Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia's intelligence chief, meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin)
On Aug. 29, when I published an article entitled "The Saudi-Israeli Superpower" describing an emerging odd-couple alliance between those two traditional enemies, the story was met with skepticism in some quarters. But, increasingly, this secret alliance is going public.
On Oct. 2, Israel's Channel 2 TV news reported that senior Israeli security officials met with a high-level Gulf state counterpart in Jerusalem, believed to be Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States and now head of Saudi intelligence.
Amid the bellicosity, Netanyahu dropped in a largely missed clue about the evolving power relationships in the Middle East, saying: "The dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran and the emergence of other threats in our region have led many of our Arab neighbors to recognize, finally recognize, that Israel is not their enemy. And this affords us the opportunity to overcome the historic animosities and build new relationships, new friendships, new hopes."
And, a day before that TV report, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hinted at the new relationship in his United Nations General Assembly speech, which was largely devoted to excoriating Iran over its nuclear program and threatening a unilateral Israeli military strike.
Besides the shared Saudi-Israeli animosity toward Iran, the growing behind-the-scenes collaboration also revolves around mutual interests in supporting the military coup in Egypt that removed the elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and in seeking to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria.
In mid-September, Israel's Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren even embraced the Saudi strategy in Syria when he announced that Israel would prefer to see the Saudi-backed jihadists prevail in Syria over the continuation of the Iran-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad.
"The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc," Oren told the Jerusalem Post in an interview. "We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren't backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran."
Saudi Arabia, which follows the ultraconservative Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam, shares Israeli's strategic view that the Shiite crescent, stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to the Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon, must be broken.
Further advancing the Saudi-Israeli detente is the presence of the worldly Bandar bin Sultan as Saudi Arabia's new intelligence chief. As the former Saudi ambassador to the United States who worked closely with the neocon administration of George W. Bush, Bandar doesn't share the crude anti-Semitism and visceral antipathy toward Israel that some earlier Saudi leaders did. He is a savvy player who understands the chess board of global geopolitics.
The emerging Saudi-Israeli alliance also reflects a recognition that the two countries have complementary "soft power" strengths that -- when combined -- could create a new superpower in the Middle East and arguably the world. While the Israelis are masters of propaganda and political lobbying (especially in the United States), Saudi Arabia can pull strings through its extraordinary access to oil and money.
Israel and Saudi Arabia showed how their new tag-team approach worked when they supported the Egyptian military in its bloody coup against the elected Morsi government in Egypt. While Saudi Arabia assured the coup regime a steady flow of money and oil, the Israelis went to work through their lobby in Washington to insure that President Barack Obama and Congress would not declare the coup a coup and thus trigger a cutoff of U.S. military aid.
On another level, Saudi Arabia can tap into its deep well of cash to finance "irregular" forces including al-Qaeda-connected jihadists who can then be deployed to attack regional adversaries, such as Assad in Syria, or even to inflict pain on traditional superpowers.
According to a leaked diplomatic account of a July 31 meeting in Moscow, Bandar informed Russian President Vladimir Putin that Saudi Arabia has strong influence over Chechen extremists who have carried out numerous terrorist attacks against Russian targets and have recently been deployed to fight the Assad government in Syria.
Amid Bandar's calls for Russian cooperation with the Saudi position on Syria, Bandar reportedly offered guarantees of protection from Chechen terror attacks on next year's Winter Olympic Games hosted by Russia in the city of Sochi. "I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics in the city of Sochi on the Black Sea next year," Bandar reportedly said. "The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us."
According to this account, Putin responded, "We know that you have supported the Chechen terrorist groups for a decade. And that support, which you have frankly talked about just now, is completely incompatible with the common objectives of fighting global terrorism."