Although it has been denied by the Saudi government, on November 22 there was a brief meeting in the Saudi high-tech city of NEOM between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other figures from the three countries. While it did not even last two hours, Iran was the main topic of discussion.
What is there to take away from this get-together? There is a risk of reading too much into it. Netanyahu’s under-the-radar visit did not prove that there are new parameters to Saudi Arabia and Israel’s relationship. What we can conclude, however, is that Saudi Arabia is continuing to take partial steps in the direction of normalization.
With the exception of Kuwait, all Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are a part of this trend toward formalization of diplomatic relations with the Jewish state. They have been moving and will continue to move at their own speeds on their own terms. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain first made this move of establishing formal relations with Israel. Qatar and Oman are more than willing to engage Israel pragmatically, which both Doha and Muscat have been doing since the 1990s. Yet these two GCC members believe that Tel Aviv must accept the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002, which requires Israel to retreat to the 1967 borders and permit the Palestinians to have a state with its capital in East Jerusalem, before full-fledged normalization of relations can occur.
As a heavyweight in the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia plays a special religious role to many Muslim countries, institutions, and individuals throughout the Middle East and far beyond. This factor, among others, means that the kingdom’s leadership would have to accept far graver risks in normalizing full-fledged diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv than either the UAE or Bahrain did in August and September.
“The [UAE-Israel] deal involved minimal risks for the Emiratis domestically. Not so for the Saudis.”
“The Saudis are in a totally different position from the Emiratis when it comes to Israel,” wrote Bilal Y. Saab, Senior Fellow and Director of the Middle East Institute’s Defense and Security Program. “The [UAE-Israel] deal involved minimal risks for the Emiratis domestically. Not so for the Saudis. If the regime embraces Israel prematurely—without there being a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians that settles the issue of Jerusalem—the Saudi people might revolt, or at least the country’s clerics would, and that is something [MbS] simply cannot afford.”
“The Saudis have made it clear that they want to normalize and have a certain rapprochement with Israel, but under the table,” Andreas Krieg, a professor at King’s College in London, told Inside Arabia. “I think what we’re going to see is a development like what we’ve seen between the UAE and Israel over the past 15 years or so, where there were delegations flying back-and-forth with officials going back-and-forth. All of it, but with plausible deniability. . . The [Saudi] population is not ready. Many senior members of the royal family are not ready to take that step.”
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Regional actors also factor into the picture. According to the American-Israeli billionaire Haim Saban, MbS told him that Saudi Arabia opening full-fledged diplomatic relations with Israel would get him “killed by Iran, Qatar, and [his] own people.” Doubtless, a normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations would bolster Iranian narratives about the leadership in Riyadh being a puppet of the US that has betrayed the Palestinians.
It seems that Saudi Arabia is adopting a “wait-and-see approach” to the issue of normalization, hoping to monitor whether the UAE, Bahrain, and/or Sudan suffer from blowback or other negative, unintended consequences from their diplomatic openings to the Jewish state. As Kristian Coates Ulrichsen and Annelle Sheline wrote for Responsible Statecraft, although comparing Saudi Arabia and Sudan is difficult due to the two countries’ different roles in the wider Islamic world, “the fact that Sudan’s population of 41 million people only engaged in sporadic demonstrations against this move may have encouraged MbS as to the possibility that Saudis might also exhibit a muted reaction.”
Arguably, Saudi Arabia’s main reason for welcoming the Arab-Israeli diplomatic deals earlier this year had to do with Riyadh wanting other Arab/Islamic countries to test the waters on the normalization front. There is now also talk about Saudi Arabia pressuring Pakistan into opening formal relations with Israel too.
Saudi Arabia is a part of this trend toward abandoning the Arab Peace Initiative (API) and moving toward normalization.
Even if moving a little slower than the Trump administration or Israel would like, Saudi Arabia is a part of this trend toward abandoning the API and moving toward normalization. The NEOM get-together, the kingdom’s decision after the Abraham Accords’ announcement to permit flights between Israel and the UAE to transit over Saudi airspace, and other developments have underscored how Riyadh continues in this direction.
Looking ahead, Saudis and Israelis can strengthen their cooperation, especially as more regional issues in the post-Trump era leave the kingdom and the Jewish state in the same boat. There is no denying that both countries have major concerns about President-elect Joe Biden’s plans for salvaging the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—an accord that Riyadh and Tel Aviv strongly supported Trump pulling the US out of in May 2018.
Beyond shared threat perceptions of Iran and other state and non-state actors in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel have other reasons for wanting to build a stronger partnership even if it remains, at least for now, unofficial. Technology is one important area. As the kingdom seeks to make progress on Vision 2030 (Saudi Arabia’s ambitious economic diversification agenda), Israeli technology, expertise, and innovation has the potential to help the hydrocarbon-rich Arab country decrease its dependency on oil.
Israeli technology, expertise, and innovation has the potential to help the hydrocarbon-rich Arab country decrease its dependency on oil.
One day before the UAE-Israel deal’s announcement, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya published an article by Ummah Capital Partners’ Nave Shachar. The gist of the piece, titled “An Israeli-Saudi ‘Silicon Wadi’ will benefit both countries,” was that Israeli tech firms should look to the Arabian Peninsula for market potential and wealthy investors, and that future investments and partnerships between Israel and the Gulf in the technology sector can drastically help the Middle East.
Additionally, Google has plans to link Saudi Arabia to Israel via a 5,000-mile-long fiber-optic cable within the grander framework of an internet infrastructure project which connects India to Europe. As Israel Hayom reported, “If completed, the network would mark the first time two nations with no formal diplomatic ties will be linked directly as part of an internet infrastructure project.”
What was Netanyahu’s interest in meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince in NEOM? As Riyadh moves closer to normalization, Israel’s Prime Minister will be in a strong position to credibly tell citizens of his country that without making any concessions to the Palestinians, the Jewish state has been able to make major inroads in terms of integrating itself into the Middle East and Africa with Netanyahu at the helm. This serves to undermine the argument made by more liberal Israelis that only through land concessions could their country enjoy full-fledged diplomatic relations with the Arab region at large.
Netanyahu will be in a strong position to credibly tell citizens that without making any concessions to the Palestinians, the Jewish state has been able to make major inroads in the Middle East.
Nonetheless, even if Israel and the US would like to see the Saudi kingdom sign an official diplomatic accord with the Jewish state, it seems that Saudi Arabia is simply not there yet. Perhaps, as some analysts believe, such a formalization of bilateral relations will become far more likely after MbS ascends to the throne as the next King of Saudi Arabia. But for now, it appears that the Crown Prince finds such a move too risky and does not yet want to normalize ties with Israel.
Without taking on all the risks of establishing a full-fledged diplomatic relationship with Tel Aviv, Saudi Arabia can certainly use the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan as hubs that facilitate the strengthening or tacit partnership between Saudi Arabia and Israel. It is also possible that NEOM may come to play a role as a diplomatic “lily pad” between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Dr. Michael Stephens, an associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, responded on Twitter to the Netanyahu-MbS-Pompeo meeting by “wondering if NEOM will be a sort of Hong Kong type arrangement . . . like going to Saudi, but not going to Saudi. Easy visas, designed for coming and going with relative ease, and free trade zones for maximum economic impact.”