Saudi Arabia Is No Ally for Israel

Mohammed bin Salman is a far greater strategic liability for Israel than its disastrous romance with another reckless, ruthless and treacherous strongman: Idi Amin

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Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony at the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 23, 2018
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a graduation ceremony at the King Faisal Air Academy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia December 23, 2018Credit: \ Handout ./ REUTERS

Earlier this month, Iranian President Hassan Rohani implored Iranians to curse the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is no surprise coming from the Iranian regime, but it is also the latest response to the burgeoning, albeit unofficial, Israeli ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

No doubt these new developments are tempting, especially for the long-isolated Israel. But its once-blooming, then-sour relationship with Ugandan President Idi Amin in the 1970s offers a core lesson: rush into bed with Saudi Arabia at your own peril.

Israeli relations with Idi Amin defined his eight-year rule of Uganda, and the roots of the Amin-Israel romance run deep. Before his overthrow of Milton Obote in 1971, Amin trained with Israeli paratroopers.  As a rising officer in Obote’s army, Amin helped Israelis funnel weapons to the Anyanya insurgent group in neighboring Sudan, against the wishes of Obote and with the help of Israel’s military attache.

That Israeli diplomat’s advice - that Amin build up his own army battalion - helped propel the officer to the presidency.

Ugandan President Idi Amin is carried in a chair by four British businessmen during a party for diplomats in this July 1975 file photo in Kampala, UgandaCredit: AP

Amin’s relationship with the Jewish state blossomed at the outset of his presidency. His first diplomatic visit was not to the United Kingdom or the United States, but to Israel.

But things changed when Amin attempted to buy Israeli fighter jets, which he hoped to use against Obote-led forces regrouping in Tanzania. When the Israelis refused, Amin approached Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi, who stepped in where Israel would not. Qaddafi's one condition: reverse course on relations with the Jewish State.

Amin changed course with ease, deporting Israeli citizens from Uganda and subsequently turning the Israeli Embassy into a PLO outpost. His forces murdered, tortured, and imprisoned members of the Ugandan Jewish community. And, of course, he supported the hijackers of Air France flight 139, and his troops protected them and their hostages at Entebbe airport in 1976.

As the Netanyahu government continues to deepen its relations with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), the ghosts of diplomacy past have begun to resurface.

In a throwback to the 1970s, Israel is providing assistance that may help MBS consolidate power domestically. While Israeli aid came in the form of weapons and military training and advice in Uganda, Israel’s assistance to Saudi Arabia today runs through the cyber industry. MBS and his allies reportedly used an advanced cyber-surveillance system built and sold by an Israeli company to target Saudi dissidents and critics. 

And if recent reports on the Israel side are any indication, cooperation is likely to deepen. In 2017, then-Israeli energy minister Yuval Steinitz confirmed high-level covert contacts with Saudi Arabia concerning the Iranian threat. Later that year, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot gave an "unprecedented interview" to Elaph, a Saudi-owned outlet, whom he told "there is complete agreement between us and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" on the Iran issue.

A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 25, 2018Credit: \ Osman Orsal/ REUTERS

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the murder of former Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi last year, he took a softer stance than most, saying that the killing was "balanced by the importance of Saudi Arabia and the role it plays in the Middle East."

Today, MBS is reciprocating with diplomatic overtures, though they are much more veiled than those employed by Amin. The Crown Prince drew criticism last year throughout the Arab world for a statement of implicit support for recognizing Israel. Last March, Saudi officials gave Air India permission to route flights from New Delhi to Tel Aviv through Saudi airspace

But in light of the Saudi government’s past stances on Israel and Judaism and the Crown Prince’s aggressive and reckless behavior, the Israeli government should anticipate the possibility of a sudden, Amin-esque reversal of relations. The Saudi government’s record on anti-Semitism is troubling. King Salman once blamed the Mossad for the 9/11 attacks, and his government continues to produce textbooks rife with anti-Semitic passages

Saudi Arabia's King Salman attends the opening session of the 30th Arab League summit in the Tunisian capital Tunis, Sunday, March 31, 2019Credit: Fethi Belaid,AP

The Crown Prince’s own behavior should be even more worrying than his country’s unsavory record. Like Amin before him, MBS has turned on his own allies. In 2017, his regime kidnapped Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whom he had previously backed. More recently, he ordered the murder of Khashoggi, a former adviser to the Saudi royal family, in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

But the trouble with the Crown Prince is that he may be even more reckless than he is treacherous. He inherited a proxy campaign in Yemen that was a challenge, at best, before his involvement. Thanks in large part to his efforts, Yemen has become a Vietnam-style quagmire.

The sum of all these Saudi mistakes is risk lurking on Israel’s horizon. If anything, bin Salman’s proximity to Israel is a greater strategic liability than were ties with Idi Amin.

President Donald Trump smiles at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after signing a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights at the White House. March 25, 2019Credit: Susan Walsh,AP

Because of the Crown Prince’s many ill-advised decisions, partnership with Saudi Arabia is as polarizing in the United States as ever. Coupled with Netanyahu’s controversial embrace of President Donald Trump, this could spell major political trouble for Israel in the United States - in 2020 and beyond.

To be sure, the Amin-MBS parallel is imperfect. Amin was the ruler of his country, while MBS, though powerful, is not yet king. Further, Amin offered Israel no help in combating a greater strategic threat, while MBS can provide Israel an opportunity and avenue for countering Iran’s growing, malign influence in the Middle East.

Yet MBS remains a reckless and risky partner. No doubt Israel should pursue its strategic interests to alter the balance of power in its favor, especially as the Iranian threat looms large. But as it does, it should be wary of its past mistakes in Entebbe as it is romanced by Riyadh.

Zachary Shapiro is a research associate for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The Bulwark, Politico Magazine, and The National Interest. Twitter: @z_shapiro