Why the Saudis Are Slower to Make Peace With Israel

After Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates both signed agreements with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords, the million dollar question is if and when Saudi Arabia will join. Experts say it's possible, but complicated

Jonathan Harounoff
Jonathan Harounoff
Jerusalem and Mecca. How long before flights go from Tel Aviv to Riyadh and Israel and Saudi Arabia normalize relations?
Jerusalem and Mecca. How long before flights connect the two countries? Credit: AP / AFP / Moshe Milner, GPO, Anastasia Shub
Jonathan Harounoff
Jonathan Harounoff

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s surprise visit to Bahrain earlier this month generated many headlines. But what attracted less media attention was the fact that his military plane cruised through Saudi airspace to reach Manama, becoming the first noncommercial Israeli flight to ever officially do so.

Riyadh’s opening of its skies to Israel has sparked debate among regional experts over whether the Sunni kingdom might become the next Arab country to normalize ties with Israel, following the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan in 2020 – or if it will opt to continue its covert relationship with Jerusalem while overtly prioritizing support of the Palestinian cause.

Each Arab signatory of the Abraham Accords thus far had a clear agenda driving its quest for greater relations with Israel, ranging from technological ties and shared enemies to opportunities to gain U.S. support or arms.

For Saudi Arabia, aside from strengthened diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel, joining the Abraham Accords would principally help build a more robust Middle East coalition against Iran.

Although the Saudis have never publicly formalized diplomatic relations with Israel, the two nations have advanced security cooperation and intelligence-sharing in part driven by shared concerns over Tehran.

A woman walking in front of a banner showing Saudi King Salman, right, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, and Saudi Arabia's founder late King Abdul Aziz Al Saud in Dammam last year.Credit: Amr Nabil/AP

Earlier this month, Israel agreed for the first time to join Saudi Arabia and Oman in a naval exercise led by the United States, while the spyware of Israeli cyberoffense firm NSO has been found on the phones of several Saudi dissidents in recent years.

According to Ilan Berman, senior vice president of the think tank American Foreign Policy Council, a Saudi-Israeli entente is inevitable, and the relationship is already established in all but name. However, he says, the timing of such an agreement is still yet to be determined.

“There’s no question that ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia have evolved significantly in recent years,” he says. “There’s steady economic and even strategic dialogue taking place between the two countries – one that I have confidence will eventually break out in the open.”

Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, notes that Israel’s ties with Saudi Arabia extend to the technology sphere and aid its economic diversification plans. “The Saudis have already benefited from Israeli support in cyber and other security, and more open skies to Israelis are attractive to Saudi’s leadership as it looks to develop its western coast through more technology-intensive industries and to tourism.”

Still, given the momentum already building in the Gulf between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain – with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visiting the latter this week in another first – any agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel might not bring about an entirely new dynamic in the Middle East, according to Robert Mogielnicki, also a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “has demonstrated that he’s not afraid of enacting major changes, but he’s only going to move ahead with Israeli-Saudi normalization if he’s convinced it will ultimately advance his domestic agenda and longer-term vision for the country,” Mogielnicki says.

An Israeli Navy officer is seen as Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits U.S. 5th Fleet Headquarters Navy Base in Juffair, Bahrain, earlier this month,Credit: HAMAD I MOHAMMED/REUTERS

He adds that Saudi-Israeli normalization would be a major breakthrough for both parties, with the former benefiting economically as such as an agreement would likely trigger heightened international interest in development and tourism projects in northwestern Saudi Arabia and along the Red Sea coastline.

“A normalization agreement could also produce new avenues for Saudi Arabia to enhance economic cooperation with Jordan and Egypt,” Mogielnicki says.

New priorities

While Crown Prince Mohammed has in the past broken Saudi protocol in relation to Israel – recognizing its right to exist, for instance, in a 2018 interview – his father, King Salman, is unequivocally devoted to advancing a Palestinian state and an accord is unlikely to happen while he remains in power, says Prof. Eugene Rogan, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at Oxford University.

“King Salman is committed to Palestinian national rights and he has blocked any steps by his son to sign onto an agreement with Israel. That now seems less likely with the Biden administration than it might have been under [Donald] Trump,” Rogan says.

For Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the political situation in Washington is simply not ripe for U.S.-backed Israeli-Saudi normalization. Not only has the White House deprioritized the Middle East as a foreign policy objective, Miller says “the media has by no means forgotten about Jamal Khashoggi. And there’s been no accounting and no accountability.”

The Biden administration distanced itself from the Saudis after U.S. intelligence reports concluded that Saudi journalist Khashoggi’s murder was approved by the highest echelons of the Saudi government. Biden’s phone call with King Salman last week was only their second since the U.S. president assumed office just over a year ago.

A protester holding up a poster of murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, in Istanbul last year.Credit: Emrah Gurel / AP

Miller, who was a former Middle East peace negotiator in previous Republican and Democratic administrations, pointed to the Trump administration’s single-minded pursuit of achieving a “deal of the century” in the Middle East – a strategy that isn’t shared by the Biden administration.

“I remember meeting with Jared Kushner in 2018 when he laid out his strategy for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf,” Miller recounts. “He made it unmistakably clear that the Trump administration was not interested in a two-state solution [between Israel and the Palestinians] but was interested in a 22-state solution [the number of countries in the Arab League], starting with the Gulf – and that’s what they did.

“The Trump administration provided an enormous number of weapons, provided tremendous cover and acquiesced in just about everything the Gulf states wanted,” he continues. “As enamored as the Biden administration has been with the Abraham Accords, I don’t see them devoting the same attention as the Trump administration and paying the necessary political price to succeed.”

Miller adds that Israel would need to demonstrate a willingness to concede on the Palestinian front to succeed with the Saudis. “Remember the Emiratis used as justification Netanyahu’s [dropping of his election] pledge to annex the West Bank,” he says. “And it’s hard to imagine any Saudi agreement that wouldn’t be tethered to a significant Israeli and/or American move with respect to the Palestinians.”

Khaled Elgindy, director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute in Washington, points to the question of public opinion, noting that a majority of Arab citizens – including in the Gulf – are still broadly supportive of Palestinian rights and distrustful of Israel.

“It’s hard to imagine Saudis moving to normalize without some significant and tangible Israeli step on the Palestinian front, which seems almost impossible in the current environment,” he says. “All of these calculations could change in the event of Mohammed bin Salman’s ascension to the throne. But even then, normalization with Israel without a major shift on Palestine will be a very tough sell.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, visiting Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in the United Arab Emirates in December. Credit: SAUDI PRESS AGENCY/REUTERS

But with Iran-backed Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia reported to have doubled in 2021 compared to 2020, deeper cooperation with Israel might make strategic sense for Saudi Arabia, especially as U.S. domestic support for Saudi continues to show little sign of amelioration.

“If the U.S. is unable, for domestic political reasons, to help the Saudis upgrade their air defense systems and intelligence, the Saudis may turn to Israel,” says Brandon Friedman, director of research at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. In Saudi Arabia, he adds, “security policy pragmatism eventually emerges. So, if there’s no U.S. solution to Saudi vulnerability to the Houthis – either diplomatic or technological – then Saudi normalization with Israel may be in the offing.”

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