In a flash, Saudi Arabia has gone from courted to ostracized, shunned on the international stage. In Israel, too, some are calling to keep Saudi Arabia at arm’s length because it fails to meet the ethical standards separating the world’s dark dictatorships and enlightened Western countries, and because it has shown itself, in retrospect, to be a flimsy ally in times of crisis.
The veritable public “lynching” of Saudi Arabia is not without hypocrisy, especially because the leader of the mob, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has single-handedly wiped out democracy and journalistic freedom in his own country. What we are seeing, therefore, is the capriciousness and power games the Turkish president so enjoys and which form the basis for his rather unsuccessful foreign policy.
Herein lies the problem. In a “perfect world” Turkey, as a country that looks ahead, should have steered the region in the face of its many challenges and been a trustworthy ally to the Americans. No less importantly, it should have functioned as the anchor for a regional campaign against Iran. Erdoğan, however, chose to distance himself from the Sunni Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and debilitated his relations with Israel to new lows.
The Saudis have had to fill the vacuum left behind by Turkey. They haven’t balked at facing the Iranians and their allies, even when the U.S. administration turned them a cold shoulder.
As a country, Saudi Arabia has its fair share of problems and there’s credence to the claim that it’s weaker than it outwardly appears. Attempts to depict the Saudis and the other Persian Gulf states as omnipotent regional powers—whose rapprochement with Israel will solve all their problems and allow them to form a powerful front against Iran, and perhaps even help forge a peace deal with the Palestinians—are hyperbolic.
Similar to Jordan under former King Hussein though, Saudi Arabia also has considerable strength. Perhaps some officials in Washington or Europe wish the West’s regional interests were aligned with Iran, as was the case when it was ruled by the Shah. But today Iran is Russia’s ally, serving and advancing its regional aspirations and expansion, while Turkey is dependent on the whims of its frantic, reactionary president.
On the other end, Saudi Arabia’s conduct projects stability and continuity. With all due respect, or not, to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he presides over a system that has never allowed one single person to lead it and has been able to balance out the impulses of its rulers.
The ever-growing relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia must be viewed from a sober perspective. We shouldn’t overstate the supposed power the kingdom projects, but we also shouldn’t downplay the sources of its strength. As of now, Israel and the United States don’t have another partner in the region, not one as reliable and stable as Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis erred in assassinating journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Turkish soil, and as a result they are now the “criminal of the day” and communal punching bag.
The punches, however, won’t turn Saudi Arabia, like many other places in the world for that matter, into a bastion of journalistic freedom and human rights.
Quite the opposite, they will only bolster regional forces such as Iran, which hasn’t only killed journalists and members of the opposition, but recently half a million Syrians as well; in addition to its machinations towards Israel, which it has made abundantly clear. Israel, therefore, would do well to use its influence, particularly in the United States, to help resolve the current fallout between Saudi Arabia and the West.
Eyal Zisser is a lecturer in the Middle East History Department at Tel Aviv University.