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Saudi-Israel normalisation means greater Middle East repression, experts say

Experts say that push to normalise relations between the two countries runs counter to US goal of promoting democracy across the world
A plaque used to reserve the seat of the delegation from Israel is seen during the UNESCO Extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh on 11 September 2023.
The Israeli seat at Unesco's extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh, on 11 September 2023 (AFP)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

The potential normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel would lead to a greater state of autocracy and repression in the Middle East region, several experts said on Tuesday.

During the eighth annual conference of the Arab Center think tank in Washington, DC, experts on Middle East policy discussed the nature of a possible normalisation agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, a central foreign policy goal of the Biden administration. 

The Biden administration has touted any future agreement as a "transformative moment" that would move the region from turmoil to stability.

"It's a colossal distortion of reality for anyone who has spent any time in the region and on the ground," said Nader Hashimi, director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. 

Hashmi termed a Saudi-Israeli normalisation plan as "wishful thinking at best".

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"It's a political disaster in the making at worst that will further destabilise the Middle East." 

For months, the Biden administration has been publicly stating its intention to broker a deal between Israel and the kingdom, following through on the Donald Trump administration's successful brokering of similar agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco.

"These deals that are supported by American foreign policy are really dependent on, predicated on, the persistence of authoritarian repressive regimes in the Middle East, while ignoring the core aspirations of the region's people for political freedom, accountable government, and self-determination."

During an interview with Fox News that aired last week, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated that they are getting closer to such an agreement "every day".

Experts said that the push to normalise relations between the two countries, which could lead to a number of concessions for the Saudi kingdom, including US assistance in developing a civil nuclear programme, runs counter to the Biden administration's stated goal of promoting democracy across the world.

"Authoritarian regimes are ascendant everywhere, while democratic opposition groups, civil societies and social protest movements are severely repressed, especially in the Arab world," said Hashemi.

'The Abraham Accords have been very damaging to local conditions, both for pro-democracy movements and groups that exist, but also for pro-democracy sentiment'

- Dana el-Kurd, University of Richmond

Dana el-Kurd, an assistant professor at the University of Richmond, said that in the months and years following the normalisation deals brokered by the Trump administration - dubbed by Washington as the Abraham Accords - pro-democracy efforts in the Arab world were further quelled by governments in the region.

"The Abraham Accords have been very damaging to local conditions, both for pro-democracy movements and groups that exist, but also for pro-democracy sentiment because they do not address structural causes of violence, and they rely on state coercion to be implemented," Kurd said during the conference on Tuesday.

At the same time, given that pro-Palestinian sentiment is widespread across the region and in many countries tied to civil society, the crushing of pro-democracy movements and pro-Palestinian voices goes hand-in-hand.

"Arab public opinion is pro-Palestinian. This has been corroborated a number of times with a number of different studies," said Kurd.

"When regimes pursue these normalisation deals with Israel, often with a lot of US fanfare and support, they know that they are doing something unpopular. They know that inevitably, there will be some level of dissent and outright opposition, which from their perspective then requires repression."

Transnational repression

Kurd also shared concerns that cementing diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel could lead to Arab governments becoming increasingly involved in transnational repression.

The US-based advocacy group, the Freedom Initiative, issued a report earlier this year stating that both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have become increasingly sophisticated and emboldened to target critics and dissidents residing on American soil.

The report said that more than two-thirds of 72 people interviewed - with personal or professional ties to Egypt and Saudi Arabia - said that they have been subjected to acts of repression in the US.

"Arab regimes have a new partner now and a more open and broader way in transnational repression," said Kurd.

An open, official relationship between Israel and the Arab world allows governments to more openly partner in the field of technology, military, and surveillance.

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A 2022 report by The New York Times found that the Israeli spyware Pegasus has been a staple tool of Israel's diplomacy in the Gulf region. The report said that the UAE purchased the notorious software in 2013.

Riyadh purchased the Pegasus software in 2017, years before talk of normalisation between the two countries started, according to the report.

"What's happening is an intensification of these efforts, and we've seen a proliferation of aggressive technologies, not just in terms of defence systems and military aid and things like this, but also in terms of surveillance," Kurd said.

On the other hand, the normalisation of Israel among Arab countries also works to embolden Israel's treatment of Palestinians, which has been deemed apartheid by several rights groups and UN experts.

The normalisation agreements during the Trump administration were described by the UAE and the other countries involved as a move that would freeze the construction of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. However, within weeks of the deal, Israel approved the construction of new settlement units.

Saudi Arabia has said that Riyadh is working to establish a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. However, at the UN General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used a map to promote Israel, showing the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as being a part of Israel in 1948.

"All of these things have led to a situation where Israel is not only emboldened, as I said, it is rewarded. And the Arab world is in disarray," Hanan Ashrawi, a former executive committee member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, said during Tuesday's conference.

"Israel is in the grip of a very facist, bloodthirsty, ethnocentric theocracy that is defying the whole world, and yet there's a mad rush and obsessive approach to normalising with Israel."

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