Can Saudi Arabia Lead the Arab World to Peace?

This article was published in English and Arabic on 6 May 2015 in

Reasonable people can disagree over the wisdom of Saudi Arabia's decision to intervene in Yemen. Nonetheless, this intervention has demonstrated that when threatened, Riyadh can exert its military, political, religious, and financial clout to goad fellow Arab and Muslim states into armed conflict. Saudi Arabia's action sends a strong message: when it comes to security, the kingdom means business. But is King Salman also committed to broader regional peace, and are the Saudis willing to lead such an effort?

For its campaign in Yemen, the Saudis mobilized six of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members--excluding Oman--as well as Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco. The Saudi position is clear: the Houthis are an Iranian proxy advancing Tehran's interests and ambitions in the kingdom's sphere of influence. The air campaign has claimed at least 1,000 Yemeni lives, with many more Yemenis wounded and displaced and a large part of the country's infrastructure destroyed. Saudi Arabia justifies its action as a needed response to pernicious‎ behavior by Iran and its proxy in Yemen.

The fundamental makeover underway in the region presents many challenges--sectarian, ethnic, and racial divisions, the spread of terrorism, the breakdown of states. In response, Saudi Arabia spent at least $80 billion on weapons in 2014 and will likely spend more in 2015. But Saudi and the other Arab states are mistaken if they believe that the only solution to the turmoil is military.

Many observers have argued that the Sunni Arab countries see Iran and Hezbollah, not Israel, as the enemy. Cooperating with Israel to curb Iran's influence in the region should no longer be taboo or obfuscated. It is an open secret in Washington that Saudi Arabia and Israel are similarly concerned over a potential U.S. deal with Iran that does not address Iranian regional aspirations. Israel's decision to attend the United Nations non-proliferation conference, which began on April 27, after a twenty-year absence is a clear indicator that Israel wants more open dialogue with key Arab states.

For Riyadh and the other GCC states, the upcoming Camp David summit with President Obama in mid-May will provide an excellent occasion to demonstrate a genuine interest in strategic diplomacy. They should come prepared with constructive and coherent ideas on a strategy that involves Israel as a partner in containing Iran. It would be a healthy and courageous step if the Arabs institutionalized what they are already doing sub rosa with Tel Aviv. The Gulf states expect the United States to provide them with measurable security reassurance. Their wish list is likely to contain advanced weapons technology and systems, but no matter the request, the United States will not allow it to undermine Israel's qualitative military edge. This requirement should be a strong incentive for Saudi Arabia to engage in a genuine normalization process with Israel, the results of which would be beneficial to both Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

How would Saudi Arabia and Israel pursue open cooperation? Taking into account its coalition-building efforts in Yemen, Saudi Arabia could promote resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through a determined reinvigoration of its Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. A signing of the initiative would allow Saudi and the other Arab states to normalize ties with Israel, thereby depriving the Iranians of a key source of influence among Sunni Arabs and clear the path for effective regional cooperation to counterbalance Iran. Of course, the Saudis would need to be sure that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is prepared to actually offer something meaningful up front to make it worth their while.

The current chaos in the Middle East presents great dangers but also unprecedented opportunities for geopolitical realignments, which Saudi Arabia is primed to lead. There are plenty of reasons for doubts, but who knows? There is a new Saudi sheriff in town, Defense Minister Muhammad bin Salman, and he seems willing to take risks.