By Mohammad Mazhari

MBS seems hasty for normalization with Israel: ex-Japanese diplomat

March 2, 2021 - 17:27

TEHRAN – A former Japanese diplomat says that Saudi de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is enthusiastic about normalizing Riyadh’s ties with Tel-Aviv despite the fact that most Saudi people have a negative view towards Israel. 

"Saudi Arabia, especially MBS, seems hasty for normalization with Israel, but the Saudi crown prince is still cautious about pushing normalization with Israel," Shuji Hosaka, the visiting professor of Waseda University in Japan, tells the Tehran Times.

In the closing months of 2020, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan have normalized ties with Israel. Analysts firmly believe that normalizations would not have taken place without a green light by Saudi Arabia.

Despite the Saudi-U.S. honeymoon during Trump's presidency and rapprochement between some Arab regimes and Israel, the Biden administration has decided to shift policies when it comes to West Asia.

While certain Persian Gulf Arab states established a coalition against Iran in collaboration with Israel, the result of presidential election in the U.S. have changed the balance against these regimes.  

Hosaka says Saudi Arabia enthusiastically supported Donald Trump “because of his hostile policy against Iran."

The release of an intelligence report by the Biden administration, in which it has been revealed that the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in October 2018 upon a direct order of bin Salma, the relations between Washington and Riyadh is entering a new phase.

"The victory of Biden was a big shock for the current Saudi regime," the former Japanese diplomat notes.

Following is the text of the interview:

Q: How do you see Saudi Arabia's role in sponsoring extremist groups in West Asia, especially in Pakistan?

A: I don't think the Saudi Arabian government is sponsoring extremist groups and ideologies in Pakistan and other Muslim countries in recent days.  However, before 9/11, some NGOs related to official organizations or private institutions of KSA had helped such extremist groups in Muslim countries.  After 9/11, especially after 2003, when al-Qaeda or terrorist groups had targeted KSA with similar ideology, the Saudi government started to suppress such groups or individuals inside the Kingdom.  Officially, Saudi Arabia is supposed to stop supporting most extremist groups inside and outside the country in the early 2000s. Of course, a lot of clandestine terrorist groups that remain in Saudi Arabia continue to finance extremist organizations abroad and still have some influence among Saudis.  

Q: Why has the Biden administration decided to reduce its support for Saudi Arabia? Is Biden punishing Saudi princes because of their close ties with Trump?

A: Even during the election campaign, Biden declared the change of the policy towards Saudi Arabia, mainly due to the Saudi role in Yemen, human rights, and the Khashoggi murder case.  Their close ties with Trump was not the main reason for Biden's unfavorable attitude towards Saudi Arabia.

I understand Saudi Arabia enthusiastically had supported Trump because of his hostile policy against Iran. So, the victory of Biden was a big shock for the current Saudi regime.  But, as many Saudi princes are realists, they are going to adjust their foreign policy, I believe.

Q: Some believe that bin Salman's social reforms in Saudi Arabia are a pretext to cover up lack of democracy in the country. What is your comment?

A: Partly yes. But even though many young Saudis welcome the move initiated by Mohammed bin Salman.  Saudi political leaders do not proceed with democratic reform, but, at the same time, many Saudis don't want bold political reforms, causing frictions among society and sometimes don't want democracy itself. As a person in a free democratic country like Japan, I am really disappointed.

Q: Is there any hope that Iran and Saudi Arabia can resolve their differences now that Biden has taken power in the U.S.? Do you think that the Iranian Hormoz Peace Initiative is practical?

A: I still remember the time of the intimate relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran during the period of then Crown Prince Abdullah and Presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani.  That means both countries can solve the problem.  And leaders of both countries claim the problems should be solved through dialogue and diplomacy.

However, there is a mutual distrust right now.  It is very difficult to achieve peace in the region by one-sided initiatives, including Iran's Hormoz Peace Initiative.

Q: How do you assess the Israeli-Saudi relations after a normalization between some Persian Gulf states and Israel?

A: Middle East (West Asia) Peace Process has stalled for long years, while Israeli pressure is getting harder and harder.  Arab countries have to do something to restart the process, either forward or backward.  Normalization is one of the answers for restarting the peace process from Arab countries' viewpoints.  Saudi Arabia, especially MBS, seems hasty for normalization with Israel, but the Saudi crown prince is still cautious about pushing normalization with Israel because the majority of Saudis harbor ill-feeling towards Israel and believe in a Palestinian cause, including the King himself.

If MBS and Saudis recognize that the Iranian influence in Arab countries is getting bigger, it will bring Saudi Arabia and Israel into a closer relationship.

Q: How do you foresee developments in the West Asia region given the continuing war in Yemen and possible fate of bin Salman?

A: I think there are three important points for predicting the future of the Middle East (West Asia); one is the COVID-19, second is America's return to the JCPOA and the Yemen war.

President Biden has shifted the U.S. policy towards the Middle East (West Asia) since his inauguration.  Biden stopped the support for the coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen and at the same time, he promised the U.S. would defend Saudi Arabia from Iranian threats.  This will be a big step for Saudi Arabia to withdraw from Yemen while saving MBS's face.

If the U.S. return to the JCPOA will trigger the change of Iranian foreign policies, a more positive situation will come out in Yemen.  Anyhow, the establishment of peace in Yemen needs bold compromises from every stakeholder in the region, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran.

As for the future of MBS, Saudi Vision 2030 will be a very important key in his stable rule, and he will have to produce great results from his vision after restoring the Saudi economy heavily damaged by the COVID-19 and strong decarbonization policy in the Western countries.

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