Saudi Arabia and Israel: Preparing for the American Downsizing in the Middle East

Brandon Friedman analyzes Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel. This article is part of "The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel".

USA former president Donald Trump meets Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, 2017
Donald Trump, USA former president, and Mohammed bin Salman, Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, 2017 [Public Domain].

The status of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel is closely linked to the United States’s goals of reducing its engagement in the Middle East and investing more of its political capital and military resources in Asia. For the first two years of the Trump administration, the Saudi concern about American disengagement from the region was mitigated to an extent by the personal rapport between the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed and Trump’s son-in-law and counselor Jared Kushner. However, when the Trump administration chose not to respond to Iran’s attack on the Saudi oil facilities at Biqayq and Khurais in September 2019, the Saudis felt themselves isolated and vulnerable. The Saudi interest in advancing its ties with Israel is rooted therefore in its anticipation of the U.S. disengagement from the region and its potential effects on Saudi security. Yet the question of whether and when Saudi Arabia will normalize its relations with Israel will ultimately be conditioned by Saudi domestic politics. Therefore, despite the Saudi interest in continuing to expand its strategic relationship with Israel, the official status of Saudi-Israeli ties will depend on an uncertain combination of the Biden administration’s policy in the Middle East and Saudi internal political constraints.

Historically, Saudi-Israeli relations have been characterized by quiet diplomacy. However, the Trump administration’s efforts since 2017 to solve the Palestinian issue “from the outside in,” and its success in brokering normalization between Israel the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain in the summer of 2020, forced Saudi Arabia’s ties with Israel into the limelight. This in turn has exposed sharp differences within the Saudi royal family about the appropriate nature and future status of Saudi Arabia’s ties to Israel. In early October, al-Arabiya published a three-part interview with Bandar bin Sultan, who served as the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. for 23 years. Bandar’s father was the Saudi Defense Minister for 48 years, and his 45-year old daughter, Reema bint Bandar, is the current Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Bandar provided an insider’s account of the Saudi support for the Palestinians from the late 1970s to early 2010s, and harshly condemned the Palestinian leadership as failures for repeatedly missing opportunities. He said, “we are at a stage in which rather than being concerned with how to face the Israeli challenges in order to serve the Palestinian cause, we have to pay attention to our national security and interests.”

On the other hand, Turki al-Faisal, who was head of Saudi intelligence for 22 years and a former ambassador to the U.S. and U.K., launched a blistering attack on Israel at the IISS Manama Conference in December 2020, when he emphasized that a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem and a fair solution for the Palestinian refugees is the only peaceful option, and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative must be implemented. The differences between Bandar and Turki appear to reflect the differences between 35-year old Crown Prince Mohammed, who believes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict should be subordinated to Saudi national interests, and his 85-year old father, King Salman ʿAbd al-ʿAziz Al Saʿud, who views support for the Palestinian cause and the status of Jerusalem as a core Saudi obligation as custodian of Islam’s two holiest mosques (in Mecca and Medina).

Nearly two-thirds of Saudi nationals are below the age of 35; Thirty percent are below the age of 15. Unlike King Salman’s generation, many Saudis have no living memory of the key developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nevertheless, the royal family is sensitive to popular sentiment at home and in the broader Muslim world. It is hard to say how strongly the Saudi population feels about the Palestinian cause, but the royal family’s concern is that normalizing with Israel might trigger popular dissent on religious grounds, both at home and in the broader Muslim world. Therefore, if the Crown Prince ultimately pushes forward with normalization, he may seek to do it alongside Pakistan, a country with a large Muslim population.

Some have argued that Crown Prince Mohammed would like to use normalization to blunt the impact of the expected confrontation between the Saudi Arabia and the Biden administration. During campaign debates, Biden himself referred to Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” whose government had “very little social redeeming value.” The Democrats have strongly opposed the Saudi war in Yemen, which was launched in the spring of 2015, and has led to “horrific humanitarian consequences.” The Democrats have also vocally criticized the Saudi blockade of Qatar, which is viewed as a U.S. military partner; It is not a coincidence that the Saudis ended the four-year blockade two weeks before Biden took office. Less than week after taking office, the Biden administration announced that it was temporarily freezing arms-sales to the Kingdom (and UAE), pending a review of the war in Yemen. It is unlikely that the Crown Prince believes normalizing ties with Israel will be a panacea that solves all of the Saudi problems with the Biden administration. Instead, the Saudis may be seeking something more modest: formal U.S. support for greater strategic defense cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The conventional wisdom argues that Saudi ties with Israel strengthen Saudi deterrence with regard to Iran. And yet the Saudi interest in strategic cooperation with Israel is not driven by the expectation of a mutual defense commitment in confronting Iran, but rather by the belief that Israel can help Saudi Arabia improve its defense capabilities, and the hope that Israel – acting in its own interest – will take steps to confront or weaken Iran. Since the Iranian attack on the Saudi oil refineries, the Saudis have shown a strong interest in partnering with Israel in three key areas:, developing a multilayered, missile defense systems against cruise missile and drone attacks; developing cyber-defense capabilities to protect Saudi Arabia from cyberattacks, like those targeting the Saudi oil and petrochemical industries between 2012 and 2018; and, combining artificial intelligence, machine learning, biotechnology, and big data analytics in key defense areas. The last area underlies Saudi interest in incorporating Israel into its ambitious plans to make Neom, $500 billion megacity it is building in Tabuk province, a showcase for Saudi artificial intelligence.

Saudi interest and cooperation with Israel in each of these areas predates the September 2019 attack. Nevertheless, three new dynamics may lead the Saudis to use normalization as a means to formalize U.S. support for its strategic relationship with Israel. The first is the Saudi concern that the Biden administration may place greater restrictions on the U.S.’s defense cooperation with the Kingdom in some of these areas. Second, Israeli-Saudi cooperation on missile defense technology may require some level of U.S. government approval, given the role of American technology in Israel’s three primary missile defense systems. Finally, the U.S. may view greater Saudi-Israeli strategic cooperation as a positive development that helps the Biden administration’s realize its goals of reducing the U.S. military commitments in the region and transforming the U.S. into an “offshore balancer” in the Middle East. It may also allow the Biden administration to tell Congress that it has succeeded in changing Saudi behavior, which may be important for its Democratic political base. It would seem that the potential for normalization with Israel is part of the Saudi effort to reluctantly come to terms with its new security needs, in light of the U.S.’s aim to reduce its role as a security provider in the Middle East.

This article is part of The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel.

For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file, here.