Saudi Arabia Normalisation | Dan Mikhaylov
Dan Mikhaylov is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.
Without doubt, the Abraham Accords constitute a turning point in Middle Eastern politics. By normalising relations with Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain conjured up enough momentum to inspire Morocco and Sudan to follow suit and prompt others at least to contemplate establishing diplomatic contacts with Jerusalem. This new, bilateral approach ended decades of frustrating and futile diplomatic efforts at Arab-Israeli reconciliation in a way that would satisfy all the Arab countries at once. Although this accomplishment rested on American support and coordination, there were hopes it would teach and incentivise regional actors to negotiate with Israel without the need for third-party oversight and pressure.
Following Donald Trump’s election defeat and the ensuing inauguration of the Democrat Joe Biden, the situation, however, has changed. Trump’s speculation that more states were prepared to recognise Israel were replaced with cautious acknowledgements that this would not happen until the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue resumed and produced concrete results. Oman, which has long featured in the list of Muslim countries to normalise relations with Israeli, has adopted a more pragmatic attitude, undoubtedly expecting Saudi Arabia to make a stance first. Other American allies in the region have likely reached a similar conclusion and consequently paused their normalisation plans.
As the undisputed Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leader and an extremely influential voice in the Islamic community, Saudi Arabia was never expected to brave the tide and be among the first to reconsider its relationship with Israel. Such an iconoclastic decision would have incurred heavy costs to its international standing and displeased domestic reactionaries. With the kingdom deprived of its major allies in Washington it has more reasons to hedge its bets. There are more arguments for it to be growing anxious about Iran gaining an upper hand in Yemen as the United States both mellows its anti-Iranian rhetoric to restore the Iran nuclear deal and removes sanctions on the pro-Iranian Houthi rebels. Riyadh’s acquiescence to Russia ramping up oil production at the January OPEC+ summit and decision to reverse the boycott imposed on Qatar in 2017 strongly suggest that it is seeking to broaden the coalition against Iran. This puts so strategically risky a move as rapprochement with Israel off the table for now.
For Saudi Arabia to recognise Israel, the same external pressure that brought about the Abraham Accords is necessary. Some preconditions have been observed. Saudi bloggers have been posting on social media platforms that they “aspire to have normal relations with all states”, Saudi businessmen have earlier demonstrated willingness to partner with Israeli tech firms, and Saudi television channels have recently aired a show that bemoaned the exodus of Gulf Jews from their homes and depicting peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Jews. Even at the government level, Saudi Arabia ended its ban on Israeli goods and services in 2005 to join the World Trade Organisation, detained a prominent anti-Semitic preacher in 2008, and permitted Israeli aircraft to fly over the kingdom’s airspace. Rumours about the recent meeting between Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu further vindicate that historical taboos can be broken.
However, American support is hardly in sight. The Biden administration has halted arms sales to Saudi Arabia and announced the withdrawal of US assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Biden’s personal reservations on Riyadh have long been known to the public. He has previously accused Bin Salman of orchestrating the brutal murder of the dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, and chided the kingdom for “murdering innocent people” and disregarding human rights. As the Democratic Party currently controls both Congress and the White House, the US can be reasonably predicted to pressure the kingdom with threats of diplomatic isolation not on Arab-Israeli reconciliation but on releasing women’s rights activists from prisons. Moreover, Bin Salman, who is rumoured to have entertained the former idea, might have a harder time persuading gainsayers and sceptics at the royal court as he cannot count on US cooperation anymore and must conversely preoccupy himself with the enemies he had earned during the 2017-19 anti-corruption purges. One former Saudi official, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, recently denounced Israel as “the last Western colonising power”, and while he spoke in personal capacity, he would have hardly resorted to such language were it not for the strong support at home.
Certainly, erring on the side of caution could still give birth to a normalisation agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Both feel threatened by Iran’s nuclear programme and its growing networks of proxies and stand to lose from the Biden administration’s incessant desire to void Trump’s legacy. Riyadh also shares Jerusalem’s concerns regarding Hamas, which it stopped financing during the Second Intifada (2000-05), and even attempted to pressure Qatar into terminating its funding of the terrorist organisation. If Turkey continues to behave aggressively in the Eastern Mediterranean and Syria and deploy Islamist paramilitaries to do its bidding, Israel and Saudi Arabia would be all the more inclined to collaborate on matters of regional security.
But there is one problem with this approach – it offers little incentive to Saudi elites to rethink their understanding of Israel and separate the controversial questions of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the partial blockade of the Gaza Strip from the wider picture of Middle Eastern politics. While King Salman, who expressed his commitment to the Palestinian cause on numerous occasions, will celebrate his 86th birthday this year, there is no guarantee that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will succeed him in due course. Nor can we assume that upon claiming the throne, the young leader would be left unopposed in his foreign policy pursuits, especially when these pursuits threaten to divide not just his entourage, but also the entire Muslim world.
Policy analysts have often argued that we should “take reform announcements in Saudi Arabia with a large pinch of salt”. This statement holds until the nation’s conservative elites are pushed into resolute action. For them to embrace the Abraham Accords’ spirit and normalise relations with Israel, third-party intervention is required. Whether the US leverages its experience to broker the normalisation agreement or another power like Russia steps in, it is foreign assistance that will write a new page in Saudi-Israeli relations and convince other Gulf nations to follow.