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A Star Over Jordan In An Arabian Night: On Israel - Saudi Arabia Normalization

Sako Bakr

A formal state of peace has eluded Israel and Saudi Arabia since the formation of the Jewish state in 1948 - yet everything may be about to change. On a June 5th trip to Riyadh, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Ahead of his visit, Blinken said that the United States has a legitimate “national security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.” 

For their part, Saudi officials have said that normalization with Riyadh will require a two state solution, thereby sticking with the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which conditions normalization with Israel on its withdrawal from Arab territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) takes a less severe stance compared to his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz. MBS has said he believes that the Jewish people have a right to a nation state in at least part of their ancestral homeland. MBS has interest in a normalization agreement with Israel unlike his father King Abdullah, who initiated the hardline 2002 peace initiative during his reign.     

Although no official relations exist between Saudi Arabia and Israel, there have been signs of a rapprochement between the two countries in recent years. In 2015 for instance, the Saudis reportedly would have allowed the Israeli air force to cross their airspace to bomb Iran (had Israel chosen to do so), but this news has been denied by both the Saudi and Israeli sides. Even so, there are indicators that display the undeclared relations and channels of communication between them. The development of these relations were due to the two countries having a common desire to cooperate against the shared threat of Iran and to secure their collective interests (and investments) in the region.    

Another and more direct sign of warming ties was reported on September 2, 2020, when the Saudi General Civil Aviation Authority approved a request from the General Civil Aviation Authority of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that allowed any flights going to and from the United Arab Emirates to fly over its territory. This approval permitted the first direct flight from Israel to U.A.E through Saudi airspace. Even Saudi writers and bloggers have begun to promote agreements with Israel and have justified this shift by pointing to a lack of progress with the Arab Peace Initiative. Mohammad Saud, a Saudi social-media influencer, said, “Saudi Arabian citizens are starting to learn much more about the Jewish people around the world.”       

Such common interests and investments can be demonstrated by looking at the respective nations' challenges. In 2023, there are two major foreign policy challenges for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The first challenge is reducing or eliminating Houthi influence in Yemen (supported by Iran) after they seized the reins of power in Yemen in a coup against President Abed Rabbo Hadi. Secondly, the kingdom must confront the consequences of Iranian progress towards a nuclear weapon.

This presents an opportunity for security cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Both Saudi Arabia and Israel oppose the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, and they see Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a real threat to the region. In addition, Israel sees Saudi recognition as something that holds political, religious, and economic weight in the Muslim world. A deal would counter the general view amongst many Muslims that the presence of a Jewish state in the region is illegitimate.         

MBS has ambitious socioeconomic plans for his country and is betting on Israel's role in making the Vision 2030 transition plan successful. The possible rapprochement with Israel is anticipated to reap significant advantages for economic and technological cooperation and investment. In April of 2021, Saudi Arabia announced the Saudi Green Initiative, a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change and protect the environment. As part of the initiative, the Kingdom aims to produce 50% of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030. To assist in this audacious plan, SolarEdge, an Israeli and global leader in smart energy technology, as well as Ajlan & Bros Holding, one of the largest private sector conglomerates in the Middle East and North Africa region, have signed a joint agreement to advance the Gulf Kingdom’s transition to solar energy. This joint venture is detailed in a rare public deal between the two countries, which to reiterate - do not have official diplomatic relations.          

In addition, the potential Israeli-Saudi normalization would also entail political gains for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his legacy. Normalization with the kingdom would be another great foreign policy triumph for Netanyahu after the “Abraham Accords” normalization deals in 2020 with four Arab states, which included Saudi neighbors like Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.It could provide a much needed political victory at a time when the Israeli government has been dealing with widespread and weekly protests from those opposed to the coalition's judicial reform plan.

While a deal might be beneficial for the Israelis, Americans, and Saudis it raises the question: what do the Palestinians gain from such an agreement? Saudi Arabia just named its first (non-resident) ambassador to Palestine on August 12th of this year, appointing Ayef bin Bandar Al-Sudairi, who also served as ambassador to Jordan. However, this move seems intended to placate future criticism rather than increase ties with the Palestinian Authority.

 Although the Saudis have made preemptive efforts to reduce the potential political fallout from a normalization deal with Israel, the hardening Saudi position against the Islamic resistance movement Hamas is sure to anger some Palestinians. Many Palestinians and Jordanians residing in the Kingdom have been arrested and accused of affiliation with a terrorist organization and raising funds on its behalf. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been setting strict conditions for the transfer of funds to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.         

The Arabs have tried the methods of the boycott and war for 75 years but these tools have achieved little. Perhaps establishing relations and working with Israel will be the best way to mitigate the Palestinian plight. It will be difficult for Saudi Arabia's public image to take the same steps as Bahrain and the UAE, especially under the administration of King Salman. Nonetheless, King Salman is said to be in poor health and it may not be long until Saudi Arabia transitions to a new leader. The royal succession will present new opportunities for a change in the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

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