U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is leaning heavily on Saudi Arabia to join the parade of Arab states normalizing relations with Israel. But Riyadh may not take the plunge—yet. Saudi media, royals, and official clerics have supported recent agreements between Israel and multiple Gulf countries, reflecting an ongoing, incremental shift in Saudi Arabia’s approach. The latest inkling of change came from the most famous Saudi ambassador to the United States in a series of heavily promoted television interviews and on his new, specially dedicated website. But Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz’s speech on September 23, 2020, at the UN General Assembly showed a more traditional approach. It was the latest in a series of Saudi official statements to place conditions on formal relations with Israel, based on the parameters of “the Arab Peace Plan and international resolutions.”
A Questionable Chain of Promises
Formalizing Saudi-Israeli relations would help each country achieve a number of strategic and military goals. But if and when Saudi Arabia and Israel do establish official relations, the results will not necessarily be as transformative as any party proclaims. In fact, the transformations may not work in their favor. Here are six touted goals that proponents of the deal claim it would achieve—in reality, the odds that such lofty goals would be reached seem quite long.
1. Normalization would not promote peace or stability in the Middle East.
First, normalization would not produce peace. Proponents of a pattern of Israeli-Gulf normalization argue it will bring regional peace to the “world’s least peaceful region.” However, none of the recent normalization treaties, including a potential Saudi-Israeli one, would address the “fundamental weaknesses” that cause violence and instability in the region, including in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Saudi Arabia. Over the past decade, the majority of Arab countries (including Saudi Arabia) have witnessed protests against oppressive and corrupt governance. The same has been true in Israel and Palestine. Many of these protests have been followed by state violence, and in some cases civil wars and foreign interventions, but the deep-seated inequities that have driven the protests have never been addressed, with the relative exception of Tunisia. Arab regimes need U.S. and Israeli support to contain, instead of end, instability across the region.
Despite the veneer of peace offered by the recent normalization treaties, Saudi Arabia is expecting both the United States and Israel to upgrade their defense and security cooperation and for Washington to pay less attention to the end use of U.S. arms. To fend off Iranian aggression, Saudi Arabia could definitely benefit from this upgraded cooperation as well as from Israel’s expertise in irregular warfare involving nonstate actors. However, both Israel and Saudi Arabia have highly problematic records regarding the treatment of civilians in this kind of warfare. This kind of cooperation doesn’t promise peace.
2. Normalization would not always advance U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Second, a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia may not work entirely in the United States’ favor, because both countries want Washington to intervene beyond its remit. Israel and Saudi Arabia’s interests in the region are not identical to those of the United States; in fact, Israeli and Saudi interests overlap in ways that U.S. interests do not. Both have an interest in keeping the United States an active regional military hegemon, and as a result, they want to avoid, or at least hedge against, a U.S. military drawdown in the Middle East.
Saudi Arabia and Israel want to see the United States use its military might to defeat, not just contain, the threat from Iran. They both actively push for an all-encompassing and hard-to-get U.S.-Iran deal that conflates the U.S. priorities of halting Iran’s nuclear program and attacks on U.S. interests with countering Iran’s broader geopolitical expansion across the region.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States all want Washington to remain actively invested in the fight against terrorism in the Middle East. However, Israel’s cyber and intelligence cooperation with Saudi Arabia means that the definition of terrorism is expanded to encompass nonviolent political opponents of the Saudi regime, who often also oppose normalization with Israel.
This expansion of the war on terrorism complicates the U.S. policy of reallocating resources to focus on “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism,” and other long-neglected foreign policy priorities. Meanwhile, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are expanding their relations with U.S. strategic competitors like Russia and China. So far, this cooperation is limited and overwhelmingly economic. However, such collaboration is not always transparent and has the potential to spill over into larger intelligence and military cooperation.
By encouraging regional partners to normalize relations, Washington hopes to redistribute its defense burden among a more integrated defense network of regional allies. But neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia, even with support from the United Arab Emirates, can lead the kind of regional security framework that the United States has in mind. In addition to deeply rooted intraregional mistrust and competition, most countries disagree with the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel on how to deal with Iran.
3. Normalization would not boost moderation or liberalization within Saudi Arabia.
Third, there is no credible proof that Saudi citizens are on board. A new Saudi narrative portrays normalization with Israel as part of a new, moderate Saudi Arabia that is taking shape. Normalization now would fit into Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s approach of “shock therapy” to signal to his domestic opponents and to the West that he will pursue whatever he sees as modernizing the country.
However, Saudi social actors have not demanded a relationship with Israel in the same way they have demanded other recent reforms, such as the empowerment of women or even the fight against corruption. What is more, Palestine is not just a subject of distant high politics. Palestine is also a subject of public discussions, and previously mobilization, in schools, media circles, nongovernmental organizations, public lecture halls, and mosques, including the Two Holy Mosques.
Normalization à la Trump would, in the public view, take the “Saudi Arabia of tomorrow” too far—similar to when Nicki Minaj was invited to perform in the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. Both events are alien, and even disturbing, to the overwhelming majority’s value system.
Such actions that run against the tide of popular support discredit other promising and much-needed socioeconomic and religious developments in the kingdom. They feed into the extremist narrative that the crown prince’s reforms are politically motivated against Islam. Rushing any normalization with Israel politicizes the absolutely indispensable new Saudi discourse on religious tolerance.
What is more, Saudi citizens can spot the media’s backpedaling and official clerics’ efforts to legitimize a public relationship with Israel amid a crackdown on credible pro-Palestinian voices. Nor is the public blind to contradictions in the Saudi narrative itself. Until recently, Saudi media figures and royal family members were still lambasting Saudi Arabia’s foes, Turkey and Qatar, for their own relationships with Israel. Similarly, not all voices that denounce Palestinian leaders and put them in the same anti-Saudi camp as Iran, Turkey, and Qatar accept the narrative that Israel is the enemy of my enemy and hence my friend.
Relations with Israel will always remain hostage to the Saudi monarchy’s calculations of the necessities of regime survival. In the event of normalization, every time the Israeli army uses excessive force or political change takes place in Palestine, public sympathy in Saudi Arabia for the Palestinian cause might force the Saudi regime to react accordingly, even if only symbolically.
4. Peace will not be warm.
Fourth, normalization will not mean the two nations become friends. A wave of Saudi writers, clerics, and pro-government social media accounts argue that Israel doesn’t threaten Gulf countries. To the contrary, Palestinians, whom some call “ungrateful Arabs of the North,” have been accused of blackmailing Saudi Arabia and preventing it from putting its national interests first. This narrative comes amid a state-sponsored campaign on Saudi national identity that puts Saudi identity before Arab or even Islamic identity. It also argues that young Saudis, or Western-influenced, educated, and open-minded “new Saudis,” want relations with Israel.
However, it is not clear that this identity discourse is popular across Saudi society. There has been pushback against the entirety of this hypernationalist argument—an argument that has taken over the Saudi social media landscape for the past three years. It is worth noting that Saudi authorities’ low tolerance for any kind of dissent casts doubts on any assessment of Saudi public opinion, including the views of young people. This limitation notwithstanding, even recent polls from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Zogby Research Services confirm that a relationship with Israel now is not popular among Saudi citizens in general. Saudi authorities will have to repress any mobilization to oppose normalization across societal sectors, generations, and ideological groups.
Further, Israel’s cyber and intelligence cooperation with the Saudi regime gives Saudi citizens a direct political stake in opposing closer relations with Israel beyond sympathy for the Palestinians—because such cooperation is already enhancing Riyadh’s abilities to monitor and police its own citizens. It is no coincidence that official clerics’ new narrative on normalization is systematically linked to a reminder to Saudi citizens that they have a religious duty to leave politics to the ruler to whom they owe absolute obedience.
Perhaps the Saudi government’s existing control over the free flow of information leads it to monitor people-to-people and people-to-government relations with foreign countries—making organic normalization impossible.
5. Normalization will not paper over all of Saudi Arabia’s troubles in Washington.
Fifth, there is a belief in Riyadh that good relations with Israel will repair the recent damage to the U.S.-Saudi relationship. Israel has historically been a major source of the U.S. Congress’s and public’s opposition to deeper relations with Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s significant leverage in policy circles.
However, this belief stems partly from a current misperception that Riyadh’s problems in Washington are the result of the Democrats’ bias against the country. This belief underestimates the complexity of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, in addition to contentious issues that go beyond matters on the bilateral diplomatic agenda and that cut across U.S. domestic as well as foreign policy debates. Those include, for example, investing in domestic rather than foreign bases of U.S. power, restoring the United States’ global leadership while reconfiguring the use of the military, and better balancing the United States’ liberal democratic values with its overseas interests. All those issues will have an impact on the U.S. relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Israel.
6. Normalization will not necessarily help matters for Saudi domestic politics.
Sixth, the Saudi leadership may want more than just the traditional “high price”—the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in exchange for normalization—that the pro-Palestinian camps in Riyadh are discussing. The young Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, could use U.S. support against the many enemies he made on his way to the top, not only in Saudi Arabia but also in the United States.
Such support has a historically proven efficiency in the Gulf. In 1995, Washington’s support of the new and contested Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, was “crucial” for securing his power against domestic and regional foes. Sheikh Hamad built upon this support by implementing an agenda of liberalization and enhanced relations with Israel.
While not impossible, many conditions would have to be met in order to replicate this scenario. First, Trump, not Democratic nominee Joe Biden, would have to win the upcoming elections. Second, he would need to keep his promise to support the Saudi leadership against domestic foes despite expert warnings not to meddle in Saudi domestic affairs, his own aversion to the Middle East’s turmoil, and his reductionist perception of the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia as a whole. Third, the new Saudi leadership would need this support to last, including under any future Democratic administration.
It is understandable that the United States and Israel want to formalize Saudis’ recognition of Israelis’ “right to have their own land.” After all, in the words of Trump, “they’re big. Because of their religious monuments, you know, they have real power.” However, the three countries’ current policies risk depriving Saudi Arabia of the exceptional leverage over the Islamic world that comes with such status.
Saudi Arabia’s regional power doesn’t only stem from its economy. Most importantly, it stems from the transnational acceptance of its influence and its ability to set trends beyond its borders. The kingdom has spent a lot of money sustaining this transnational base. When Riyadh’s policies appeal to popular beliefs, its soft power is doubled and its ability to influence other governments goes beyond its physical capacity to coerce them.
It is not in the interests of Washington, Tel Aviv, or Riyadh to push Saudi Arabia toward policies that would further challenge this kind of Islamic and pan-Arab leadership as well as domestic legitimacy. Not only do such policies risk ceding the kingdom’s exceptional universal outreach to more hostile state and nonstate actors. They would also waste Saudi Arabia’s ability to lead other Arab- and Muslim-majority states to normalize relations with Israel—when the time for a just, negotiated peace with the Palestinians does come.