What Saudi Arabia Is Thinking

There’s talk of the new American administration moving closer to Iran. Could a Saudi step toward peace with Israel protect Riyadh from the troubles that might ensue?

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on October 14, 2020. MANUEL BALCE CENETA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on October 14, 2020. MANUEL BALCE CENETA/POOL/AFP via Getty Images.

Observation
Nov. 24 2020
About the author

Richard Goldberg is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has served on Capitol Hill, on the U.S. National Security Council, as the chief of staff for Illinois’s governor, and as a Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer.

The last few months have brought a series of historic firsts to the Middle East, a region that for all its regular news-making has been stuck in a decades-long strategic stasis. Another first reportedly arrived two days ago: a clandestine meeting in Saudi Arabia between the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. For now it is only an unconfirmed meeting, far from the momentous normalization treaties known as the Abraham Accords that Israel recently ratified with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, or its follow-on peace agreement with Sudan.

There is, nevertheless, an undeniable strategic opportunity at hand for Israel and Saudi Arabia. For the former: diplomatic relations with the custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and normal trade relations with the largest economy in the Arab world. For the latter: formalization of a strategic relationship that benefits the Saudi kingdom’s security and its potential for economic innovation.

Will we see a Saudi-Israeli peace treaty in the coming months? With the election of a new U.S. president bent on returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and the appointment of a secretary of state who has pledged to re-evaluate the U.S.-Saudi relationship, the clock is ticking on what could become the most pivotal decision taken by the House of Saud in more than a generation.

 

Several years ago, Saudi Arabia’s future looked bleak. Thanks to the Iran nuclear deal, the kingdom’s archenemy was newly flush with cash. The Obama administration sought a balance of power in the Gulf, rather than siding with America’s traditional Sunni Arab allies. The price of oil had just dropped 60 percent in three years, creating economic pressures at home. A war in Yemen was dragging on longer than expected; images of emaciated children had become a staple of foreign media coverage, and, with news that the Saudi-led coalition mistakenly struck a school bus with a missile, killing 40 children, a bipartisan coalition in Congress pressed to cut off arms sales to the Gulf and to force the Saudis and Emiratis to withdraw from the conflict.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration was normalizing the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudi government’s most feared internal enemy. And Congress, still viewing Saudi Arabia as a haven for terror finance and the export of jihad, voted to override a presidential veto that would have blocked the families of September 11th victims from suing the Saudi government.

In Riyadh, it was obvious something had to change. The Saudis correctly assessed that, despite high-level relationships with the American private sector and defense establishment, many in the West still saw them as terrorists. With a new generation coming to power, their country’s position was weakening. An economy built on oil would no longer immunize them from scrutiny, nor would it indefinitely sustain their economy or the rule of the royal family. They needed to try something new, something that would strengthen their own security as well as warm relations with Washington and the West.

Facing a growing threat from Iran, quiet cooperation with Israel’s security and intelligence apparatus accelerated. The unexpected election of President Donald Trump also gave the Saudis an opportunity to rebrand. Saudi Arabia would launch a campaign to present itself as a reforming, progressive kingdom working to liberalize its economy. It was time for Riyadh to move its secret relationship with Israel out of the shadows.

 

But before it could, it had to deal with a problem that was simultaneously domestic and one of perceptions abroad. For decades, the Muslim World League (MWL) financed radical Islamist schools, scholars, and research while providing hate-filled textbooks to Muslim communities around the globe. This network promoted intolerance of many kinds, including hatred of Jews and the Jewish state. If Saudi Arabia wanted to fight an ideological war against radical Islam and get ahead of any Wahhabi opposition to relations with Israel, the MWL was the place to start.

In August 2016, bin Salman installed the former Saudi justice minister Muhammad al-Issa as the secretary general of the MWL. Al-Issa, an expert in Islamic jurisprudence, entered office with a mandate to counter extremist ideology within the organization. By mid-2017, he was prepared for a global charm offensive to complement the marketing of bin Salman as a reform leader.

But even the greatest skeptics had to concede that what al-Issa was doing and saying went far deeper than public-relations spin. He publicly condemned Holocaust denial and visited Auschwitz. He told Muslim communities abroad to “embrace the nations they live in”—integrating into society rather than radicalizing on the margins. In public and private, he opposed sending Muslim students to Islamic private schools rather than giving them an opportunity to learn science, math, and literature. When accusations of extremism in MWL-connected mosques propped up, al-Issa cut ties.

When my Foundation for the Defense of Democracies colleague Mark Dubowitz and I first met al-Issa in Riyadh, before he had hosted more high-profile delegations or visited synagogues abroad, we probed his views at great length on a myriad of longstanding concerns about the kingdom’s support for extremists. At the end of our meeting, I informed him that I was a Modern Orthodox Jew—a member of a movement founded on similar principles to those al-Issa espoused for Islam in which adherence to traditional Judaism and an embrace of the progressive, secular world were complementary, not incompatible. “You are creating Islamic Modern Orthodoxy,” I quipped.

Around the same time as our visit, Prince Turki bin Faisal al-Saud, a former chief of Saudi intelligence, and Efraim Halevy, a former director of the Mossad, were sharing a stage at a New York synagogue to discuss the Trump administration’s strategy on Iran. Putting the pieces together, it looked to us like the Saudis weren’t just focused on reforms internally; they were laying tracks for normalization with Israel.

By summer, bin Salman lifted the ban on female drivers—once again bolstering his image as a moderating influence moving Saudi Arabia toward a more liberal future. For a moment, Washington looked at Saudi Arabia as part of a better future for the Middle East, not as the natural home of fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers.

Americans overlooked the palace intrigue underway in the kingdom where bin Salman, still fending off competition for the throne, jailed rival royals and elites in the Ritz Carlton hotel. When the Lebanese prime minister dropped out of sight then suddenly appeared in Saudi Arabia announcing his resignation, the incident was simply chalked up as bizarre. Human-rights concerns in an autocratic police state took a back seat. The reform-minded rhetoric and activity, especially improvements in the status of women, had turned around Saudi Arabia’s image in just over a year. Everything was coming together for the kingdom’s future under bin Salman. Everything was still on track for a slow, incremental path to normalization with Israel.

 

Then came the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident who wrote a column for the Washington Post. He was brutally dismembered in a Saudi consulate in Turkey in October 2018, and his murder could not have done more damage to the country’s position. Khashoggi wasn’t an anonymous Saudi locked away in a hotel. He had friends in Washington—in the media, in think tanks, and on Capitol Hill. That the killing was recorded by Turkish intelligence and its details slowly leaked to the media increased the political cost exponentially. Overnight, for many Washington insiders, the image of bin Salman turned from celebrity reformer to brutal dictator.

In the aftermath, Jerusalem was notably silent. Israel had already cast its lot with Saudi Arabia over Turkey and Qatar. With the fall of the Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president to replace him, America’s traditional allies in the Middle East—Israel and the Sunni Arabs—were stunned. The Brotherhood had long challenged Arab monarchies in the region while its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, terrorized the state of Israel. The Obama administration’s acceptance of the Muslim Brotherhood and deepening ties to the Brotherhood’s state sponsors—Turkey and Qatar—provoked the beginnings of the unexpected alliance between Riyadh and Jerusalem.

And Israel wasn’t alone. Political pressure to condemn bin Salman was steadily growing on Capitol Hill and in the media, but the Trump administration was willing to ignore it. President Trump’s instincts militated against criticism of pro-American regimes. In addition, the United States was a month away from re-imposing oil sanctions on Iran as part of the president’s decision to leave the nuclear deal. While the U.S. was not dependent on Saudi oil in the way it once was, the kingdom’s swing production capacity would still be critical in keeping oil markets stable amidst an imminent loss of at least one million barrels per day of Iranian crude. Trump also valued his chief adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner’s relationship with bin Salman—a relationship he assessed would be jeopardized by public criticism. Even so, the administration ultimately imposed sanctions on seventeen Saudi officials despite absolving bin Salman personally of Khashoggi’s murder.

While the executive branch was determined to maintain a strategic partnership with bin Salman despite the Khashoggi affair—a show of loyalty in a region built on trust and relationships—the temperature on Capitol Hill never cooled. Congress sent the president a series of bills aimed at cutting off American arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Trump vetoed them all—building up more chits with Gulf leaders that would come in handy the following year when he put that fantastic goal of every American president, peace in the Middle East, again on the table. Trump’s actions did not lead to a “deal of the century” with the Palestinians, but they did, by happenstance, lead to the Abraham Accords.

 

It was not surprising that when Trump announced in 2017 that he would be moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, the pundit class in Washington predicted the Arab world would be set ablaze. The same predictions were made when the president announced he would cut U.S. funding to the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency (UNRWA). Outrage and condemnation followed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s declaration in 2019 that the U.S. would no longer consider Israeli settlements inherently illegal. For decades, both diplomats and scholars had insisted the core problem in the Middle East was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Solve that and anything else is possible; otherwise, there will never be peace.

What was surprising, at least to anyone who hadn’t had a private conversation with a Sunni Arab leader in a few years, was the muted response from the “Arab Street” to each of the Trump administration’s moves. Foreign ministries churned out pro-forma statements and the Palestinians worked to get UN votes of condemnation, but no riots erupted and the news cycle moved on from the issues quickly.

Trump’s moves—widely panned by foreign-policy mandarins as counterproductive to peace—were not originally intended to spur Arab-Israel peace agreements like the Abraham Accords. These were actions aimed at the Palestinians, part of a strategy leading up to the rollout of the highly anticipated “Peace to Prosperity” plan. But Palestinian rejectionism and Israeli political turmoil made negotiations all but impossible.

In attempting to lay the groundwork for Palestinian-Israeli peace from the inside-out, however, the Trump administration made a new discovery: peace was possible from the outside-in. The long-standing hypothesis that Arab leaders would pay a price for normalizing relations with Israel was false. The Palestinian issue need not be fully resolved for Arab states to make peace with Israel. And by cementing Arab-Israeli peace treaties, the Palestinians would soon need to make a choice: cut the best deal they can get or get left behind by a changing Middle East.

 

A few days before the UAE announced it was normalizing relations with Israel, I published an article in Newsweek that argued that Saudi Arabia and the UAE could hedge against the potential fallout of a Democratic victory in November by normalizing relations with Israel. It was clear to me then—as it is now—that the anti-Saudi, pro-Iran echo chamber in Washington would organize a full-throated campaign to cut off arms sales to both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and impose further sanctions on Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s killing. With Donald Trump out of the way and pro-Iran-deal Democrats in control, the U.S.-Gulf relationship would turn 180-degrees—unless the Gulf states gave the Biden administration a compelling reason to stay on good terms.

The Abraham Accords have already proven my thesis correct. Last summer, President Trump was vetoing legislation to cut off U.S. arms sales to the UAE. Today, Congress is debating whether and how the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter would be made available to the same country. The UAE and Bahrain punched their proverbial tickets to long-term U.S. security guarantees as a cornerstone of their peace treaties with Israel—just as Egypt and Jordan had done previously.

Saudi Arabia could have a similar future if it follows its neighbors. Alternatively, it could become the sole target of congressional wrath—facing a long-term cut-off of U.S. arms sales and increased human-rights sanctions on top regime officials, potentially including bin Salman himself. The kingdom could also lose support from Iran hawks who are more inclined to give bin Salman the benefit of the doubt in the context of a maximum-pressure campaign against Tehran. Saudi Arabia’s decision to flood the oil market earlier this year devastated U.S. industry in states represented by Republicans, while China hawks are increasingly alarmed by Beijing’s support for the Saudi ballistic-missile and nuclear programs.

There’s more at stake, too. A normalization agreement with Israel opens the door for bin Salman to relaunch Vision 2030, his ambitious development initiative—this time backed by eager U.S. and Israeli investors. The initiative’s website hasn’t been updated since 2018 when the Khashoggi killing led to an international boycott of what was scheduled to be another star-studded Riyadh investment conference.

The Saudis are undoubtedly watching with jealousy the instant flow of capital to the UAE since the Abraham Accords were signed. Venture capitalists and hedge funds are lining up to establish trilateral U.S.-Israel-UAE investment funds and joint ventures. The three governments recently announced a joint $3 billion fund based in Jerusalem to promote regional integration. Saudi Arabia’s GDP is nearly twice the size of the UAE. The opportunity to establish trilateral U.S.-Israel-Saudi initiatives—or even fully integrated U.S.-Israel-Gulf investment plays—will be even more attractive over time. Vision 2030 already provides the investor roadmap with programs planned across multiple sectors of the Saudi economy. Bin Salman’s digital city on the Red Sea, Neom, might actually get built.

In fact, that this week’s reported clandestine meeting between Netanyahu and bin Salman took place in Neom is significant. The leader of the “Start-up Nation” met with the founder of a smart-city incubator—a reminder that Israeli-Saudi normalization is about a lot more than just Iran.

If securing American arms sales and rebuilding excitement for his country’s economic modernization aren’t enough of an incentive to normalize relations with Israel, bin Salman has one more: Qatar would become more isolated in Washington. No longer could Doha claim to be the moderate Gulf nation when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain have normalized ties with Israel while Qatar continues to support Hamas and pump out anti-Semitism in English and Arabic through Al Jazeera.

 

How long will Saudi Arabia spend on the edge of friendship with Israel? The Saudi Royal Court is old-fashioned when it comes to the Jewish state. In its official response to the Abraham Accords, the Saudi foreign ministry declared that the kingdom would not normalize relations with Israel until peace is achieved between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of the Arab (i.e., Saudi) Peace Initiative of 2002.

While bin Salman may assess that radical extremism, Iran, and an oil-based economy are the primary long-term challenges facing Saudi Arabia, his advisers may fear that radical clerics in coordination with rivals within the royal family and foreign intelligence services (e.g., those of Qatar, Iran, or Turkey) would use normalization with Israel as the pretext for a coup or assassination. Indeed, the U.S. philanthropist Haim Saban recently claimed that bin Salman told him exactly that. Incrementalism is thus the preferred approach—opening Saudi airspace to Israeli commercial flights; inserting Israeli characters into Saudi television dramas; and signaling Riyadh’s approval of other Arab countries normalizing with Israel.

But will this incremental approach provide enough reason for a Biden administration to shield bin Salman from what the pro-Iran deal, anti-Saudi wing of the Democratic party will push forward in Congress? Media coverage of the Abraham Accords gives little to no credit to Saudi Arabia for its behind-the-scenes enablement of the other peace treaties. Bin Salman needs a formal agreement with Israel—or at least an institutionalized process for reaching an agreement—to complicate anti-Saudi initiatives in Washington.

 

This week’s reported meeting between bin Salman and Netanyahu may be a step in that direction. But more is needed—and soon. Within hours of learning about the bin Salman-Netanyahu meeting, President-elect Joe Biden announced that Antony Blinken would serve as his secretary of state. Last month, Blinken told Jewish Insider that a Biden administration would “undertake a strategic review of our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia to make sure that it is truly advancing our interests and is consistent with our values.”

Ambassador Dennis Ross, a former Middle East peace envoy, has suggested a step-by-step approach that might appeal to bin Salman—that is, staged normalization in exchange for staged Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Israel, however, may see the status-quo relationship with Saudi Arabia more favorably. Why give in to pressure to make concessions when other Gulf states have normalized in full and more Arab governments may follow?

The UAE wisely leveraged Arab fears of an Israeli sovereignty declaration in the West Bank to spin its normalization agreement as a win for the Palestinians, since the declaration never went forward. Is there something similar Netanyahu could offer to allow Saudi Arabia to claim an achievement toward Israeli-Palestinian peace?

Maybe a normalization agreement commits Israel to a peace process with the Palestinians based on both the Trump peace plan and Arab Peace Initiative. Maybe it recognizes the mutual importance of Jerusalem and guarantees Muslim access to holy sites. Framed correctly, it could offer Saudi Arabia something to tout not just in the Middle East but throughout the Muslim world—without forcing Netanyahu to make concessions his government would not allow.

Can creative and willing minds find something that works? Israel stands at the crossroads of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and the ball is in the Royal Court.

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More about: Abraham Accords, Iran, Iranian nuclear program, Israel & Zionism, Israel-UAE Peace Agreement, Jamal Khashoggi, Joseph Biden, Middle East, Saudi Arabia