A direct flight reportedly flew from Saudi Arabia to Israel Monday evening, just another in a string of reports in recent years pointing to warming Israel-Saudi ties. Despite occasional setbacks or denials, the trajectory seems clear and moving toward eventual normalization. However, this should not be taken for granted and much needs to happen for the Saudis to fully join the Abraham Accords – in Jerusalem, Riyadh and especially in Washington. If the relevant players can succeed in taking these steps, the bilateral benefits and regional implications will be significant and far-reaching.
Saudi media and officials seem to be speaking in a gradually softer tone on Israel and have taken action to curb anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, while taking a harsher tone on Hamas and Islamist groups. Israeli officials have made increasingly public mentions of close intelligence cooperation with Riyadh. In each of the recent Israeli conflicts with Hamas in Gaza, Saudi official statements and media are decreasingly critical of Israel, while Saudi textbooks have been revised in their teachings on Jews and non-Muslims in general. Prominent rabbis are regularly invited to meet with the king or crown prince.
With the announcement of the Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia authorizing Israeli planes to fly over their territory en-route to the UAE and Bahrain further points to a general direction of normalization. Earlier that year, a former Saudi government minister and Secretary General of the World Muslim League led a delegation of prominent Muslims to visit Auschwitz and learn about the Holocaust, while during the Olympics, an Israeli and a Saudi athlete famously embraced after their match, and the Israeli was interviewed on Saudi television.
Sounds good so far. Then what’s the problem? Such positive momentum cannot not be taken for granted. That is because support for the Abraham Accords and warm relations with Israel are a contentious issue in the kingdom. The main proponent of normalization is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman known as MBS, who heads the Reformist camp. However, despite MBS’s reforms, he is just one player in a circle of a powerful king and competing princes. These multiple power sources have created two opposing groups: the reformists and the conservatives. These contradictions embody unprecedented tensions, especially in critical issues, as normalization with Israel that has remained concentrated, until now, in the hands of the conservative power holders, mainly the king and a number of princes.
Due to these contradictions, we saw even amid the Israel-Gulf lovefest playing out over the last year and half, Saudi Prince Turki bin Faisal, a former intelligence chief and ambassador to the U.S., attacked Israel on stage at a conference in Bahrain, in which Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi appeared, as a colonialist enterprise and apartheid state, guilty of war crimes. And let’s not forget, as the custodian of the two holy mosques, Saudi Arabia has a significantly bigger responsibility to the Arab and Muslim world than does the UAE, Bahrain or Morocco, who are freer to pursue a more independent foreign policy line.
Major challenges lie ahead for policy makers in Jerusalem, Riyadh but also Washington, if this march toward normalization is to continue apace. For Israel, the challenge is perhaps the clearest but most difficult to achieve – the Saudis must make a serious Israeli concession regarding the Palestinians. Due to the Saudi conservative camp, concern about the image of Saudi Arabia as the beholder of the two holy mosques, it is stuck with the outdated model of the Arab Peace Initiative that was launched in the Arab League in 2002, which promised full normalization with Israel if it agrees to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
Regardless of all the reforms that MBS is leading in the kingdom in terms of building modern and tolerant society, and his softer tone on Israel in the media, government, and the education system, the continuous attacks on MBS in the Western mainstream media and by Western officials weaken his reformist camp and accordingly empower the conservative camp and its supporters – locally and regionally.
And this is where the United States’ comes in. While Trump and his administration relied heavily on Saudi Arabia (Trump’s first foreign visit), Biden and his team have taken a colder and distant position. As a candidate, Biden referred to Saudi Arabia as pariah state, and openly criticized its foreign policy and human rights record. The administration had also showed its disdain for MBS himself, implicating him in the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The recent 60 Minutes interview with former Saudi general and advisor to the deposed Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef – a main member of the conservative camp – is just another example of the continued attacks in the west on MBS and the growing misunderstanding that such attacks will do nothing but empower the anti-normalization conservative camp, which want to set the country back decades. These attacks, combined with the clear lack of enthusiasm for the Abraham Accords, to the point of not willing to refer to them by name until only recently, have weakened the pro-normalization camp by weakening MBS’s hold on power itself. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which emboldened the Taliban, only further served to weaken the reformists’ and strengthen conservatives.
All is not lost. The Biden administration seems to be awakening to the realization that just because the Abraham Accords are an achievement of the previous administration, they should not ignore or discard them. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently met with MBS and broached the topic of normalization, to which MBS did not object outright. More recently, Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosted his Israeli and Emirati counterparts for discussions on continuing to promote the Abraham Accords, finally calling them by their name, and later met with his Saudi counterpart to discuss “regional matters.”
For Saudi Arabia to be able to normalize relations with Israel, or at least continue the path, it is imperative that MBS and the reformist camp receive much needed support from Washington – in order to fend off regional and domestic challenges to their legitimacy. The Abraham Accords are shaping to be the single most positive transformative process in the recent history of the Middle East. For them to succeed and expand, the US must play a crucial role in bringing Saudi Arabia, a country representative to the Muslim World, into the normalization camp, and that requires empowering the reformists.