President Donald Trump and King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia talk together during ceremonies, Saturday, May 20, 2017, at the Royal Court Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Official White House Photo Shealah Craighead)
It’s too early for a Saudi-Israel ‘peace deal’

After the United Arab Emirates announced on August 13 that it intended to normalize relations with Israel, speculation about which Arab country would next follow has been rife. Given the numerous ways that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has strengthened Riyadh’s de facto partnership with Tel Aviv, as well as his incendiary remarks about Palestinians made in 2018, some experts — and hopeful Israelis — have suggested that the kingdom cannot be far behind.

But high-ranking and prominent figures in the kingdom have since clarified that Riyadh will not do so, at least not unless and until a Palestinian state is established, a position that is consistent with the Arab Peace Initiative launched by then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud 18 years ago.

While in Berlin on August 19, Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan issued Riyadh’s first official comment about normalizing ties with Israel following the so-called Abraham Accords. Two days later, Prince Turki al-Faisal, Riyadh’s former ambassador to Washington and ex-intelligence chief, wrote the following in Asharq al-Awsat: “Any Arab state that is considering following the UAE should demand in return a price, and it should be an expensive price… The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has set a price for concluding peace between Israel and the Arabs — it is the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as capital, as provided for by the initiative of the late King Abdullah.”

While Saudi recognition of Israel could help boost President Donald Trump’s chances for re-election — an outcome devoutly desired by Riyadh — certain domestic and regional variables give the Saudi leadership grounds to believe that such a step between now and November would be too risky.

Risks: domestic and foreign

At home, Saudi authorities have reason to fear mass protests against normalization. Many Saudi citizens would perceive such a deal to be an abandonment of the Palestinians, whose decades-old struggle elicits strong emotions among Arabs and Muslims worldwide, including in Arabia, the birthplace of Islam.

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy conducted a poll in June 2020 among Saudi citizens which found that only nine percent of the kingdom’s citizens believe that “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so.” The same poll also found that only 14 percent of the Saudi population welcomed Trump’s “Deal of the Century.”

Furthermore, as the Middle East Institute’s Bilal Saab opined, a clerical revolt could break out under such circumstances. King Salman and MBS are not interested in taking such risks, especially during this sensitive period defined by the disastrous Yemen war, COVID-19, and the plunge in oil prices.

Equivalent to western Europe in geographic size, Saudi Arabia is 26 times larger than the UAE. The Saudi population is about three-and-a-half times as large as that of the Emirates, if one includes the UAE’s non-citizen residents, such as Arab/Muslim expatriates who could show signs of dissent or rage in response to the Abraham Accords. Thus, in a comparatively small country like the UAE — a police state with state-of-the-art surveillance systems everywhere — it is relatively easy for the Emirati authorities to keep a lid on any activities that the government deems threatening.

There are regional considerations as well. Two Muslim powers in the Middle East — Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iran — have challenged the legitimacy of the Al Saud family as the leader of the Islamic world. As both Ankara and Tehran espouse the Palestinian cause in international forums, a Saudi-Israel deal would inevitably bolster their arguments that the royal family is beholden to non-Muslim powers in the West.

Pressure from Trump

Of course, there are counter-pressures, notably from the Trump administration, which have to figure into Riyadh’s calculations.

The day after the UAE and Israel signed the Abraham Accords, Trump’s advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner told CNBC that Saudi Arabia formalizing relations with Israel is an inevitability. Three days later, Kushner, who has reportedly enjoyed a close relationship with MBS, publicly urged the Saudi monarchy to normalize its relationship with the Jewish State, maintaining that such a move would weaken Iran’s hand in the Middle East while boosting the kingdom’s economic and defense relationship with the U.S. He also disingenuously asserted that it would also “help the Palestinians.”

On August 19, Trump himself stated that he believes more Arab countries will follow Abu Dhabi, singling out Saudi Arabia by name.

Saudi-Israeli coordination will continue with or without a deal

In fact, Israel and Saudi Arabia began engaging each other as far back as the Cold War when they shared the perception that Soviet-aligned and Arab nationalist governments and movements in the Middle East posed a common threat. Throughout the 21st century, particularly after Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, the perceived Iranian threat has led to enhanced Saudi-Israeli coordination. Writing for Asia Times in 2008, Middle East expert Chris Zambelis explained:

“Paradoxically, Israel and Saudi Arabia are officially enemies. Yet they appear to be acting in lockstep – almost in a perfect symbiosis – when it comes to undermining and attacking Iran and painting it as a threat to regional and world peace. A sampling of the collective responses of both countries to matters related to Iran and other areas of mutual concern, such as the course of the uprisings in the Arab world, suggests that the Israeli-Saudi interface represents more than a temporary pact of convenience. Indeed, the convergence of their interests over Iran constitutes an unspoken strategic alliance that runs deeper than either side cares to admit.”

So long as both Riyadh and Tel Aviv perceive Iran as a threat, that partnership is likely to remain in effect whether or not normalization takes place.

For Saudi Arabia, the only real benefit it could gain from formal ties would be in pleasing Washington. Given that Saudi Arabia has done so much for the Trump administration on a host of files in the Middle East, it appears that the kingdom could likely maintain an extremely close relationship with the White House without having to sign an accord with Israel. Putting aside the Riyadh-Washington partnership, all the benefits of coordinating with Israel, as perceived by the Saudi government, could continue without any official deal that opens an Israeli embassy in the kingdom ruled by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. These benefits include intelligence sharing and diplomatic cooperation in pursuit of Saudi Arabia and Israel’s shared goals such as opposing a U.S. return to the Iranian nuclear deal if Biden enters the Oval Office in January.

At least for the time being, the Saudi authorities calculate that the possible benefits from normalized relations with Israel vis-à-vis Washington would not outweigh the possible domestic and regional costs. Ultimately, as undemocratic as the Saudi political system is, rulers in Riyadh can’t ignore public opinion within the kingdom’s own borders or throughout the wider Arab and Islamic world with respect to the Palestinian struggle.

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