Prior to the brutal Iran-Iraq war, Iraq was an emerging contender for leadership over the Arab world while Iran vied for regional dominance. However, the two states suffered millions of casualties and catastrophic damage to their economies during the eight-year war, which, in turn, benefitted Israel, the other leading regional power. In the war’s aftermath, Iraq—Israel’s main threat—and Iran—which had certainly posed a threat to the Arab Gulf states—were severely weakened. This shift in the regional balance of power enabled Saudi Arabia and Israel to become the region’s strongest military powers and largest economies.
Although, in recent years, the Middle East has witnessed the emergence of a revitalized Iran capable of exercising significant influence over the affairs of states such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. This development essentially represents a return to the dynamic of three strong states in the Middle East. Now, as Israeli efforts to form a military alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to counter Iranian influence intensify, it is critical to evaluate the stances of these states vis-à-vis the question of regional warfare.
It is clear that Israel perceives Iran as its largest threat in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also been exposed to their fair share of Iranian aggression via Houthi attacks on their oil facilities and tankers. However, whereas Israel is posturing for a more offensive approach to Iran (by, for example, promoting ideas about a “Middle East Air Defense Alliance,” attacking Iranian targets in Syria, and being increasingly open about a military confrontation with Iran), the Gulf states have been engaging in active diplomacy to mend relations with Iran and have denied the existence of any plans for a military alliance with Israel.
In 2021, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) stated that Saudi Arabia “aspires to have a good and distinguished relationship with Iran.” More recently, MBS also referred to Iran as “a neighbor forever.” The positive tone of these announcements by MBS are in line with the diplomatic effort launched by Iran and Saudi Arabia to initiate negotiations in Iraq. On the Emirati side, Anwar Gargash, diplomatic advisor to Mohammed bin Zayed, expressed Abu Dhabi’s intent to send a new ambassador to Iran and emphasized that the UAE is “not open to establishing an axis against any country in the region, especially Iran.” The fact that this announcement was made on the day of Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia—which aimed, in part, to encourage greater cooperation from Arab Gulf states in allying with Israel—reveals just how much the Emiratis are unwilling to bend on Iranian relations. However, the primary question is why the Gulf states do not want a military alliance with Israel to counter Iran.
First, it is important to contextualize this ongoing situation within American efforts to exit the Middle East and pivot to deal with the looming Chinese threat to U.S. global hegemony. In this sense, the Gulf states have become more aware of the need to fend for themselves and resolve differences with Iran (especially for Saudi Arabia in relation to Yemen, and the Emirates regarding its own security). Iran, on the other hand, would benefit economically from ending its isolation from the rest of the Gulf. With Kuwait having recently sent a new ambassador for the first time in six years, the UAE noting their intent to send an ambassador, and Saudi Arabia allowing Iran to reopen its representative office to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah, there are optimistic signs of a general rapprochement with Iran.
Second, it is critical to be conscious of other dimensions of Iranian relations with the Gulf states. As previously mentioned, exhaustive efforts have been undertaken by Saudi Arabia and Iran to engage in negotiations in Iraq. However, while both sides see the value of reaching a negotiated settlement, the process is fragile. It is not difficult to see that any military alliance with Israel would be a flagrant violation of the spirit of negotiations, which could lead to the withdrawal of Iran and its return to a hostile stance against Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Entering a military alliance with Israel would spoil all the diplomatic work Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have conducted so far. Additionally, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are more geographically vulnerable to Iranian attacks and would, thus, have more reason to oppose military confrontation with Tehran.
Finally, in the context of Saudi Arabia’s potential normalization with Israel, the Kingdom would be better off using negotiations (or in the future, relations with Iran) as leverage over Israel when determining the nature of any potential relations with Tel Aviv. In fact, restoring cordial relations with Tehran could enable the Kingdom to have a stronger say in negotiations with its Israeli counterparts. In this situation, Israel would have to work harder in negotiations to convince Saudi Arabia to alter its policies. This could lead to significant concessions for Riyadh, particularly in relation to its stated objective of solving the Palestinian question prior to normalization with Israel. Ultimately, it is necessary to enter talks with Israel from a position of strength—a principle that the Saudis are aware of.
Successful rapprochement with Iran could lead to a reaffirmation of Saudi Arabia’s position in the regional balance of power. However, a situation of increasing hostility between the two countries is one that Israel could exploit to pressure Saudi Arabia and the UAE to take a more openly confrontational stance against Iran. If such a situation were to escalate further and encourage war to break out, Iran and Saudi Arabia would be at the heart of the conflict, with other Arab states as collateral, while Israel’s focus would pivot to the relatively less threatening Iranian proxies and allies on its borders. Other effects of regional war would include disruption to the world’s oil supply, mass westward refugee influxes, and an exacerbation of international tensions. Furthermore, the damage to Saudi and Iranian regional power would be catastrophic by the time a cease-fire agreement could be reached, thus allowing Israel to significantly strengthen its position in the regional balance of power. In such a scenario, Israel would be even better poised to further consolidate its occupation of the Palestinian territories and pursue its broader regional interests.
Ultimately, an anti-Iran military alliance between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel could set the scene for regional warfare—a situation that would benefit Tel Aviv at the cost of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s regional standing. However, if the Gulf states persist in their diplomatic efforts with Iran, they can deflect Israeli pressure to form such an alliance, which will pay dividends for Saudi Arabia’s position in the regional balance of power.
Ali Alsayegh is a PhD Candidate and Postgraduate Teaching Associate of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies (IAIS). His current academic work revolves around developing the theory of Emotional Entrepreneurialism in the field of political mobilization. Follow him on Twitter: @_AliAlsayegh.