has also reasserted democracy and human rights as centerpieces in foreign policy, which means America’s association with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is a liability.
The security and prosperity of Israel and Saudi Arabia are now tied to whether they can normalize relations. A recent poll shows that while Saudis favor a pathway to normalization, most across the region oppose it.
Normalization may come down to Saudi Arabia taking the time to convince others that normalization with Israel is a geopolitical and geo-economic win.
Biden’s decision to re-enter nuclear talks with Iran will drive Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states toward one another as the U.S. pursues diplomatic relations with all major players in the region.
Chris Dolan is a professor of politics and global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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