The last few weeks has seen a slew of reports about Saudi Arabia and Israel normalising relations. In August, the Saudi Crown Prince, MBS, in an interview with the Fox News said the Kingdom is “…making progress towards normalization with Israel. Every day we are getting closer and closer to normalisation of relations with Israel.” A few days prior to the Fox News interview an Israeli delegation visited Riyadh as part of the United Nations Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO). Something unthinkable a few years ago. These recent announcements come on the back of Netanyahu’s secret visit to Saudi and other Arab nations normalising relations under America’s Abraham accords. Is the Saudi monarchy about to normalise relations with Israel? Why the sudden change of heart by the Saudi Kingdom?
Relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia were, on the surface, always fraught. The two countries never established diplomatic relations and Saudi Arabia was one of the first nations to reject the UN partition plan in 1947 and contributed forces when Palestine was annexed by the Zionists. The Saudi monarchy positioned itself as the leader of the Muslim world and chief supporter of the Palestinian cause.
Israel always faced numerous strategic dilemmas in the Middle East. Its small population, lack of revenues and lack of energy resources created immense problems for it. But the Arab world had immense energy resources which allowed them to make large capital investments and overcome their strategic challenges. Israeli access to markets in the Arab world was always a strategic challenge and something Israel long sought. Israel believed it was uniquely positioned to provide the goods and services that the Arab nations needed such as its expertise in the technology required for arid climate agriculture, to surveillance systems which many of the autocratic regimes rely on to control their populations. The region’s oil wealth was something Israel desperately needed due to its precarious geopolitical challenges. If these nations, the largest of which was Saudi Arabia, normalised relations with Israel, it would give Israel the much-needed credibility she craved.
If these nations, the largest of which was Saudi Arabia, normalised relations with Israel, it would give Israel the much-needed credibility she craved
There were two political issues that upended relations between the Kingdom and Israel and saw them grow close, although much of this was kept hidden behind closed doors. During the Cold War Israel became a key base for the US to contain Communist expansion in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia on the other hand became a key player to unite the Muslim world against the spread of communism. Saudi funded mosques around the world supported various armed groups including the Mujahideen in Afghanistan when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. On many occasions Israel was the intermediary and interlocutor for weapons and arms to flow to the right groups that Saudi was funding.
The Enemy of My Enemy is My Friend
This relationship, despite the public animosity, changed completely when the revolution took place in Iran in 1979. Israeli and Saudi officials began realising the potential for collaboration as their concerns converged. Whilst Israel and Iran were allies under the Shah the new clerical regime came to see Israel as its rival. The Sunni kingdom and the zionist state were both unhappy with the emergence of the new power in the region and this is where the first behind the scenes direct cooperation began between Israel and Saudi monarchy. This early cooperation included Saudi Arabia giving a flight path over its territory to the Zionist state in 1981. Operation Opera, saw the pre-emptive strike on an alleged Iraqi nuclear reactor. In an interview in 2017, Yuval Steinitz, a cabinet minister in the Netanyahu government confirmed Israel had for long had covert contacts with Saudi Arabia: “We have ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries, and usually (we are) the party that is not ashamed. It’s the other side that is interested in keeping the ties quiet. With us, usually, there is no problem, but we respect the other side’s wish, when ties are developing, whether it’s with Saudi Arabia or with other Arab countries or other Muslim countries, and there is much more … (but) we keep it secret.”
Relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have only warmed, although they are still kept private by Saudi officials. In 2015, the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, met with Israeli officials in Eilat and Jordan. The meeting reportedly opened discussions regarding establishing an economic relationship that would enable El Al to fly over Saudi airspace and for Israelis to do business in the Gulf region. This was all taking place as former Saudi General Anwar Eshki and Drori Gold, Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, were both sharing a platform at the Council of Foreign Relations think tank in Washington. Eshki and Gold shook hands and discussed the nature of Iran’s threat to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as the possibility of eventual peace between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel have been very different from the public portrayal of enmity. Saudi Arabia’s image of being a defender of the Palestinian cause has seen successive Kings come up with initiatives which secures a Palestinian state which would mean the abandonment of all the territories seized since 1948. The Saudi monarchy saw supporting the Palestinian cause as a way to spread its influence and secure the monarchy. The fact that behind closed doors the Kingdom cooperated with Israel was the monarchy ensuring it got both sides of the deal. It sided with Israel to counter common foes, then criticised Israel for not giving the Palestinians home in order to gain the support of the Muslim world. Saudi never used its huge military acquisitions to change the status quo in Palestine, nor did Saudi ever support or arm groups in armed struggle with Israel. Saudi organised summits and conferences to establish a Palestinian state which would legitimise the territories the Zionists had seized.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel have been very different from the public portrayal of enmity
Made in Washington
Why the sudden movement on normalisation? When President Biden took office in 2020, he was talking about making MBS a pariah for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. When MBS refused Saudi oil production rises during the Ukraine war, relations reached rock bottom with the Biden administration. Relations with Israel were tense as Biden returned to talks with Iran over its nuclear program and things also hit rock bottom when Biden warned Netanyahu of forming a coalition government with the right wing, which he subsequently did. It was after the midterms the Biden administration changed track and began to change relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia and the reason why there has the sudden sea change on normalisation between Saudi and Israel.
The Biden administration began working to rehabilitate MBS’s image by involving him in a number of strategic policies. From ending the Yemen conflict to negotiating between the warring factions in Sudan to Syria’s return to the Arab league. The US involved Saudi Arabia in the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. But the crown of them all was Riyadh being the venue for the Ukraine peace talks in August.
With Israel, relations were at rock bottom when the Biden administration made public it was discussing normalisation with Saudi officials. When Netanyahu heard of this, he sent his most trusted advisors to Washington to be part of the talks. Netanyahu had been criticising the Biden administration for seeking a nuclear agreement with Iran but completely changed track when news became public of normalisation talks. The Abraham accords seemed to have lost steam once Trump left office. But for Netanyahu, normalisation with Saudi Arabia changed everything.
For President Biden getting a normalisation deal is for his electoral prospects. The American ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, confirmed the White House wants to reach an agreement between Riyadh and Tel Aviv within the next six to seven months, before President Joe Biden gets busy with his presidential campaign. For Israel this would be a major strategic achievement as the leader of the Sunni world, the gatekeepers of Islam’s two holiest mosques accept the legitimacy of Israel. There would be no reason for any other Muslim nation to not normalise relations when the House of Islam has normalised relations. This would be a major achievement and probably the most strategic after Egypt normalised relations with Israel in 1978.
There would be no reason for any other Muslim nation to not normalise relations when the House of Islam has normalised relations
The details of the negotiations that have been revealed show that it’s not the structure of the new Palestinian state that is leading to tough negotiations but because of the Saudi monarchy’s determination to secure a defence pact with the US in exchange for normalising with Israel regardless of whether or not concessions are made to the Palestinians. Riyadh is looking for a commitment from the US that it will defend Saudi Arabia if it comes under attack, similar to NATO’s Article 5, which outlines that an attack on one alliance member is treated as an attack on all. Rather than getting a Palestinian state, something the Kingdom apparently always supported, it’s really after a defence pact for regime survival from the US. The Saudi monarchy is now showing its true colours.
Despite the sudden progress on Israel-Saudi normalisation there are some major obstacles to achieving any final deal. The Palestinian concessions are going to be difficult for Netanyahu and his right-wing cabinet, which has always been the US position, but for the moment haven’t been addressed. The fracture in American politics may jeopardise the deal as both Democrats and the Republicans seek to take credit. The security guarantees, defence pact and civilian nuclear assistance are going to be complex and already has made the Israeli right-wing very uneasy. Whilst these obstacles will need to be overcome it does feel normalisation is in motion, it’s really a matter of when, rather than if.
The normalisation between Israel and the Saudi monarchy has been a long time coming, their dirty little secret was hidden behind the Cold War and Iran for decades but now they want to formalise it for their own strategic reasons. The Palestinian people as well as Palestinian state is secondary for both Israel and the Saudi monarchy.