For several decades now, senior economic and national security experts and officials from the US, Europe and the Gulf have met in Athens to review and discuss global events. It was at one such meeting, small-scale Davos and Bilderberg if you like, I first heard the alarm bells ring of the impending financial crisis a decade ago.
As a friend and defender of Israel, the sessions on the Middle East have not always been comfortable. In spite of a Jewish presence of Harvard economists, the attendance of high-level Saudi Arabian officials often meant sessions dealing with the Gulf and Israel-Palestine have been hostile. Nevertheless, one has always found the Saudi representatives – including the oil minister and head of the monetary authority – to be unfailingly friendly and courteous.
It has long been stated quietly and recently more noisily by Israeli officials that relations with Gulf neighbours and notably Saudi Arabia have improved immeasurably. The common interest of the ‘moderate’ Arab states and Israel is to combat an arch of Islamic extremism from Iran, through Syria and ISIS in Iraq with ambitions to extend influence in the Gulf. The Houthi rebels, at present being bombed by Saudi planes (with the assistance of British and US weaponry), form part of that radical fundamentalist axis with a disdain for the Jewish state.
The conviction that Saudi Arabia and Israel are now on the same page in the Mid East has been more warmly embraced by Benjamin Netanyahu and supporters than Riyadh. When I mentioned this to a senior Saudi at last year’s seminar, the credibility of such reports was directly challenged. In 2018, there is a notable change.
First order of business for Saudi participants was to praise the steps taken by the great moderniser ‘MBS’ (as he is affectionately named), Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, last spotted living it up with Vladimir Putin at the opening game of the World Cup.
Among the reforms of the great moderniser extolled by colleagues are the opening of the roads and commercial premises to women drivers and workers. A second change is the demotion of the austere Wahhabi Islam of the pre-MBS kingdom, which in the past has funded mosque building round the world and has been seen in the West as responsible for backing al-Qaeda.
MBS has also tamed corruption by locking up Saudi oligarchs, forcing them from the luxury prison of the Westin Hotel to pay billions in fines to the state and to clean up their behaviour. The final domestic element of the MBS modernisation is Saudi Vision 2030, a plan that seeks to open the economy to overseas investment.
MBS’s reforms also look to have started a new public realpolitik. The same Saudi officials who once seemed embarrassed by any link with Israel seem to take it for granted a new relationship beckons. In presentations and ringside chats, it is acknowledged MBS advocates a fresh diplomacy.
Plainly, President Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem was unhelpful and had to be protested. Similarly, the violence and carnage on the Gaza border, whatever the provocation, could not be condoned. Yet it is clear by the standards of the past the noise of protest from Arab capitals and on the street has been muted.
The Saudis on parade don’t like what has happened but they are committed to the two-state solution to the Mid East conflict, whatever the long-term plans of the Netanyahu government.
The bottom line is the tone of the discourse on Israel has changed radically and it would appear MBS wants to be part of the solution not an obstacle – an advance in thinking among the Gulf states which offers a glimmer of hope amid recent darkness.