Is Saudi Arabia heading for normalisation with Israel?

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7 min read
14 June, 2022
Analysis: As part of a regional trend, normalising ties with Tel Aviv would sit well with Washington, but there would be lots of costs for Riyadh without many benefits.

For all the serious tensions between US President Joe Biden’s team and Saudi Arabia, the White House views Riyadh as an extremely important partner.

The US administration believes that Washington must continue working closely with Riyadh despite Biden’s 2019 campaign pledge to make the Kingdom a ‘pariah’. This is the case for many reasons. One pertains to Israel.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Saudi Arabia a “critical partner” when it comes to expanding the Abraham Accords.

Yet mindful of the fact that Saudi Arabia has not joined the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and other Arab countries in normalising with Israel, it is important to ask why the US administration sees the Kingdom as so “critical” to the expansion of the Abraham Accords - and whether team Biden has reason to believe that Riyadh might be on the verge of formalising diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.

It is no shock that the Abraham Accords was one pillar of Trump’s foreign policy agenda that Biden and Blinken want to build on. Any Democratic or Republican administration would strongly support Saudi Arabia going the normalisation route.

"While there has been a tacit partnership between the Kingdom and Israel for decades, in recent years it has become more overt"

Yet, Riyadh will probably not make this move in the short term. Doing so under current circumstances would amount to essentially abandoning the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which the Saudis drew up 20 years ago.

The API was an offer made to Israel whereby all Arab League members would normalise with Tel Aviv in exchange for Israel returning to the 1949-67 borders and permitting a sovereign Palestinian state to exist with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“At the moment I would say I don’t see any imminent change in Saudi Arabia’s position toward Israel in terms of formal relations,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, in an interview with The New Arab.

“The Saudis have reiterated that any formal normalisation would have to await major developments on the Palestinian front and obviously that is not in the offing,” he added.

“I don’t think anything is imminent as far as an official or major move on the part of the Saudis. That’s not to say that there might not be smaller gestures that the Saudis could do in the meantime short of an establishment of official relations or recognition.”

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Considering how the Palestinian cause has been near and dear to King Salman’s heart for many decades, the chances of Saudi Arabia normalising with the Jewish state would increase only after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) becomes the Kingdom’s official ruler.

But it is not clear if/when Riyadh would normalise with Israel even after MBS replaces his father on the throne.

“I do not think that [Saudi Arabia entering the Abraham Accords] is going to happen while King Salman is still alive,” F. Gregory Gause III, a Saudi expert at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, told TNA.

“He is of a generation of Saudi leaders for whom the Israel issue has an emotional as well as a strategic element.”

Considering that MBS is not of that generation, Gause said that “once the King has left his position and the Crown Prince ascends, I think Saudi Arabia will open formal relations with Israel in relatively short order.”

Bethlehem, Palestine, West Bank wall.
Both a domestic and regional backlash could result from Riyadh entering the Abraham Accords without the Palestinian question being resolved in a just manner. [Getty]

Risky business for the Al Saud family

Without Israel changing its positions toward the Palestinians and beginning to respect their fundamental rights, the Saudis could face some risks if they were to normalise relations with Tel Aviv.

Both a domestic and regional backlash could result from Riyadh entering the Abraham Accords without the Palestinian question being resolved in a just manner. It is worth asking what the Saudis could gain from abandoning the API and establishing official, full-fledged ties with Israel.

“At a time when there are a lot of concerns about the status of al-Aqsa and extremists in Israel who are gradually eroding the status quo arrangement seemingly with the approval of Israeli authorities, there are a lot of costs for the Saudis and not many benefits,” explained Elgindy.

“There’s no indication that Israel’s changing its approach to the Palestinians. Even on a day-to-day level there is no reduction of the conflict. There’s no shrinking of the conflict. There’s no attempt to curtail it or Jewish extremists, or to crack down on settler violence against Palestinians or to postpone expulsions or home demolitions,” he added.

“All these things are just continuing. So, for the Saudis to just normalise in this environment would look odd. I would expect probably a major backlash domestically but also regionally.”

"The Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, would dearly love to bring Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords"

The regional trend toward recognising Israel

Despite not having entered the Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia is a part of the Arab region’s trend toward normalisation. This will likely continue down the line, even without the Kingdom formally recognising Israel.

While there has been a tacit partnership between the Kingdom and Israel for decades, in recent years it has become more overt.

For example, earlier this year the Saudis and Israeli joined each other in the US-led International Maritime Exercise 2022 (IMX 22) held in the Middle East shortly after the Houthi attacks on Abu Dhabi in January.

In November 2020, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with MBS in NEOM, according to Israeli officials.

It is also important to consider that Bahrain is not able to make major foreign policy decisions without the green light from Saudi Arabia, meaning that Riyadh probably signed off on Manama normalising with Tel Aviv in 2020.

“All sorts of elements of the normalisation of Israel's relations with other Arab states are made easier if Saudi Arabia is not opposed,” explained Gause.

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“Giving the Israelis overflight rights for commercial flights to the UAE and Bahrain would make Israel's contacts with those two countries easier. Similarly, the Egyptian transfer of the Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia would be much easier with Israel's tacit consent. So, the Saudi-Israeli relationship, while not formal, is important for a number of moves in the region.”

But by remaining a part of this trend toward normalisation, Riyadh is making it easier for Iran to push its narratives about the Al Saud family being Western puppets who are unfit to lead the Islamic world.

Saudi Arabia entering the Abraham Accords would certainly enable Tehran to play the Palestinian card against the leadership in Riyadh.

There could be opportunities for Iran to gain some greater soft-power influence among Palestinians and citizens of Arab countries where majorities still stand opposed to formalising relations with Tel Aviv under current circumstances.  

Any Saudi-Israeli diplomatic deal could also add complications to Saudi Arabia’s relationships with some fellow Arab governments.

Considering that last month the Iraqi parliament passed a bill criminalising normalisation with Israel - even subjecting Iraqis to the death penalty if they travel to Israel or contact Israeli institutions - Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords could impact the Riyadh-Baghdad relationship in ways that are rather difficult to predict.

There is no denying, however, that Saudi-Israeli normalisation would sit well among Western statesmen, particularly in Washington.

“The Biden administration, like the Trump administration before it, would dearly love to bring Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords,” said Gause.

"At a time when there are a lot of concerns about the status of al-Aqsa and extremists in Israel who are gradually eroding the status quo arrangement [...] there are a lot of costs for the Saudis and not many benefits"

“A good relationship with Israel would certainly help the Saudis in Washington. Israel is the best lobbyist for Arab states, particularly in Congress. The Israelis have already been urging the Biden Administration and Congress to reassess the early moves by the Administration to distance itself from Riyadh.”

Nonetheless, MBS and Saudi Arabia are much less on the defensive vis-à-vis Washington compared to the period that immediately followed Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

Underscored by Biden’s reported plans to visit the Kingdom next month, the US administration is not taking any actions whatsoever to suggest that the White House intends to treat Saudi Arabia as a ‘pariah’, suggesting that the risks of normalising Riyadh’s relations with Tel Aviv may not outweigh what Saudi Arabia’s leadership would perceive to be the benefits of having a stronger standing in Washington.

“There’s probably still some residual distrust on the part of the [Saudi] regime toward Washington,” explained Elgindy.

“So, normalisation with Israel would probably improve those ties with Washington, but the ties aren’t so bad that they’re unworkable. I don’t think it’s a price [the Saudis] are willing to pay at the moment.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero