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Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel

Will Saudi Arabia’s streak of liberalization extend to normalizing ties with Israel?

One of the oft-discussed geopolitical impacts of the ongoing Hamas-Israel war is the apparent halt in backdoor negotiations for the potential normalization of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Throughout May, news emerged that the United States is encouraging a nascent Israeli-Saudi relationship, following an official U.S. visit to Jeddah[i] and Jerusalem[ii], an Israeli trip to Washington[iii], and U.S. President Joe Biden’s confirmation of promising talks taking place on the matter.[iv] At the end of September, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) that the kingdom was moving closer to normalization with Israel[v] in addition to calling it ‘the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.’[vi]

It is no secret that Hamas has been supported by Iran for years.


Some have posited that Iran was really behind Hamas’ terror raid in Israel on 7
th October, in a bid to derail improved relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.[vii] In early September, Israeli officials revealed that Israel began negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA)[viii] with U.S., Egyptian and Jordanian support in order to lay the groundwork for normalization with Saudi Arabia—much to the disapproval of Hamas[ix] and indeed Iranian leaders.[x] A PA delegation also visited Saudi Arabia in the same context.[xi] There is no sufficient evidence to implicate Iran in participating in the planning of the 7th October attack, but it is no secret that Hamas has been supported by Iran for years[xii], close coordination between Hamas and Iranian leaders continued throughout 2023 and all the way up to the 7th October raid[xiii], and much of the military training employed in the attack on Israel was acquired by Hamas through Iranian channels.

Saudi Arabia’s initial statements on the war were rather neutral, calling for ‘an immediate halt to the escalation between the two sides’ and emphasizing the ‘deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights’.[xiv] While Saudi Arabian prince, Turki al-Faisal, a widely respected statesman publicly condemned Israel, it also harshly criticized Hamas, declaring that it was against Islamic beliefs to kill children, women, and elderly people, while stressing that there were ‘no heroes’ in the conflict.[xv] According to Foreign Policy columnist Steven A. Cook, Prince Turki ‘is (…) the person who has said things in public that Saudi royals want to say but cannot.’

The reaction of Saudi Arabia’s Gulf allies and Israel’s relatively new peace partners, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, are also important to note. Interestingly, the UAE condemned Hamas right after the attacks, calling them ‘a serious and grave escalation.’[xvi] At the same time, the UAE has also ‘expressed deep concern over the Israeli military escalation and exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis that threatens more loss of civilian lives.’[xvii] Bahrain’s foreign ministry also decried the attacks, denouncing ‘the kidnapping of civilians from their homes as hostages.’[xviii] While the Bahraini National Assembly’s lower chamber stated that the country recalled its ambassador and cut economic ties with Israel[xix], the government later mitigated this in its statement, denying the suspension of economic relations and referring to the ‘return’ of the Bahraini ambassador to Manama. The latter example points to the intricate interplay and often fundamental differences between how certain Gulf monarchies’ leadership and population approach the question of Israel.

Whereas public criticism of Israel has clearly been more pronounced in the region since the second half of October, including MbS’ call for an arms embargo on Israel[xx], Hamas has not received a pass while the question of normalization with Israel after the war was referenced in a call between President Biden and MbS.[xxi]

The Saudi policy shift

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of the implementation of major social and economic reforms.


Discussions for rapprochement with Israel are far from the only novelty in policy initiatives in Saudi Arabia. Under the ‘Vision 2030’ program, Saudi Arabia is in the midst of the implementation of major social and economic reforms, extending as far as moderating the expression of Islam, previously unimaginable in the kingdom.[xxii] In The National, Mona Farag lists some of the outcomes of the reforms, referring to a Riyadh ‘unrecognizable’ by previous standards.[xxiii] This includes men and women who are now mixing in the workplace. Since 2018, it is also legal for women to drive, despite ‘roadblocks’ that are reportedly still in place in their full emancipation.[xxiv] In the last six years, progress on the cultural front has also been apparent with co-ed pop concerts now legalized[xxv], and gender segregation in restaurants ended.[xxvi] Furthermore, it has become possible for Saudi women to travel abroad without a male guardian’s permission.[xxvii] The improvements have met Western criticisms about the simultaneous repression of political and civil rights in Saudi Arabia.[xxviii] Such reforms might still appear as sub-optimal in the West, but domestically in Saudi Arabia, they are arguably transformational.

The Kingdom has also become more prominent in the world of international sports as it continues to make the news for attracting famous football stars, like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and for the Saudi-backed LIV golf tour.[xxix] All of these developments are in the context of further opening to the world. Saudi Arabia is also aiming to host the World Expo in the year 2030.[xxx] Its capital Riyadh is competing with Rome in Italy and Busan in South Korea.

France has been one of the European countries capitalizing on this opening. Notably, last year, French President Emmanuel Macron came out in support of Riyadh’s World Expo bid to promote trade and diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia.[xxxi] A visit by MbS to Paris coincided with other top meetings between French and Saudi ministers, officials, and business representatives. Earlier this year, French company Airbus announced that Saudi air carrier Flynas placed an order for planes in the value of 3.7 billion USD.[xxxii] Airbus also signed a deal with Saudi defense company SCOPA worth 6.7 billion USD to jointly produce helicopters.[xxxiii] Economic ties between the Saudi and the European market are growing deeper.

In addition to cultural, diplomatic and economic initiatives, Saudi Arabia’s new prestige projects, such as ‘The Line’, a linear under construction in Saudi the Tabuk Province designed to have no cars, roads or carbon emissions, are also meant to symbolize the kingdom’s openness to a starkly different future.

Risks, benefits and incentives

Notwithstanding the strides that Saudi Arabia has made towards a new, more liberal policy paradigm in both its domestic and foreign affairs, important barriers remain in front of its normalization of ties with Israel. The status of Palestinians is the most high-profile if not the most consequential of such barriers. Not only is MbS wary of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies vis-à-vis Palestinians, the long history of animosity between Palestinians and Israelis lingers as a sensitive talking point for a leader that wants to appear, at least rhetorically, as a staunch supporter of Palestinians’ right to self-determination. As the custodian of the holiest sight of the Muslim world in Mecca, Saudi Arabia also has a lot to say about Muslims’ oversight over and access to the sacred Al Aqsa compound in the Old City of Jerusalem.

There is an argument for official connections with Israel improving Saudi Arabia’s ability to represent the Palestinian side.


While Israel’s ongoing war in the Gaza Strip and broader policies towards non-Israeli Palestinians continue to represent sensitive talking points, there is an argument for official connections with Israel improving Saudi Arabia’s ability to represent the Palestinian side. In the context of the current war, the UAE’s official diplomatic relations with Israel played a crucial role in their ability to secure the evacuation of children from the Gaza Strip, to be treated in Emirati hospitals.
[xxxiv] The same can be said of Egypt, one of Israel’s old Arab peace partners, in liaising with Israeli authorities about the entry of aid into the Gaza Strip through its Rafah crossing, although operational issues due to Israeli bombardment campaign remain at and near the border[xxxv].

Similarly to Israel’s Abraham Accords peace partners, the potential for cooperation in the security, medical and technological fields is appealing to Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding, the US’ potential security guarantees and help with Saudi Arabia’s civilian nuclear program arguably still represent the most important incentives for the kingdom to normalize ties with Israel. To what extent one associates normalization with Saudi Arabia’s streak of liberalization is up to debate. For now, there appear to be significant interests of realpolitik involved. Despite the re-establishment of official diplomatic relations with Iran in March[xxxvi], Saudi Arabia is still wary of Iranian aggression and its destabilizing activities via its proxy network across the region. Its policies of active containment in Yemen[xxxvii], Lebanon and Syria[xxxviii] over the past few months support this argument. Rather than representing another potential step in the liberalization of its foreign policy, potential normalization with Israel is a means to an end for Saudi Arabia that said liberalizing streak can make easier—if still difficult—to swallow, both domestically and regionally. Important barriers remain in front of granting Saudi Arabia its wishes in the US too, including Congressional divisions about renewed American military engagement with the Middle East, but ongoing discussions with Saudi officials suggest there is a will to keep the fire of normalization alive among members of the Biden administration.

Notably, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain never called for the severing of ties with Israel, despite their criticisms of Israel’s strategies during the war. Combined with their resistance to Iranian calls to sever ties[1], this attitude suggests that the war in the Gaza Strip and the high number of civilian casualties did not, as many commentators posited, jeopardize the existing relationships built as part of the Abraham Accords, and indeed the potential relationship to be built between Saudi Arabia and Israel. When or how such talks come back to the foreground depends largely on the progress of the war in the Gaza Strip, but even the current status quo indicates a fundamentally different reality in the Middle East than mere years before.

[1] The New Arab (2023). ‘Gulf leaders oppose Iran’s calls to arm Palestinians, cut ties with Israel: report’, The New Arab, 13 November 2023, retrieved from: https://www.newarab.com/news/gulf-leaders-reject-irans-calls-cut-ties-israel.
[i] Reuters (2023). ‘White House’s Sullivan to travel to Saudi Arabia this weekend’, Reuters, 5 May 2023, retrieved from: https://www.jpost.com/breaking-news/article-742154.
[ii] Berman, L. (2023). ‘After talks in Saudi Arabia, senior White House officials to meet in Jerusalem’, The Times of Israel, 8 May 2023, retrieved from: https://www.timesofisrael.com/amid-us-diplomatic-push-fm-cohen-to-speak-with-senior-white-house-officials/.
[iii] Jerusalem Post (2023). ‘US deputy secretary reaffirms “ironclad support” for Israel’s security’, The Jerusalem Post, 18 May 2023, retrieved from: https://www.jpost.com/international/article-743400.
[iv] Holland, S. and Chiacu, D. (2023). ‘Israel, Saudi normalization a long way off, Biden says’, Reuters, 9 July 2023, retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israel-saudi-normalization-long-way-off-biden-says-2023-07-09/.
[v] Al Jazeera (2023). ‘Saudi Crown Prince MBS says Israel normalisation getting “closer”’, Aljazeera, 20 September 2023, retrieved from: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/9/20/saudi-crown-prince-mbs-says-israel-normalisation-getting-closer.
[vi] Dagher, S. (2023). ‘Israel-Hamas War Upsets Saudi Prince’s Hopes of “Biggest Historical Deal”’, NDTV World, 10 October 2023, retrieved from: https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/israel-hamas-war-upsets-saudi-princes-hopes-of-biggest-historical-deal-4468445.
[vii] MEMRI (2023). ‘Saudi journalists: Hamas’ October 7 Attack Was Meant to Torpedo the Peace Efforts; Iran Knew About it In Advance’, MEMRI, 15 November 2023, retrieved from: https://www.memri.org/reports/saudi-journalists-hamas-october-7-attack-was-meant-torpedo-peace-efforts-iran-knew-about-it.
[viii] Barsky, A. (2023). ‘Hanegbi: “Contacts have begun with the Palestinians on a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia”’, Maariv, 11 September 2023, retrieved from https://www.maariv.co.il/news/politics/Article-1037245.
[ix] MEMO (2023). ‘Hamas reiterates the rejection of normalisation meetings’, MEMO, 6 September 2023, retrieved from: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20230906-hamas-reiterates-rejection-of-normalisation-meetings/.

[x] Agence France (2023). ‘Iran Slams Normalization with Israel as “Reactionary”’, Voa News, 1 October 2023, retrieved from: https://www.voanews.com/a/iran-slams-normalization-with-israel-as-reactionary/7292434.html.
[xi] MEMO (2023). ‘PA delegation visits Saudi Arabia to discuss normalisation with Israel.’ MEMO, 6 September 2023, retrieved from: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20230906-pa-delegation-visits-saudi-arabia-to-discuss-normalisation-with-israel/.
[xii] Al Monitor (2023). ‘How far will Iran go to support Hamas in war with Israel?’, Al Monitor, 19 November 2023, retrieved from: https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2023/11/how-far-will-iran-go-support-hamas-war-israel.
[xiii] Islamic Republic of Iran Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2023). ‘Hamas, Islamic Jihad leaders meet with Iran FM, stress resistance will go on’, 1 September 2023, retrieved from: https://en.mfa.ir/portal/newsview/728555.
[xiv] Crisp, J. (2023). ‘Saudi Arabia suggests Israel to blame for war despite steps to normalise relations’, The Telegraph, 7 October 2023, retrieved from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2023/10/07/saudi-arabia-suggests-israel-to-blame-for-war-despite-steps/.
[xv] Gardner, F. (2023). ‘Saudi Prince Slams Hamas, Israel and the West’, BBC News, 20 October 2023, retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-67177684.
[xvi] Reuters (2023). ‘UAE calls Hamas attacks on Israel a “serious and grave escalation”’, Reuters, 8 October 2023, retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/uae-calls-hamas-attacks-israel-serious-grave-escalation-2023-10-08/.
[xvii] Reuters (2023). ‘UAE condemns Israeli ground operations in Gaza Strip’, Reuters, 28 October 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/uae-condemns-israeli-ground-operations-gaza-strip-state-news-agency-2023-10-28/#:~:text=UAE%2C%20which%20became%20the%20first,more%20loss%20of%20civilian%20lives.%22&text=Our%20Standards%3A%20The%20Thomson%20Reuters%20Trust%20Principles.
[xviii] The Times of Israel (2023). ‘Bahrain denounces Hamas kidnappings’, The Times of Israel, 9 October 2023, retrieved from: https://www.timesofisrael.com/liveblog_entry/bahrain-denounces-hamas-kidnappings/.
[xix] The New Arab (2023). ‘Has Bahrain cut off ties with Israel over the war on Gaza?’, The New Arab, 3 November 2023, retrieved from: https://www.newarab.com/news/has-bahrain-cut-ties-israel-over-war-gaza.
[xx] The New Arab (2023). ‘Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman calls for “arms embargo” on Israel’, The New Arab, 22 November 2023, retrieved from: https://www.newarab.com/news/mbs-calls-arms-embargo-israel-over-gaza#:~:text=Speaking%20at%20a%20virtual%20BRICS,the%20country%20to%20be%20halted.&text=Saudi%20Crown%20Prince%20Mohammed%20bin%20Salman%20has%20called%20on%20all,cease%20arms%20exports%20to%20Israel.

[xxi] Magid, J. (2023). ‘Saudi crown prince indicates normalization with Israel can resume after the war – White House’, The Times of Israel, 25 October 2023, retrieved from: https://www.timesofisrael.com/saudi-crown-prince-indicates-israel-normalization-can-resume-after-war-white-house/.
[xxii] The Conversation (2023). ‘Saudi reforms are softening Islam’s role, but critics warn the kingdom will still take a hard line against dissent’, The Conversation, 5 September 2023, retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/saudi-reforms-are-softening-islams-role-but-critics-warn-the-kingdom-will-still-take-a-hard-line-against-dissent-210537.
[xxiii] Farag, M. (2022). ‘Riyadh, a testament to change in Saudi Arabia’, The National, 23 December 2022, retrieved from: https://www.thenationalnews.com/weekend/2022/12/23/riyadh-a-testament-to-change-in-saudi-arabia/.
[xxiv] News Wire (2023). ‘Roadblocks still in place for Saudi women after five years of driving’, France24, 7 July 2023, retrieved from: https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20230707-after-five-years-of-driving-roadblocks-remain-for-saudi-women-1.
[xxv] France24 (2023). ‘Saudi Arabia finally allows co-ed pop concerts… but bans dancing’, France24, 9 March 2018, retrieved from: https://observers.france24.com/en/20180309-saudi-arabia-concerts-ban-dancing.
[xxvi] Turak, N. (2023). ‘”This is a huge deal”: Saudi Arabia ends gender segregation in restaurants’, CNBC, 9 December 2019, retrieved from: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/09/saudi-arabia-ends-gender-segregation-in-restaurants.html#:~:text=Saudi%20Arabia%20will%20no%20longer,the%20notoriously%20conservative%20Islamic%20kingdom.
[xxvii] Amnesty International (2022). ‘Saudi Arabia codifies male guardianship and gender discrimination’, 9 December 2022, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2022/12/saudi-arabia-codifies-male-guardianship-and-gender-discrimination/#:~:text=Since%202019%2C%20Saudi%20Arabia%20has,baby%2C%20the%20death%20of%20a.
[xxviii] Bianco, C. (2023). ‘The comeback kingdom: What a resurgent Saudi Arabia means for Europe’, European Council on Foreign Relations, 14 February 2023, retrieved from: https://ecfr.eu/article/the-comeback-kingdom-what-a-resurgent-saudi-arabia-means-for-europe/.
[xxix] LIV Golf (2023). https://www.livgolf.com/.
[xxx] Euronews (2023). ‘Riyadh pulls out all the stops in its bid to host World Expo 2030’, Euronews, 16 November 2023, retrieved from: https://www.euronews.com/business/2023/11/16/riyadh-pulls-out-all-the-stops-in-its-bid-to-host-world-expo-2030.
[xxxi] Leali, G. (2023). ‘Riyadh not Rome: Anger over Macron’s backing for Saudi World Expo bid’, Politico, 22 June 2023, retrieved from: https://www.politico.eu/article/emmaunel-macron-france-saudi-arabia-mohammed-bin-salmen-endorsement-to-saudi-expo-bid-sparks-criticisms/.
[xxxii] Arab News (2023). ‘Saudi budget airline flynas signs $3.7bn deal with Airbus to buy 30 aircraft’, Arab News, 20 June 2023, retrieved from: https://www.arabnews.com/node/2324416/business-economy.
[xxxiii] Bloomberg (2023). ‘Saudi Arabia’s Scopa and Airbus sign $6.7bn helicopter deal’, Gulf Business, retrieved from: https://www.arabnews.com/node/2324416/business-economy.
[xxxiv] The National (2023). ‘Watch: Wounded Palestinian children set for evacuation to UAE’, The National, 17 November 2023, retrieved from: https://www.thenationalnews.com/mena/palestine-israel/2023/11/17/watch-wounded-palestinian-children-set-for-evacuation-to-uae/.
[xxxv] Pamuk, H. and Lewis, S. (2023). ‘Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt closed due to security – US State Dept’, Reuters, 8 November 2023, retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/rafah-crossing-between-gaza-egypt-closed-due-security-us-state-dept-2023-11-08/.
[xxxvi] New Wires (2023). ‘Iran, Saudi Arabia agree to re-establish relations after years of tensions’, France24, 3 October 2023, retrieved from: https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20230310-iran-saudi-arabia-agree-to-re-establish-relations-after-years-of-tensions.
[xxxvii] News Wires (2023). ‘Saudi Arabia praises “positive results” of peace talks with Yemen’s Houthi rebels’, France24, 20 September 2023, retrieved from: https://www.france24.com/en/middle-east/20230920-saudi-arabia-praises-positive-results-of-peace-talks-with-yemen-s-houthis.
[xxxviii] Mehr News (2023). ‘Saudi Arabia seeks dialogue with Lebanese Hezbollah movement’ (2023). Mehr News, 2 May 2023, retrieved from: https://en.mehrnews.com/news/200168/Saudi-Arabia-seeks-dialogue-with-Lebanese-Hezbollah-movement.

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2 July 2022

“Economics and Rebuilding in the Middle East and North Africa” showcases articles about the various ways of conceiving the region’s economies as well as reconstruction.