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Saudi diplomacy could reshape region, Israeli journalist tells WEF

People attend the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, on Jan. 16, 2024. (Reuters)
People attend the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, on Jan. 16, 2024. (Reuters)
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20 Jan 2024 01:01:14 GMT9
20 Jan 2024 01:01:14 GMT9
  • Barak Ravid: Potential Hezbollah-Israel war would make Gaza ‘look like a walk in the park’
  • Iranian scholar: ‘No Arab country will accept Iranian political or military dominance in the region’

Caspar Webb

LONDON: Strategic deals launched by powers including Saudi Arabia could reshape a region simmering with tensions, an Israeli journalist on a panel at the World Economic Forum said on Friday.

In the panel titled “Anticipating the Middle East in 2024,” experts and government officials discussed the turbulent regional situation, with the Gaza conflict, Iran, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and potential Saudi normalization with Israel high on the agenda.

“If the US wants to manage the (Gaza) conflict … it needs to embrace a pathway to two states,” said Jane Harman, chair of the US Commission on the National Defense Strategy.

“I think that without doing that, there will never be conflict management. And if that happens, the outlier is Iran.”

Mahmood Sariolghalam, professor of international relations at the National University of Iran and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said: “No Arab country will accept Iranian political or military dominance in the region. And I think that also includes Shiite Iraq.”

He added: “I think Iran is wasting its national resources in promoting this kind of foreign policy. And my estimate would be that it’s going to take at least 10 years, from my observations of the country, for Iran to realize that the real ingredient of power isn’t the military.

“Rather, it’s capital markets, platform companies and development of national infrastructure, and integrating with the rest of the region economically.”

Barak Ravid, an Israeli journalist with US news website Axios, said Saudi-Iranian convergence on regional matters could open a path to peace.

“Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have a lot of shared interests, especially, I think, Yemen,” he added. “Both countries wanted to sort of end it (bilateral tensions) or at least reach a long-term truce, as we’ve seen over the last year.

“And economically, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have a lot of interest to promote trade and things like that, and to try and at least cool down the tensions between the Saudi axis, if there is one, and what Iran calls the Axis of Resistance — and I think they managed to do it pretty well.

“I think the Saudis … don’t see the rapprochement with Iran as contradictory to their efforts to normalize relations with Israel. I think they both can live at the same time.”

Sariolghalam said Tehran is playing a balancing act through its network of militias — “sending messages” to its enemies but also preventing escalation in any of its strongholds.

“On Lebanon, I think it’s very clear that Iran isn’t interested in escalation, because this time around it isn’t going to be like 2006,” he added, referring to Israel’s last invasion of its northern neighbor.

“There’s a great chance that Hezbollah might be devastated through not only Israeli operations but also American involvement … And Lebanon is an extremely vulnerable country and society.”

Ravid agreed, saying Hezbollah, in its border operations in southern Lebanon that began in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, “realized that they don’t need to go on an all-out escalation against Israel in order to have a lot of impact.”

However, Hezbollah’s unwillingness to escalate strikes against Israel could change, Harman warned, saying the Lebanese government’s coalition structure makes managing the country’s security “very difficult.”

Ravid also warned that “it’s totally possible that the worst is still to come,” describing a potential Hezbollah-Israel war as making the Gaza conflict “look like a walk in the park.”

He said the US should be making “much more robust” efforts to contain the situation between the two sides, “because if the border between Lebanon and Israel doesn’t (calm) down within weeks, it can really blow up.”

Despite the region’s conflicts, economic progress presents a major opportunity this year, Sariolghalam said, predicting that Gulf Cooperation Council countries “will continue to thrive” throughout 2024.

“The region is going to have, in parallel, continuing conflict, and at the same time staggering economic progress,” he added.

Ravid warned that despite prospects for Saudi normalization with Israel, momentum in Tel Aviv is moving toward a one-state “reality” that will fail to serve as a long-term solution for Palestinians.

“We see the one-state reality in the West Bank right now,” he said. “When you have settlers and Palestinians, settlers have rights and Palestinians don’t — and this is where this thing is going.”

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