Analysis

Opening Saudi Skies to Israel May Pave the Crown Prince's Way Back to Washington

MBS seeks to restore his standing in the U.S. after Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed overshadowed him as a leader who shapes the new Middle East policy by normalizing ties with Israel

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (L) meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (R) during his visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 1, 2020.
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (L) meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (R) during his visit to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 1, 2020. Credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The day after the Israeli delegation concluded its official visit to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia announced its skies would be open to any country’s civilian plane flying to or from the UAE. The name “Israel” may not have been mentioned explicitly, but there was no need for it. Saudi Arabia is still cautious and the price for official normalization with Israel will depend on the strategic payment it receives from Washington.

Discussions on the matter are being conducted at an intensive pace between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his friend Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s special adviser, who is striving to close the deal before the U.S. presidential election in November. Time is pressing and Trump is hoping to present another impressive diplomatic achievement that he can brandish during his election campaign, after most of his diplomatic initiatives, including his so-called “deal of the century,” fell apart – in the best case becoming a joke and in most cases causing deep anxiety.

LISTEN: Trump is hot to trot on back of Israel's PR peace with UAE

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The peace between Israel and the Emirates may have been a breakthrough that could very well change attitudes toward Israel in the Middle East – but it is not enough to prove the validity of Trump’s peace plan. To prove this strategy that claims peace between Israel and the Arabs does not require a solution to the Palestinian problem or alternatively that peace with Arab countries can serve as the catalyst for peace between Israel and the Palestinians – broader Arab support is needed, which will have to include other Arab countries, or at the very least Saudi Arabia.

But the Saudis have their own conditions. As the country that gave birth in 2002 to the paradigm by which Israel could enjoy normalization and a protective Arab wall in return for a withdrawal from all the occupied territories – an equation that became an inseparable part of every negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians, including in Trump’s own plan – the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel would look, justifiably, as an irreversible retreat from this fundamental principle. But the damage has already been done with the UAE’s decision to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. All that is left now is to talk about the price to be paid to the Saudis.

Since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi two years ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed has become persona non grata among the American public and Congress. During this period he has not visited Washington and his interests have been looked after by his brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, who was the Saudi ambassador to Washington until 2019, and after that was appointed deputy defense minister. The investigations against MBS concerning Khashoggi’s murder are still underway, and in addition the Congress has imposed a ban on arms sales to the kingdom – a decision that was circumvented by Trump.

MBS very much needs a change that will give him back his previous status, after his friend, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the Emirates, began to overshadow him as a leader who shapes the new Middle East policy, and as the Arab figure closest to Trump.

In orange, current Israeli flight routes to Asia. In blue: Potential shortened routes if Saudis extend overflight approval beyond UAE
In orange, current Israeli flight routes to Asia. In blue: Potential shortened routes if Saudis extend overflight approval beyond UAE

Peace with Israel could be a game changer for Saudi Arabia  vis-a-vis Washington, but compared to the Emirates, the kingdom’s situation is more complicated. On one hand, the Saudis have committed to arms purchases from the U.S. worth $110 billion, an enormous temptation that Trump has used to try and convince Congress to permit the sale. With the encouragement of – or, to be more precise, pressure, from the United States – Saudi Arabia has strengthened its ties with Iraq to give itself alternatives to the electricity and gas it buys from Iran as part of the shared struggle to thwart Iranian influence in the Middle East.

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has signed a memorandum of understanding with Russia, is considering building a Russian nuclear reactor for generating electricity, and seemingly is also examining the possibility of developing a nuclear program with military capability. If the UAE had one main demand – to be allowed to buy F-35 fighter jets from the U.S. – Saudi Arabia’s military and diplomatic package of demands will be much bigger.

But the Riyadh's leverage in negotiations is limited in time. MBS cannot be sure Trump will be reelected and he must take into account that maybe Joe Biden will move into the White House. A Democratic administration is not exactly something the Saudi prince is dreaming about.

Here is where the considerations lie that could work in favor of speedy normalization with Israel, because whether it is Trump or Biden who gets elected, Israel could very possibly pave the way back to Washington for Crown Prince Mohammed. That is why opening  Saudi skies to Israeli and other planes comes to much more than throwing a bone and a show of support for the agreement between Israel and the UAE. It looks like the first payment for the goods the Saudi crown prince is hoping to receive from Trump.

It would seem Israel should be very pleased by the latest developments that have made it an active mediator between Arab countries and Washington, without being required to pay any price to the Palestinians – except for the freezing of annexation of parts of the West Bank, which in any case was in its death throes. The diplomatic assemblage it has been awarded, which includes the agreement with the Emirates, the open skies over Saudi Arabia, and even the dialogue being conducted between Israel and Qatar over achieving calm in Gaza, which produced a “cease-fire” understanding this week, are trickling down to the media and observations of Arab commentators, too.

The UAE is denounced and criticized both on social media and by official state media outlets, but at the same time it is possible to find a change in mindset – in which the agreement with the UAE and those that will follow are making the opponents of normalization with Israel face a new reality and new challenges. They cannot rely anymore on the traditional alliance that existed between the regimes and the public, and especially with the intellectuals, in which condemnation of the normalization and the fight against it is legitimate and goes unpunished. Now the opponents are worried it is no longer just two wayward countries involved, Jordan and Egypt, but an avalanche.

But this change, as it develops, does not free Israel from the need to solve the conflict with the Palestinians. Traditionally, Israel has claimed that the solution to the conflict needs to lead to the end of the state of war with the Arab world, otherwise the solution will not have any value. This has led Israel to assume the Arab world was putting down an insurmountable obstacle in any negotiations with the Palestinians. But the greater the number of countries “normalizing” relations, the more this claim will lose its validity – and Israel will be forced to officially redefine the conflict as an “Israeli problem” and not as the Palestinian problem.

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