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A grand US-Saudi bargain? The cost of ties with Israel

A grand US-Saudi bargain? The cost of ties with Israel
10 min read
11 July, 2023
Analysis: While Saudi demands for US weapons and nuclear energy are real, Riyadh is also likely testing the water to see what's possible in Washington as the costs of normalising ties with Israel still far outweigh the benefits.

Last month, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud spoke to NBC’s Andrea Mitchell at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. She explained that her country envisions Israel belonging to an “integrated Middle East”. 

In line with Saudi Vision 2030, the diplomat said that Riyadh desires a “thriving Israel” and a “thriving Palestine”, adding that “Vision 2030 talks about a unified, integrated, thriving Middle East, and last I checked Israel was there…we want a thriving Red Sea economy”.

Princess Reema stressed that Saudi Arabia’s focus is on integration, not normalisation, with Israel. “We don’t say normalisation, we talk about an integrated Middle East, unified [as] a bloc like Europe, where we all have sovereign rights and sovereign states, but we have a shared and common interest,” asserted the Saudi ambassador.

“So that’s not normalisation. Normalisation is you’re sitting there, and I’m sitting here, and we kind of coexist, but separately. Integration means our people collaborate, our businesses collaborate, and our youth thrive.”

Princess Reema also told Mitchell that the policies of the current Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are undermining efforts to reach a durable and lasting peace in the Middle East. She called the situation in the occupied West Bank “extremely concerning”, particularly with respect to illegal settlement expansion.

“I think the conflict has gone [on] for so long, that these walls have been built psychologically and emotionally that are very hard to overcome,” stated the ambassador. “Call me naive, I think it’s time for people to have faith and hope in humanity and to address conflict with that spirit, and I don’t think we are there.”

Ever since the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain formalised diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020, there have been countless discussions in the US and Israel about Saudi Arabia possibly following in Abu Dhabi and Manama’s footsteps. In light of Princess Reema’s remarks last month, such speculation has only increased.

Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s administrations have sought to push Riyadh into the normalisation camp, as highlighted by assertions made by both National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken during their recent visits to the Kingdom.

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It is not difficult to understand why US and Israeli officials want to see Saudi Arabia formalise diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv. Mindful of Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Arab and Islamic worlds, Riyadh entering the Abraham Accords would be, to say the least, a major diplomatic victory for Israel.

“For the Netanyahu government, Saudi normalisation would reinforce the argument that the Palestinian conflict is no longer an obstacle to Israel’s acceptance in the region as well as cement Netanyahu’s own image as a consummate actor on the international stage,” Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen, said in an interview with The New Arab.

Washington’s vested interests in Saudi Arabia choosing to normalise with Israel notwithstanding, it is highly unlikely that Riyadh would join the Abraham Accords under current circumstances.

It seems that President Joe Biden and his team are realistic about this. In fact, on 9 July, Biden himself told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that the US is “a long way” from negotiating a Saudi-Israeli normalisation accord and there remains “a lot to talk about”.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain formalised diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020. [Getty]

The Iranian dimension

Before Saudi Arabia and Iran signed the Chinese-brokered diplomatic agreement on 10 March, many analysts speculated that Riyadh and Tel Aviv’s shared fears of Iranian conduct in the Arab region would push Saudi Arabia toward normalisation with Israel.

It was no surprise that Israel was alone in the Middle East and North Africa in not welcoming the Saudi-Iranian renormalisation deal. With Riyadh and Tehran now in a new period of détente, the Israelis have had to reassess the likelihood of the Jewish state and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members uniting against the Islamic Republic.

“The shared concern about the Iranian threat to regional security and stability remains, but the Saudis appear to have made a decision that they would seek to address their concerns through dialogue with Tehran rather than through the threat of military action or additional sanctions,” explained Feierstein.

“In that context, the continued Israeli sabre-rattling undercuts Saudi interests in tension reduction and, if Israeli military action is implemented, threatens to drag the Saudis into a regional conflict they are desperate to avoid,” added the former US diplomat.

Saudi Arabia's cost-benefit analysis

From Riyadh’s perspective, it appears that all the likely costs of normalising with Israel under current circumstances would outweigh the potential benefits. Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords would undeniably boost the image of the country and its Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) in Washington.

But that would have been more of a strong incentive in the immediate aftermath of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018. Now the situation is different.

At this point, the Kingdom is not desperate to achieve any reputational improvement in the US capital. A host of international developments related to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, global energy and food security crises, and Sudan’s conflict have reinforced the centrality of Saudi Arabia’s international role in the domains of energy, diplomacy, and so on.

Biden visiting Jeddah a year ago along with subsequent visits to the Kingdom made by other high-ranking American officials underscore the extent to which MbS’s post-Khashoggi rehabilitation has advanced.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is letting the US know that Riyadh has many other options for alliances, partnerships, and friendships - both in the West and the East. MbS’s visits to France, Greece, and Turkey along with Chinese President Xi Jinping coming to Riyadh in 2022/23 underscore this point.

Arguably, the US needs Saudi Arabia just as much as the Kingdom needs America, and MbS is using his leverage to make this point clear to Washington.

In sum, Riyadh does not need to do anything risky such as abandon the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which offered the Israelis full-fledged normalisation with all Arab League members in exchange for Israel returning to the 1949-67 borders and permitting the Palestinians to have a state with a capital in East Jerusalem, to shore up its image in Washington.

Under-the-table relations

Despite Riyadh’s adherence to the API, the Kingdom and Israel have continued to deepen their decades-old de facto relationship in the areas of defence, economics, and geopolitics.

“Now formally a partner of the US Central Command, Israeli military officers are in regular contact with Saudi and other GCC counterparts enabling them to participate in joint planning and exercises,” Feierstein told TNA.

“The two countries’ navies joined together in February 2022 in a US-led International Maritime Exercise (IMX 2022) in the Red Sea. The Saudis have also reportedly purchased Israeli spyware worth an estimated USD 250 million, including controversial Pegasus cyber-espionage technology from the NSO Group.”

The Saudis and Israelis have entered into various agreements when both governments deemed such deals to be mutually advantageous. For example, the Kingdom’s decision to permit Israeli flights to access Saudi airspace speaks to such dynamics in Saudi-Israeli relations.

“The current under-the-table relationship provides [the Saudis] with all of the benefits that they want from relations with Israel without paying any price,” explained Feierstein.

“Some observers do argue that a normalisation deal would open the door to a greatly expanded bilateral economic relationship. But it’s not at all clear that the Saudis, who have deep economic ties to China, the US and the West and already have access to the world’s most advanced technologies as well as London and New York capital markets, see that access to the Israeli private sector is that important.” 

Ultimately, it appears doubtful that Saudi Arabia will soon change its assessment that the costs of normalising with Israel’s far-right government would be worth it.

Saudi Arabia, unlike either the UAE or Bahrain, has a leadership role in the Islamic world that depends on Muslims worldwide viewing the Saudi ruler as a legitimate Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. There is no denying that the Palestinian issue matters to many Muslims from Africa to Southeast Asia and Europe to the Middle East.

Throwing the API out the window and establishing full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel without any consideration of the Palestinians would be extremely unpopular in the Kingdom and in Muslim-majority countries worldwide.

The latest Israeli crimes in Jenin, which Saudi Arabia and other Arab League members recently condemned, have only increased the extent to which such a move on Riyadh’s part would be unpopular across Arab-Islamic countries where popular sentiments do matter to Saudi rulers. Even after MbS becomes King, he won’t be able to disregard this factor.

The political environment in Israel is also relevant. “This Israeli government's policy toward the Palestinians will make it that much harder for Saudi Arabia, or any other Arab state, to join the Abraham Accords,” Dr Gregory Gause III, a Saudi expert at Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Service, told TNA.

Israel's policies towards Palestinians, including a recent deadly operation in Jenin, make it harder for more Arab states to normalise ties. [Getty]

Ferial Saeed, a former senior US diplomat, said in a TNA interview that while Saudi Arabia might want to, in principle, normalise with Israel in order to obtain “important economic, political, and strategic benefits”, officials in Riyadh “are not prepared to renounce their longstanding precondition of a two-state solution to accommodate the most hardline Israeli government in history”.

She observed how Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic policies enjoy substantial support among publics across the Arab world, largely due to the fact that regional audiences see them as “bringing hope and stability and defying the United States”.

Therefore, the Kingdom would “need to get something substantial for the Palestinians or they risk diminishing their new-found standing among Arab publics who largely reject normalisation,” according to Saeed.

“The question of Palestine may no longer command centre stage in the Arab world, but in this new regional context and given Riyadh’s desire to be a geopolitical power, it will matter. A third intifada would intensify the pressure on Riyadh.”

A grand US-Saudi bargain for the Abraham Accords?

A question worth raising is whether the US could pay a price high enough for Saudi Arabia to normalise with Israel at some point soon.

Riyadh has indicated that access to American nuclear technology absent a “123 Agreement”, solid security guarantees from Washington, and more advanced US weapons would be necessary in exchange for Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords. But the Saudis should not expect this from Washington any time soon. As Biden recently told Zakaria, “whether or not we would provide a means by which [the Saudis] could have civilian nuclear power and/or be a guarantor of their security, that's - I think that's a little way off”.

So as much as Washington wants to see Riyadh normalise with Tel Aviv, it is doubtful that the US would agree to paying such a high price, at least for the foreseeable future. “I do not think that scenario is in the cards,” said Dr Gause when asked about the possibility of the US meeting the Saudi requirements for normalisation.

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“The Saudi demands are real, but there is also an element here of testing the waters to see what is possible in Washington, and how far Biden would go to secure the most crucial of the Abraham Accords, the lynchpin of full Israeli integration into the region,” said Saeed.

Yet even if team Biden administration would acquiesce to such demands from Riyadh, this proposal could run into a wall in the US Congress.

“The recent near-hysteria in Congress over a private business arrangement merging two professional golf associations, the US-based PGA and the Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf, underscores the strength of Saudi-phobia in the Congress and would certainly bear on any debate over the consequential Saudi demands,” Feierstein told TNA.

“It might also be the case that a rejection of its requirements by the US would be equally valuable for Riyadh as it would put the onus for the failure of normalisation on Washington’s shoulders rather than Saudi Arabia’s.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero