Israel has new Sunni friends in the ‘southern arc’ but will they survive?

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By Norman Bailey

Cooperation with Sunni Arab countries against Iran is welcome, but it does not yet look reliable.

For a long time now, analysts and commentators have been talking about the northern or Sh’ia arc and the southern or Sunni arc in the Arab Middle East.

Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, and Egypt's President al-Sisi.
Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egypt’s President al-Sisi.

The northern arc is led by The Islamic Republic of Iran and includes much of Iraq, the Alawites in Syria and half of Lebanon, and the Lebanon-based Hizbullah terrorist group. It is in conflict with the Sunni arc and with the terrorist “Caliphate” of Islamic State.

The southern arc includes Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and increasingly, Israel. All of the Arab states of the southern arc are ruled either by traditional monarchies or by a military dictatorship (Egypt). They all, with two exceptions, cooperate in defense, security and intelligence matters with the Jewish state, although most of such collaboration is carried on below the radar. The exceptions are Qatar and Oman.

In recent months multiple indications have emerged that the relationship is becoming more open and not limited to defense/security/intelligence matters. There have also been new indications of domestic social and economic openings in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has unveiled an economic plan envisioning the transformation of the desert monarchy from a petro-state to a diversified economy, with up to 30 percent female participation in the work force. Similar rather hesitant and timid measures have been taken in Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain and especially the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

From Egyptian president al-Sisi to the Prime Minister of the UAE statements have been made indicating an openness to other countries and cultures and opposition to extremist Islam.

The Sunni arc’s terror of a potentially nuclear Iran and rampaging terrorist organizations such as Islamic State are impelling these developments. The Israeli government has adopted a cautious but welcoming attitude towards these developments, as is entirely appropriate.

However, several words of caution are warranted here. al-Sisi’s government, initially very popular, has steadily been losing public support due to the deteriorating economic situation and its inability to crush the Islamist extremists in the Sinai. His downfall would likely be followed by an Islamist government and a rapprochement with Hamas in Gaza.

Saudi Arabia remains one of the most repressive governments in the world. If Prince Mohammed’s reforms do not include curbing the power of the Wahhabi religious establishment, they are unlikely to be effective.

While President al-Sisi and King Abdullah are friendly to Israel, their respective legislatures are not.

The president of the Jordanian parliament is virulently anti-Israel and openly speaks of his differences in this regard with Abdullah. The Egyptian legislature expelled one of its members for the unforgivable transgression of inviting the Israeli ambassador to lunch.

As of now, cooperation and rapprochement with Israel is skin-deep. Anti-Israeli and anti-semitic attitudes run much deeper.

It behooves Israel to be appropriately cautious in its new relationships with the countries of the southern arc. By all means continue to engage in and encourage collaboration at all levels, but do not assume that the new attitudes and policies are necessarily destined to continue.

Caveat emptor — let the buyer beware.

Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft at The Institute of World Politics, Washington, D.C., and a researcher at the Center for National Security Studies, University of Haifa. He was formerly with the U.S. National Security Council and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.