Wary But Intrigued, Saudi Arabia is Still Weighing Potential Ties to Israel


Contributed by Hussein Ibish as part of collaboration between the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW) and the institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) | September 2021
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Photo: Ron Przysucha - U.S. Department of State


In August 2020, both Israel and the United States achieved a significant diplomatic breakthrough with the announcement of the Abraham Accords, which initiated diplomatic normalization between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Later, Sudan and Morocco joined the agreement. Yet after a year, the biggest prize in the Arab world, Saudi Arabia, remains tantalizingly poised between joining the accords or deciding it is not worth the many risks involved. There are numerous factors pulling Riyadh to embark on the process to normalize relations with Israel and at least as many pushing it back. For now, it appears that Saudi leaders are most comfortable keeping their options open without firmly deciding to move in either direction.


Each Arab country that has pursued a greater opening with Israel over the past year has had its own distinct agenda. The UAE sought, and is building, a broad-ranging partnership with Israel on countering regional hegemony by Iran and Turkey; developing commercial and scientific links (especially in the technology field); increasing defense cooperation, particularly on areas such as missile defense as well as cyber and electronic warfare; and obtaining sought-after weapon systems from Washington, particularly the F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet, as well as mending ties with mainstream Democrats in the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Bahrain was mainly driven to make common cause with Israel due to the latter’s military heavy lifting against Iran's regional network of violent extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Sudan sought aid and removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, both of which it achieved. And Morocco sought quiet recognition of its claims over Western Sahara, which it received from the administration of former President Donald J. Trump, and Biden is reportedly not planning to reverse this position.


Saudi Arabia's aims for an opening with Israel would not be as extensive as the UAE's multifaceted list of goals to form a deep partnership with Israel nor as narrow as Bahrain's single-minded focus on Iran. Saudi Arabia would certainly be looking to strengthen the regional coalition opposing Iran's quest for hegemony in the Middle East. It may even have an eye to staving off potential analogous Turkish ambitions, although it appears less alarmed about that than both the UAE and Israel.


But beyond regional strategic considerations, there is another potential issue that might induce Saudi Arabia, particularly under de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: repairing strained relations with Washington. During the Trump administration, U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman – with the exception of the president personally – cratered, arguably reaching an all-time low. Democrats were angered by the bear hug between the Saudi leadership and the new administration during Trump's first overseas trip. They were further alienated by increased casualties from the war in Yemen, which also came to disturb many Senate Republicans.


But the biggest blow to Saudi reputations, especially that of Mohammed bin Salman, came with the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Khashoggi was well known and well liked in Washington, even by those who disagreed with many of his views, and was a regular contributor to The Washington Post. In addition, the overall circumstances of his killing – the brutality and setting in an overseas diplomatic mission – all produced an unprecedented level of shock and outrage in the United States among both Democrats and Republicans. Following Khashoggi’s killing, compounded with the Yemen war and various notorious human rights violations inside Saudi Arabia, the future Saudi king became radioactive in the United States.


There's been a great deal of important and effective repair work done on these relations since Biden assumed the presidency, but because of the Khashoggi murder, it's still impossible to imagine Mohammed bin Salman, whether as crown prince or king, being welcomed in Washington under the current circumstances. This is an impossible conundrum for Saudi Arabia. Current domestic political conditions suggest that Mohammed bin Salman is almost certain to become king. But the Saudi king cannot be unwelcome in the capital of Riyadh’s essential ally, guarantor, and protector. Saudi Arabia is not ready to stand alone in defense of its national interests, and it does not have an alternative partner, or set of partners, who could substitute for the United States.


Eventually, securing relations with Israel could prove a trump card for Mohammed bin Salman to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of much of Washington, including most Republicans and many senior Democratic centrists. That, combined with other considerations, such as potential strategic benefits regarding Iran and Turkey, could prompt Saudi Arabia to take the step to open ties with Israel after Mohammed bin Salman’s succession.


However, the decision will not be an easy one, as it has been for the other countries that risked little and gained a great deal by opening diplomatic relations with Israel. Saudi Arabia has a much larger, more diverse, and potentially volatile population and brittle political domestic equation than its smaller neighbors. It also has to protect a regional Arab leadership role that it has no choice but to perform given the vacuum left by traditional centers of power as well as a global Islamic leadership role that it has long fought to maintain. Normalizing relations with Israel could again make Saudi Arabia a focus of radical Sunni Islamist violence, increase domestic religious and nationalist opposition to Mohammed bin Salman’s rule, and be exploited by Iran and its allies to castigate Saudi Arabia. It is also especially awkward for Saudi Arabia to discard the principles of the Arab Peace Initiative, as its author and main sponsor, by normalizing relations with Israel despite a continuation of the occupation of Palestinian territories.


So, particularly after succession, Saudi Arabia is looking at a high-risk but high-potential gain scenario. Violence in Jerusalem over the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in May proved extremely uncomfortable for the UAE and Bahrain; although Hamas’ intervention, which changed the dynamic to another campaign of aerial bombardment between Israel and Gaza, eased the pressure considerably. But the Jerusalem tensions were a timely reminder of the kind of difficulty Saudi Arabia might face if it opens up to relations with Israel.


Yet Saudi Arabia has been careful to keep the option open. It has signaled tacit support for the Emirati and Bahraini moves, the latter of which was almost certainly greenlighted from Riyadh. It has allowed unprecedented access to Saudi airspace for Israeli commercial planes. And there are reports about several high-level meetings, including one between Mohammed bin Salman and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister made it clear in August that his country has no intention of joining the Abraham Accords anytime soon, if ever, and reasserted Riyadh’s strong support for Palestinian rights and statehood. Diplomatic pronouncements, particularly in public, need to be taken with a grain of salt. However, most evidence suggests this is in line with Saudi Arabia's current assessment about a diplomatic opening with Israel. It is keeping its options open but does not appear to be getting closer to yes.