Buildings under construction at the King Abdullah Financial District in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in 2016. Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images.
Late last year, I returned to Saudi Arabia for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic. The world was different the last time I visited, in 2018, and so was Riyadh.
Back then, the U.S.-Saudi relationship, which has seen its share of ups and downs over the last 75 years, was stronger than ever. While the bromance between the Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman and Jared Kushner stole the fascination of reporters and pundits, bilateral security and economic cooperation was deepening inside the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury and Energy, all with the aim of exerting maximum pressure on Iran and building a new security architecture in the Middle East.
A focus on countering Iran’s malign activities in the region had already accelerated Israeli-Arab security cooperation, enabling a pro-Israel, pro-Gulf Arab administration in Washington to forge the historic peace agreements known as the Abraham Accords. By late 2020, with the UAE and Bahrain signing the Abraham Accords with Israel on the White House lawn, senior members of the Trump administrating believed Saudi-Israeli normalization would soon follow.
At the same time, the future of a young crown prince moving so quickly on so many proposed reforms was still unclear. Bin Salman, known as MBS, had unveiled what he called Vision 2030, an ambitious and potentially unimplementable set of objectives for economic and social change that would require billions of dollars of investment, rapid construction, Saudis actually working in an economy overly dependent on foreign workers, and the careful navigation of a Wahhabi religious establishment that has long stood in the way of social progress. While the Saudi government’s murder of the Washington Post contributing columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi did not derail the Trump administration’s close coordination with the Royal Court, the fawning of institutional investors and the financial press faded quickly. The gleam vanished. Then came the pandemic that brought the world’s economy to a halt and a presidential election that turned the White House from Saudi champion to antagonist, and no one would be surprised to learn that Vision 2030 had sputtered out. Except it didn’t—at least not entirely.
Going by my trip, state-led investment is driving a continued economic restructuring and social modernization. The capital is filled with construction cranes—so many that the national bird of Saudi Arabia may need to change from the falcon to the crane, to borrow a joke once commonly used to describe China’s post-2000 building frenzy. Commercial flights and SUV convoys whisk away a regular flow of foreign contractors to the Red Sea coastline, where bin Salman continues to build Neom, his centrally planned “smart city” laid out along a long line and powered by renewable energy. Also planned on the coast is a vacation resort destination centered around a strip of dozens of hotels and entertainment centers that will combine the luxury of Las Vegas with the beauty and tranquility of Sharm-el-Sheikh.
Walk into my hotel and a new phenomenon leaps out: Saudis are working full-time jobs. How unusual this is compared to my last visit, when you’d encounter mostly foreigners working the check-in counters and lobbies. Vision 2030 emphasized moving more Saudis from oil-subsidy lifestyles to active participation in the labor market. It seems to be working, and with a surging level of female participation in the workforce; the share of Saudi women working increased from 20 percent in 2018 to 33 by the end of 2020. Look out to the street and you’ll see something else: women behind the wheels of many of the cars, a prophecy of Saudi progress that had for many years been said to be just around the corner now actually seems to be finally coming true. Exterior clothing for some women is more fashionable and edgy, and with somewhat relaxed standards for head-covering. What about the religious police, I asked one Saudi official? They don’t patrol the streets anymore, he claimed—by order of bin Salman.
Expanding family-oriented entertainment is a focus for the kingdom. “Riyadh Season” kicked off in October with parades, festivals, and shows. A newly built massive outdoor promenade boasts high-class restaurants, live concerts, shopping, and light shows. Saudi families enjoy an evening stroll with their children, stopping to listen to the bands or sample cuisine from around the Middle East. Times Square meets the Georgetown Waterfront in the middle of the desert.
Of course, none of this is meant to suggest that Saudi Arabia under bin Salman is becoming politically liberalized. Nor is it to say concerns about human rights have disappeared. Saudi Arabia remains an authoritarian regime, and in any authoritarian regime, a lack of dissent should not be confused with public support. While I wandered off the beaten path here and there, I mostly observed what the government wanted me to see rather than the whole truth of the country.
But what I did see gives me hope for the future. Here we must reflect on a fundamental lesson learned over twenty years of a global war on terrorism. The United States military can fight and kill radical Islamists, but it can’t fight and kill the ideas and beliefs motivating radical Islamism. That war must be fought and won within the Muslim world. If we are to set a course for the next 75 years of diplomatic relations between Washington and Riyadh, a Saudi commitment to combatting radical Islamist ideology must be at its center. If changing social, cultural, and religious norms inside the kingdom helps advance that objective, supporting the reforms helps to strengthen American national security, too.
What about Israel and the Jews? Something is changing on that score, too. Jews and Israel are no longer taboos for regular conversation. “We have a chief rabbi now, you know,” one official said jokingly, referencing Rabbi Jacob Herzog, an American who regularly travels to Saudi Arabia on a tourist visa and styles himself the kingdom’s official rabbi. Saudi officials tell stories of Herzog walking the streets of Riyadh with people routinely asking to take selfies with him.
Before the Abraham Accords, conversations about Israel were intentionally siloed by the regime. Candid conversations were possible in private meetings with the most senior echelons of the Royal Court. But in lower-level meetings, where a large group was gathered with an official notetaker, government and military interlocutors would uncomfortably ignore comments about Israel and change the subject.
Not so on this last trip. Officials tasked with economic development and trade promotion are keen observers of Israeli technological prowess and understand that achieving the lofty Vision 2030 goals demanded by their leader may only be possible if Riyadh normalizes trade relations with Israel. Foreign direct investment in Israeli technology is surging, and Israel is churning out tech unicorn—the term given to a start-up that reaches a valuation of $1 billion or more—after unicorn. If bin Salman wants vastly to expand foreign investment in Saudi innovation, launching partnerships with Israeli firms and venture capitalists is a good way to expedite the process.
Likewise, those focused on the threat from Iran show zero discomfort discussing Israeli policy and potential security cooperation. Military teams working to defend the kingdom from Iran-sponsored Houthi terrorism in Yemen are studying the strategies and tactics employed by Hizballah and Hamas against Israel, and how Israel responds.
Given this apparent comfort with the notion of relations with Israel—including perhaps even an acceptance that Saudi Arabia’s future is tied to normalization rather than conflict with the Jewish state—why hasn’t Riyadh followed its Gulf neighbors into the Abraham Accords?
Conventional wisdom in Washington takes the pro-forma statements issued by the Saudi foreign ministry at face value. Prince Faisal Bin Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, has repeatedly declared that the creation of a Palestinian state is a precondition for normalizing ties with Israel. That is supposedly the firm and immovable policy of King Salman—and it won’t change until the crown prince becomes king.
Or so it is said. Former senior Trump administration officials privately disagree. They claim the Royal Court was prepared to move forward with normalization within a year of the Abraham Accords. The Saudis needed at least six months to gauge the reaction of the Arab world and show skeptics inside the kingdom how their Gulf neighbors had improved their global fortunes both economically and militarily.
So, what changed? Their answer, and mine: the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
President Biden entered office intending to reset American foreign policy in the Middle East. His campaign pledge to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal would be a high administration priority. Thus Robert Malley, a think tanker known throughout the Middle East for his support of engagement with Tehran and its terrorist proxies, including Hizballah and Hamas, was appointed special envoy for Iran. Malley had long advocated pulling back U.S. support for traditional Gulf allies in favor of a balance of power between Iran and the Gulf.
It was accompanied by other worrying signs too. The administration announced it was reviewing U.S.-Saudi ties, implying that the status quo had ceased to serve American interests. Arms sales to the Gulf were delayed. The intelligence community was ordered to publish a recycled report about the killing of Khashoggi, which contained few new details and seemed more intended to stigmatize bin Salman. Worse, Biden ordered the State Department to remove Iran’s terror proxy in Yemen, the Houthis, from the official list of foreign terrorist organizations. Missile and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia spiked immediately after the decision. The administration followed by pulling U.S. military support for the Saudi-led military campaign targeting the Houthis, and even removed American missile-defense support from the kingdom despite the increasing threats.
To make matters worse, rather than come into office celebrating the recently signed Abraham Accords by appointing a special envoy for normalization, and providing incentives and good offices to build Saudi-Israeli peace, Biden and his senior advisers wouldn’t even say the words “Abraham Accords” for months.
Direct engagement by the Trump White House was essential for securing the Accords and follow-on normalization deals with Morocco and Sudan. It’s not surprising then that distancing the White House from Saudi Arabia would make it all but impossible to secure the biggest deal of all.
All this political background suggests that bin Salman’s evident desire to press forward on Vision 2030, despite American opposition to his current authority and future rule, is an indication that he truly does believe in its intrinsic value and is not simply deploying it as a public-relations initiative. That the crown prince has given a green light to open discussions of normalization with Israel may demonstrate an increased comfort level with being a normalization-threshold country.
As the threat from the Houthis increases and as the Biden administration appears ready to lift U.S. sanctions on Iran, flooding the Islamic Revolutionary Guard with cash, bin Salman also knows he needs Israel’s security, intelligence, and economic-warfare cooperation now more than ever. He must also be watching the ever-expanding ties between Israel’s world-leading tech sector and his Gulf neighbors—recognizing the potential for the Israeli innovation engine to turn Neom and other projects from desert mirages into realities.
There are also glimmers of hope that the Biden administration may be divided over how to proceed in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reportedly met with bin Salman last September in Neom. Topics of the meeting were said to include the potential for Saudi normalization with Israel.
Nearly six months later, however, the discussion appears stalled. And with the Biden administration poised to conclude a worrying nuclear deal with Iran that will leave Tehran flush with cash and edging on the threshold of nuclear weapons, Washington’s relationship with Riyadh will be furthered frayed.
It’s not too late for Biden to engage. With the Houthis in recent weeks dramatically escalating their missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the State Department would be more than justified in re-listing the group as a foreign terrorist organization. Additional missile-defense assets could be sent from the U.S. to defend the kingdom. A U.S.-Saudi Vision 2030 working group could be formed to find ways to support the MBS reform agenda—something that would be most attractive to a kingdom looking to increase foreign investment significantly in the years ahead. The White House could develop other security guarantees and incentives for a Saudi decision to join the Abraham Accords—and to swear off a range of potentially threatening relationships with China.
There will be opponents to such an approach within the administration and in Congress. But a Saudi Arabia that commits to rooting out Islamic extremists and normalizing relations with Israel could transform the Middle East for generations. A Saudi Arabia that sides with the United States against China’s increasing presence in the Middle East could be increasingly critical to our national-security strategy. An economically integrated and militarily aligned Arab-Israeli Middle East could credibly allow the United States to draw down its military footprint in the region over time, which is the current administration’s own stated objective.
No one believed the Abraham Accords were possible before they were announced. It took direct engagement and bold creativity to bring them about. Saudi-Israel normalization is possible, but achieving it will take the same level of commitment from the United States.