A few days ago, it was reported that the US National Security Adviser raised the issue of Israel-Saudi normalisation at Neom, a futuristic city on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, during a September 27 meeting with Saudi de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had earlier discussed expanding the Abraham Accords during their interactions with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
So, you might wonder what is happening? Well, to be very precise- Saudi Arabia has already normalised its relations with Israel and now only preparations for a huge ceremony to mark the historic occasion are underway. Saudi Arabia is now busy fulfilling some prior conditions before it will publicly embrace Israel and meanwhile a desperate Biden administration is trying to somehow play a visible mediator.
Improving Israel-Saudi relations
The bilateral ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel have been improving considerably since the Arab world started embracing Israel a year ago.
Amongst the most recent developments, a direct flight has been started from Saudi Arabia’s capital city to the Ben Gurion Airport, the main and busiest international airport of Israel.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-SE), an Israeli research organization, has released a report titled “A Further Step Forward: Review of Changes and Remaining Problematic Content in Saudi Textbooks 2021–22.” The report claims that textbooks in Saudi Arabia have shown considerable improvement in their depiction of non-Muslims including Jews.
The report stated, “The greatest changes have been made to lessons dealing with Jews, Christians, non-believers, and violent jihad; twenty-eight lessons featuring demonization of the other and religious intolerance were removed or heavily modified.” It added, “An entire textbook unit on jihad was scrapped. While problematic material remains in Saudi textbooks, these represent profound changes in these categories.”
The report also mentions that while some anti-Israel content remains, an incendiary matter about the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and the Temple Mount was removed. So, Saudi Crown Prince and de facto leader Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) is undermining antisemitism and Israel is acknowledging his successful efforts.
Security relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia too are witnessing significant improvement. Earlier this year, World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder wrote an op-ed calling for “a NATO for the Middle East.”
Lauder claimed that his contacts in the Arab world viewed only Israel as a reliable ally against Iran, and most Israelis he spoke with too viewed Arabs as “the only ally (against Iran) that they trust without reservation.”
Lauder suggested, “Facing the accelerating threat of a malevolent Iran and the weakness of a coronavirus-hit world, the path toward self-reliance seems also to be the only path forward.” He added, “Israelis and Arabs should seize the opportunity to work together to save the Middle East from the looming catastrophe of extremism and nuclearization.”
Now, here is the interesting bid- Lauder’s op-ed was published in Arab News, a pro-government newspaper owned by King Salman’s son and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s brother Prince Turki bin Salman Al Saud.
Neom- the city bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia closer
There is another factor pushing Israel and Saudi Arabia closer to each other- the high tech city of Neom. The city hosted Netanyahu and MBS during a secret meeting last year. Again, Sullivan was found pushing Saudi Arabia for a peace deal with Israel in the city of Neom only.
Neom is at the centre of Israel-Saudi relations. It is supposed to power the economic growth of a post-oil world in Saudi Arabia. The city will be laced with next-gen facilities including flying taxis, robot maids and an artificial moon right in the middle of a desert wasteland. Neom will be a bright spot in Saudi Arabia built at a cost of half a trillion dollars. It will be a high-tech financial hub free from the influence of hardline clerics in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia cannot build Neom, a cross border city spread over 26,500-sq.km. For building the city of Neom, Egypt handed over the islands of Sanafir and Tiran, located off the coast of Saudi Arabia and the Sinai Peninsula to Riyadh. However, the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel ensures the guarantee of free Israeli shipping through the straits of Tiran. Therefore, any Saudi attempt to connect Egypt and Neom through a bridge crossing the Strait of Tiran would require the approval of Israel.
Meanwhile, Israeli companies are attempting to get involved in building Neom. As per a 2017 Jerusalem Post report, Israeli companies were selling cybersecurity tools to the Saudi government.
MBS is relying solely on Neom for powering his country’s future growth and given Israel’s role, it is MBS who would be eager to establish normal ties with Jerusalem. On the other hand, Israel is always ready to establish normal ties with Riyadh given how closer ties with the Arab world elevates the Jewish nation’s status in the Middle East.
How is the US getting involved?
There is a lot of geopolitics and diplomacy behind the Saudi-Israel normalisation. The two countries are themselves ready to normalise ties. Yet, Biden has made it a point to play mediator even though there is no conflict to resolve.
Biden simply wants to regain all the leverage he has lost in the Middle East by prioritising the Iran nuclear deal while sidelining US allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Even before coming to power, Biden emerged as a critic of the Saudi Crown Prince over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and allegations of human rights violations in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Now, by mediating a normal relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Biden wants to claim victory- show that he hasn’t lost the Middle East and pulled Riyadh away from extremism. He wants to claim credit for a process started by Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to give away credit to Biden for free. Saudi Arabia will demand something from the US in return and the most obvious demands will be restoring bonhomie between Riyadh and Washington, D.C. and reprioritising Washington’s Middle East commitments. At a specific level, MBS wants Biden to terminate his negotiations with Tehran.
Saudi Arabia wants to stay the King of the Muslim world. It would want the rest of the Muslim countries to normalise their ties with Israel before it goes on to normalise its relations with the Jewish nation. Biden’s Afghanistan policy had emboldened Turkey, Qatar and Pakistan, which had ruined Riyadh’s efforts to push Islamabad into normalizing its ties with Saudi Arabia.
However, now with Turkey getting FATF greylisted and Islamabad falling back on Riyadh, Saudi Arabia will again push Islamabad to normalise its relations with Jerusalem. Saudi-Israel ties are about to get normalised. They are practically normalised and only a formal ceremony remains.
Leave a Reply