To Normalize or not Normalize: That is Saudi Arabia’s Question

30th Jun 2022 by Aziz Alghashian

A Russian-Ukrainian war and a global cost-of-living crisis are not enough to keep the prospects of Saudi-Israeli normalization out of the headlines. Against the backdrop of President Biden’s controversial visit to the Saudi Kingdom, speculation regarding the prospects of Saudi-Israeli normalization is only increasing. In the summer of 2020, a historic peal deal, known as the  Abraham Accords, saw Israel normalize its relations with the UAE, Bahrain, and develop official relations with Sudan and Morocco, respectively. 

After a week-long silence in response to the accords, the Saudi Ruling Elite (SRE) stated their support for the Arab Peace Initiative, while it respected the sovereign decision’s of Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. In the wake of the Russian war on Ukraine and the subsequent dramatic increase of inflation rates, President Biden is now seeking to mend his relations with Saudi Arabia and its Crown Prince. When asked whether he would visit Saudi Arabia and meet the Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman, known as (MBS), he deflected the question by reframing his trip as a visit that is geared towards peace between Arabs and Israelis, implicitly suggesting that peace in the Middle East, is worth breaking his promise of treating the Saudi state as a “Pariah”. Biden said if “there is a possibility that I would be going to meet with both the Israelis and some Arab countries at the time, including, I expect that Saudi Arabia would be included in that if I did go”.

But this led to many asking: will Saudi Arabia finally normalize its relations with the Jewish state? I argue this is the wrong question to ask – for now. Instead, we should ask what kind of Saudi-Israeli developments can we see after the Biden administration visit?

Why is Normalization Unlikely?

The regional and international political landscape is simply not ripe for such a mammoth decision to be taken by the SRE. Normalization is a measure that cannot be reversed nor denied, hence why the SRE need to have some sort of progress on the Palestinian front, which in turn, functions as a foundation of a process of legitimization of normalization. Any real developments of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process are currently, at best, bleak – and there are ample reasons for such. 

Both Palestinians and Israelis have witnessed no political stability in their respective governments. Often times, the PA and PLO are blamed for paralyzing the peace process, due to their lack of unity and democracy. While this may not be completely incorrect, Israeli political system is no more stable (if not more unstable). The year-old precarious Israeli government has now collapsed, and Israel is heading towards its fifth coalition in three years. One cannot be too optimistic of the next election ushering in a stable government given the recent track-record of Israeli elections. 

Why is this important? Generating Israeli progress with Palestinians is politically eclipsed by seeking a stable Israeli government, and rendering the peace process as politically and nationally unappetizing. Therefore, a lack of a peace process does not provide the necessary development/momentum the SRE need. Saudi-Israeli normalization requires some sort of development the SRE can then display to Saudi and Islamic audiences, and illustrate that normalization came at a cost for Israel. 

Not only is the regional landscape unripe for normalization, but the international is no different. One of the outcomes of the Abraham Accords in 2020 is that it shifted the burden of concessions from Israel to the United States. Saudi-Israeli normalization is now connected to what the SRE can obtain from the United States. Of course, any US president will rest assured that their name will be written down in history for brokering the historic and ground-breaking Saudi-Israeli normalization. The question is, do the SRE want Joseph Biden to have that gift – unsurprisingly not.

Biden is extremely unpopular in Saudi Arabia. Saudis in general refuse to forget his campaign rhetoric of promising to treat Saudi as a “pariah state”, and are celebrating his about-turn. It is worth noting that the SRE are not unfamiliar with unflattering campaign rhetoric, and actually expect them, as that is one of the themes of US-Saudi relations. As the former long-standing Saudi ambassador, prince Bander considered such anti-Saudi rhetoric as “silly season” in the US. However, what compounded the Saudi distaste for Biden was his public snub of the Crown Prince Mohmad bin Salman after his assent to the White House. His emphasis of holding a phone with the Saudi King – not the crown prince, in tandem with a mere symbolic gesture of temporarily ceasing sales of offensive weapons to Saudi, left a long sour taste in the mouths of the SRE. 

In short, normalization is not a gift Saudis want President Biden to have. Even if (hypothetically speaking) the SRE deemed Biden as the one who will take credit for such an achievement, the SRE know Biden cannot muster enough domestic political will to provide the Saudis what they would consider as sufficient US concessions for its normalization with Israel. 

Doubtful Normalization, but Likely Cooperation

The absence of normalization and all its political baggage does not negate the potential of active Saudi-Israeli cooperation. This opaque and enigmatic relationship has actually led to broadening the conceptual horizons of what is considered cooperation. So the question is, what kind of  Saudi-Israeli cooperation can result after the Biden trip?

It would be fruitful to look at the Biden trip from a frame of rapprochement. A Saudi agreement for Israeli overflights, in exchange for Saudi complete control over Saudi islands (Tiran and Sinafir) will be a Saudi diplomatic gesture towards turning a new page in US-Saudi relations. Such a gesture allows Biden to politicize an “American brokered Saudi-Israeli deal” for his domestic audience to: A) display his foreign policy credentials, and B) give the pro-Israeli lobbies a reason to support him in his 2024 presidential campaign. This would mean that Saudi and Israel have developed very low-level active cooperation.

There is also a multilateral element to this trip. It is clear that the Biden administration wanted to avoid framing this trip exclusively for Saudi-American interests, and therefore, invested a great deal to frame this trip as a visit to meet the ‘GCC+, that so happened to be hosted in Saudi Arabia’. Notwithstanding the American framing of this trip, the notion of an American-led air-defense NATO-like alliance (that would include the GCC states, Jordan, Egypt and Israel) seems to be gaining some sort traction. 

When the Jordanian Monarch was asked in a recent CNBC interview about such a regional project materializing, he did not dismiss it outrightly, but rather, deflected such prospects towards looking at a bigger picture. While this does not confirm such collaboration with Israel, this also does not deny it. Ergo, potentially creating a sort of multilateral security infrastructure that will enable Saudi Arabia and Israel to officially work together.

That being said, the reality of such a NATO-like alliance is not foreseeable in the near future given the contractually obligatory nature of alliances. This would mean if Israel would receive any air strike, Saudi must intervene. This is not an obligation that the SRE are willing to commit to for political and security reasons, as such an alliance will make Saudi an even bigger target. Rather, what is not farfetched is a very loose form American-led multilateral air defense hub, that can facilitate the infrastructure of Saudi-Israeli cooperation, while providing the space for distancing from Israel, if deemed by the SRE as politically necessary. 

What allows the potentiality of such limited Saudi-Israeli active cooperation to take place is the decline of the Palestinian cause within Saudi. This decline provides the space for such budding relations with Israel to develop. However, it is crucial to note, that a decline of the Palestinian cause on the Saudi priority list does not mean the cause is forgotten nor unimportant - on the contrary. But if the SRE have illustrated anything in their history, it is they have always found ways to balance controversial foreign policy decisions with the constraints they come with.

What Would it Take for a Saudi Arabia to Normalize?

 One of the chief reasons why many do not understand Saudi-Israeli relations well is the overuse of the term normalization. Saudi-Israeli normalization has been used too lightly and too politically by two camps. The first is an anti-Saudi camp who use normalization as a rhetorical and discursive demonizing tool for their own political ends. Unfortunately, many outlets have considered the anti-Saudi axis as exclusively “Shiite” - this notion is sectarian and too simplistic. Much of the anti-Saudi camp does include Iran, but it also includes other (Sunni) Islamist parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi dissidents living abroad. 

The second is a pro-Israeli camp, who not only try to push the narrative of imminent normalization, but bulldoze its way into the mainstream, in the hope of producing a self-fulfilling prophecy of normalizing the two states. Real normalization will not just entail diplomatic and political recognition, but most importantly, a symbolic recognition of Israel – and this is something, as was mentioned above, not around the corner.

But what would it take? There are three main requirements. Firstly, there needs to be a major and tangible development on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This need not be the achievement of a two-state solution, but something that can be considered as a major Israeli concession towards that end.

Secondly, the Saudi-Israeli relations should not be part of the Abraham Accords, as the accords is considered a UAE-led initiative. Calling for Saudi Arabia to join the accords, is calling for the SRE to follow the UAE lead and the SRE are cognizant of being perceived as such. Instead, there needs to be a rebranding of Saudi-Israeli normalization that will speak to, and projects, the Saudi leadership in Arab-Israeli relations.

Thirdly, the senior ulema (religious scholars/elites) must legitimize such normalization. If there may be a demographic within the Kingdom who may not be too excited for such prospects, it would be them. Given their generation in congruence with a religious-centric world view lens, I do not see them being at the forefront of those who jump on the normalization wagon. But it is important to remember that they are an instrument of the state. With that in mind, the religious elite function as a force of legitimization. While I do not see them actively legitimizing low-level Saudi-Israeli active cooperation, it is inevitable to see them proactively legitimizing Saudi-Israeli normalization through the use of a web of fatwas.