Ever since the United Arab Emirates (UAE) formalized full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel last year, many analysts have wondered whether Saudi Arabia would soon follow in Abu Dhabi’s footsteps. Thus far, Riyadh has refused to join the Abraham Accords for various reasons mostly pertaining to the Kingdom’s historic leadership role in the Islamic world, regional politics, and Saudi public opinion on the Palestinian struggle.
However, it is worth asking if current dynamics in US-Saudi relations—more specifically, relations between Democrats and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS)—could lead to the Kingdom normalizing ties with Israel. In other words, might Saudi Arabia take this step with the hope of improving the Crown Prince’s standing with President Joe Biden and elites in the Democratic Party?
A Damaged Standing
MbS does not have the best reputation among Democrats. This has much to do with his purported role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Almost a year after Khashoggi’s death, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pointed to Khashoggi’s killing as reason to oppose the US waging any military operations against Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the drone attacks against major Saudi oil facilities in Khurais and Abqaiq in September 2019.
At a Democratic Primary Election debate in November 2019, Biden addressed the journalist’s murder case. “Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince,” Biden stated. “I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” Biden added that there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia.”
The once strong bipartisan support for Saudi narratives about the Yemeni conflict ended years ago.
Yemen is obviously an important factor too. At that same debate, Biden said he would “end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children.” The once strong bipartisan support for Saudi narratives about the Yemeni conflict ended years ago. During Trump’s presidency, the worsening of humanitarian disasters in Yemen became one of the main concerns that a growing number of Democrats pointed to when arguing against continued US support for the Saudi-led coalition.
Beyond the Khashoggi affair and Yemen, other issues also hurt MbS’ image in the eyes of Democrats. The 2017-2021 blockade of Qatar, the abduction of Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Riyadh’s diplomatic spat with Canada, the imprisonment of specific rights activists, and the Saudi government’s alleged role in Abdulrahman Sameer Noorah’s fleeing from the US are all examples.
Could MbS Rehabilitate His Image in the US?
Now MbS must work with Biden and Democrats to rehabilitate his image. The Crown Prince no longer has a US president to constantly rely on and assume he will always be given the benefit of the doubt to the maximum extent possible. Within this context, MbS seems to be taking steps to improve ties with Biden and important figures in his party. Saudi Arabia reconciling with Qatar in January 2021, freeing some high-profile political prisoners, and engaging the Iranians in talks in Baghdad that parallel the nuclear talks in Vienna all show how Riyadh is adjusting to the realities of US foreign policy in the post-Trump era.
Thus, the recent efforts lead to the question: Would normalizing relations with Israel be a logical next step for MbS to come closer to winning over Biden and “centrist” Democrats?
This bold move “would probably almost complete his fundamental rehabilitation with most American internationalists, both Republicans and Democrats,” explained Hussein Ibish, a Senior Scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, in an interview with Inside Arabia. “Such a major foreign policy victory for the United States, combined with the fact that there is really nothing the US can do to prevent MbS from becoming the Saudi King and no real alternative to the alliance with Saudi Arabia, would probably put a final footnote on the Trump administration era dismay with MbS among American centrist internationalists.”
A Generational Shift in the Democratic Party
Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords could neutralize some of the condemnations of the country from Democrats but “not as much as it would have 20 years ago,” according to Dave Des Roches, an Associate Professor at Washington’s National Defense University, who spoke with Inside Arabia.
There is no question that older Democrats who are pro-Israel to the core would very much welcome Riyadh formalizing diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. Perhaps that would result in a number of these politicians dropping the topic of Khashoggi’s killing. But such an accord would not earn MbS goodwill among the younger and more progressive members of the party, who frequently criticize both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“The left would probably never reconcile themselves to [MbS] for various reasons, most notably his human rights record . . .”
Ibish agrees that Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords would not lead to the more progressive elements of the Democratic Party embracing MbS. “The left would probably never reconcile themselves to [MbS] for various reasons, most notably his human rights record and the tendency to see him as the embodiment of everything the progressive left dislikes and fears about the Gulf Arab monarchies in general, and not just Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Led by the “Squad”—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—the Democratic Party’s progressive wing “don’t see Israel as the noble survivors of the Holocaust fighting for one small piece of land for themselves,” said Des Roches. “They see them as oppressors of Palestinians.”
These are the same voices criticizing Biden for not directly sanctioning MbS for his purported role in Khashoggi’s murder. “If the United States of America truly supports freedom of expression, democracy and human rights, there is no reason not to sanction Mohammed bin Salman — a man our own intelligence found to have approved the murder of US resident and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi,” said Congresswoman Omar, who introduced legislation to sanction MbS. “Every minute the Crown Prince escapes punishment is a moment where US interests, human rights, and the lives of Saudi dissenters are at risk.”
Constraints on MbS Make a Saudi-Israeli Accord Unlikely
The reason why Saudi Arabia has not normalized relations with Israel is probably not because of MbS not wanting to do so. In fact, MbS, whom the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) has heavily influenced over the years, would probably favor normalization. For his Vision 2030 economic framework, MbS would undoubtedly welcome a formalized relationship with a wealthy, innovative, and technologically advanced country which could help the Saudis in the field of Artificial Intelligence.
“I think MbS would love to rush into having some form of peace treaty [with Israel] . . .. He probably feels a bit left out, a little bit on the side while, wanting to seize this opportunity,” explained Neil Quilliam, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House and Managing Director at Azure Strategy, when discussing the Arab region’s current trend toward normalization.
But, as Quilliam noted, whether as Crown Prince or later as King, MbS must deal with constraints that will likely give him good reason to avoid signing a diplomatic deal with Israel under the current circumstances. Regionally, there are concerns about how rivals and adversaries could leverage any Saudi-Israeli accord against the Kingdom to try and convince more Arabs and Muslims that the Al Saud family is not in a position to lead the Islamic world.
The “Saudi street” would be against their country’s normalization of relations with the Jewish state.
To be sure, the “Saudi street” would be against their country’s normalization of relations with the Jewish state. The older generation of Saudis would be particularly opposed to abandoning the Arab Peace Initiative which the late King Abdullah set forth in Beirut almost two decades ago as the Saudi Crown Prince. At home, the plight of Palestinians matters to enough Saudi citizens to the point whereby MbS can’t simply try to bury the Palestinian cause as his counterpart in Abu Dhabi, MbZ, has attempted to do.
As relatively small countries, the UAE and Bahrain’s authorities can easily keep a lid on any potential public protests by citizens upset with the normalization of relations with Israel. But in Saudi Arabia, a country that is geographically the same size as western Europe and with a much larger population, the picture is quite different.
Additionally, within the royal family there is a widely shared belief that building official relations with Israel under existing conditions would not serve Saudi interests. Some Middle East experts such as the Middle East Institute’s Bilal Saab have warned that an accord between Riyadh and Tel Aviv could even trigger a clerical revolt in the Kingdom, a scenario that MbS does not want.
Ultimately, all these factors will give the Saudi leadership reason to cautiously assess the risks of having Riyadh join the Abraham Accords. Even if Saudi Arabia doing so could help MbS salvage his reputation in Washington, the chances are good that Riyadh will continue working with Israel in unofficial, informal, and tacit ways that prevent the Kingdom from taking the types of risks that normalization would entail.