Will Saudi follow suit and normalise relations with Israel?

Will Saudi follow suit and normalise relations with Israel?
Comment: Saudi Arabia may normalise relations with Israel eventually, but it has different, more complex set of considerations to the UAE, writes Courtney Freer.
5 min read
21 Aug, 2020
'Normalisation would be equally welcomed by a potential Biden presidency' writes Freer [Getty]
While President Donald Trump revealed at a White House press conference last week that he expects Saudi Arabia to follow the UAE's lead in normalising relations with Israel, the kingdom has not made any indication that this expectation is realistic. 

Indeed, Saudi officials had mostly stayed silent on the issue, until Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan made the kingdom's first statement on the Emirati-Israeli deal last Wednesday. He stated that "peace must be achieved with the Palestinians" based on existing international agreements before normalisation with Israel takes place, and explaining Saudi Arabia's continued commitment to achieving peace with Israel through the Arab Peace Initiative, which was drafted by Saudi Arabia in 2002.

This statement does not, at least directly, contradict the Emirati claim that its agreement with Israel can work alongside the Arab Peace Initiative, and there has been no official criticism of the plan itself on behalf of the Saudi leadership. Nonetheless, the Arab Peace Initiative requires full Israeli withdrawal from land taken in 1967, and the Saudi foreign minister further clarified his stance against "any Israeli unilateral measures to annex Palestinian land as undermining the two state solution."

The Palestinian issue has been one on which Saudi King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) appear to differ. Indeed, MbS is known to be close with Jared Kushner, the architect of Trump's Middle East peace plan. And after further discussion about Trump's "Deal of the Century," including an in-person meeting in DC between MbS and Kushner, King Salman issued a statement in February 2019 stating that his country "permanently stands by Palestine and its people's right to an independent state with the occupied East Jerusalem as its capital." 

Saudi Arabia does not need to normalise relations with Israel in order to maintain warm relations with Trump

Normalisation with Israel would certainly boost Saudi Arabia's relations with the Trump administration, which indeed expects this step. Perhaps more surprisingly, normalisation would be equally welcomed by a potential Biden presidency. Indeed, Democratic candidate Joe Biden called the Emirati-Israeli agreement "a historic step to bridge the deep divides of the Middle East" and "a welcome, brave, and badly-needed act of statesmanship."

Still, Saudi Arabia does not
need to normalise relations with Israel in order to maintain warm relations with Trump: the president ignored objections from Congress to push through a new arms deal to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the UAE in May 2019 and is said to be pursuing a new arms deal with the kingdom. In addition, the White House has never held Saudi Arabia to account for human rights violations domestically or in Yemen that have been chronicled, including the killing of US resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul which the CIA attributed to an order from MbS. 

Still, normalisation could become more important for Saudi to maintain its ties with the US under a Biden administration. Indeed, the former vice president has said that, if elected, he would treat Saudi Arabia as a "pariah". If normalisation could prevent a freezing out from Washington after a potential Trump departure, the Saudis may be likelier to consider it. 

In terms of regional calculations, Bahrain and Oman are said to be next to normalise ties with Israel, and the UAE has already set up a trade deal and direct flights notably having been granted the use of Saudi airspace. Bahrain could be seen as something of a test case, with reactions to that country's announcement of normalisation perhaps helping to inform Saudi decision-making.

Read more: 'Deal of shame': UAE formally endorses Israel's occupation of Palestine

If it is met with outrage, the Saudis can change their messaging appropriately. And if not, they can move forward and continue to forge strong relations with the Americans, as the deal currently enjoys bipartisan support. Nonetheless, the impact of normalisation between Saudi Arabia - the home of Islam's two holiest mosques - and Israel would have much farther reaching regional consequences than would Bahraini or Omani treaties.

Indeed, Saudi domestic and regional calculations in normalising relations with Israel are arguably far more complicated than its calculations regarding the relationship with the US. Indeed, the Palestinian issue has been the regional rallying point for decades, and normalised relations between Israel and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia would undoubtedly evoke a major regional reaction, particularly if it is reached with current settlement activity. Notably, the Palestinian issue is one of the few issues on which public opinion still matters in the region and is relevant for every country in it, and so it is likely the Saudis will continue to be cautious.  

Meanwhile, Kuwait and Qatar remain unlikely to normalise, meaning that this issue will crosscut the GCC. Kuwait has been most outspoken in this regard, with government sources confirming that Kuwait "will be the last country to normalise with Israel" and with 39 of Kuwait's 50 members of parliament having signed a statement against normalising ties with Israel.

Normalised relations between Israel and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia would undoubtedly evoke a major regional reaction

Qatar has largely remained quiet, aside from the readout of a phone call on Thursday between Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thanim with PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat. Al-Thani notably "stressed the State of Qatar's firm position in supporting the rights of the brotherly Palestinian people and adhering to international legitimacy and relevant Security Council Resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis for achieving a just and sustainable peace," with a Palestinian state on 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.

Despite Trump's expectations, then, Saudi Arabia will likely continue to hedge a final decision regarding normalisation. While MbS himself may see the pragmatic benefits of a deal with Israel, he must also be careful to take into account the ability of the Palestinian cause to rally the Arab street, at least historically.

Dr Courtney Freer is a research fellow at LSE Middle East Centre.

Follow her on Twitter: @CourtneyFreer

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.