WASHINGTON – With U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East in the rearview mirror, what will be the next steps in the effort to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia?
Experts say that while Biden’s visit made progress on the subject, any expectations of a quick linear process are misguided. A full normalization is probably still years away, something for when the Saudi public is better conditioned to accept it.
“I just don’t think the Saudis will necessarily feel that’s all geared toward a final outcome, whereas the White House thinks of this road map for normalization as a much more structured plan,” says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Israel's absorption by the U.S. Central Command creates opportunities for events such as meetings of senior officers, as happened in March when CENTCOM chief Kenneth McKenzie Jr. visited Israel. This may also include the transfer of Israeli defense systems to Gulf countries.
“The Saudis don’t mind some kind of regional cooperation that includes Israel under that umbrella, because it doesn’t single them out and it doesn’t single Israel out,” says Yasmine Farouk, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
According to Carmiel Arbit, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, “We can expect greater integration around a regional security framework – whether it’s CENTCOM exercises or new bipartisan legislation that helps promote a more integrated security infrastructure. The question is, can it go on to the next level?”
Opportunities for economic cooperation are many as well, including Israeli involvement in the Saudis' transformation of their economy in sectors like renewable energy.
These steps, no matter how much they signal that Saudi Arabia is no longer against relations with Israel, don't indicate an encroaching normalization.
“In terms of concrete steps, we shouldn’t consider everything as being a step toward normalization,” Farouk says. “Of course, it is being politically used and presented as such to score points in Washington and Israel.”
- Biden in Israel: An important unimportant visit
- In Mideast trip, Biden uncoupled Israel from the Palestinians
- What this Palestinian would have told Biden during his Mideast visit
After both U.S. and Israeli officials lauded the Red Sea-islands and overflight deals signed during Biden’s visit, Saudi officials clarified that those decisions were based on their own self-interest. They stressed that there would be no normalization with Israel before the creation of a Palestinian state.
“I can’t see any scenario, road map or not, where the Saudis move towards full-fledged, public normalization without some serious progress on the Palestinian front,” Arbit says. “It’s useful that progress with the Palestinians is a shared objective for the Biden administration, but with the Israeli government in paralysis, it’s hard to see how the Saudis calculate any meaningful moves forward in the short term.”
The next possible agreement is Saudi Arabia permitting direct charter flights for Israeli Muslims making next year’s pilgrimage to Mecca. But even this is “more for Muslims than Israel itself,” Farouk adds. “Yet it’s being included as something as part of normalization.”
The Palestinian roadblock is largely in place thanks to Saudi Arabia’s 86-year-old King Salman, who adopts a more traditional stance toward Israel than his successor-in-waiting, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“As long as King Salman is still alive and with us, political and diplomatic normalization is probably off the table,” Ulrichsen says, noting that Saudi officials’ efforts to downplay their Israeli ties were “just stating a reality.”
This indicates an element holding the Saudis back compared to the parties to the Abraham Accords: their view of the kingdom as carrying a responsibility for the entire Muslim world.
“The Saudis have to issue statements that reflect domestic and regional interests,” Ulrichsen says. “Saudi Arabia is not the UAE; it is the Custodian of the Two Holy Places. They feel they have a sort of religious component to that policymaking.”
These attitudes trickle down to everyday Saudis, who are nowhere near as prepared for the prospect of normalization as their Israeli counterparts. Saudi officials could take several steps to make progress here, particularly concerning antisemitism in the public sphere.
“The Saudis would need to reform their textbooks or engage in a wider education campaign to start to shift public opinion; they would also need to seek out wider opportunities for leadership to interact with one another,” Arbit says. “It would really require starting to move public opinion, and they have the ability to do that if they so choose.”
She adds that the Saudis should “push for greater diplomatic interactions including Holocaust education training for their diplomatic corps, as other countries in the region have done – there’s so many different intermediate steps that they could be taking to start to warm up public perception.”
In the meantime, frosty relations between Prince Mohammed and Biden are likely to cap U.S. progress in pushing Riyadh down the path.
“Relations are tense with the Biden administration,” Farouk says. “His visit was supposed to ease the tensions between the two leaders, but MBS won’t want to give something that big to Biden. Washington doesn’t have a lot of leverage at this moment.”
Ulrichsen notes that the crown prince will probably try to leverage this new balance and geopolitical power for his own interests – perhaps with Biden over oil and gasoline prices, knowing that the 2022 midterm elections and the 2024 presidential vote are on the horizon.
“The issue of normalization isn’t necessarily a card that the crown prince will play yet,” he says. “He may play it once he’s king or once he has a better idea of what happens next in the U.S.”