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In a Changing Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia Cling Together

As unrest simmers in the Middle East and the United States edges toward detente with Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia are trying to ride out the storm together.

A wind storm blows dust from the Arabian peninsula into Israel., Etamar Laron / Flickr

For years, Iranian Shiite pilgrims arriving in Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj observance would hold a demonstration denouncing what they termed “enemies of Iran,” aimed particularly at Israel and the United States. A couple of times the protests resulted in violence.

One such occasion came July 31, 1987 when—for reasons that to this day are not entirely clear—a riot occurred. Saudi security forces crushed the demonstrators, but in the ensuing stampede over 400 people lost their lives and over 600 were wounded. A few days later, I encountered a clandestine leftist Saudi activist and asked what had happened. “We had nothing to do with it,” he said. “But the rulers are terrified. It showed that they no longer had complete control.”

Today, the kingdom’s rulers must look back on those days with envy. As the Saudi royals look out from their palaces in Riyadh, they see trouble everywhere. And they don’t have to look very far.

Despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has the Arab world’s largest economy, the unemployment rate for its citizens is 12 percent, much of it concentrated among the swelling ranks of young people. The royals recently decided to deal with the problem by expelling many of the country’s estimated 9 million migrant workers from Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, Nepal, Pakistan, and Yemen. According to the BBC, 30,000 Yemenis departed for their impoverished home country in the first 10 days of November alone. Nearly 1 million Yemenis live and work in Saudi Arabia, remitting close to $2 billion every year.

On November 10, fighting broke out between the angry migrants on one side and Saudi civilians and security forces on the other. At least two people were killed and 70 others injured, and over 500 migrant workers were arrested.

International media briefly covered the riot and the expulsions, but most of its attention has focused on Saudi unhappiness about any potential agreement between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program. What the Saudis are really worried about is that any lessening of international tensions with Iran could have an impact on the internal stability of Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies.

It’s a worry shared by the Israelis, who appear to have lost their veto power over U.S. diplomacy with Iran. Read more here.