Evolution of Saudi-Israel Relations: Unveiling the Shift from Quiet Diplomacy to Full Normalization
To explain the current Saudi-Israel rapprochement, some analyses simply refer to the eagerness of both countries in countering Iranian influence in the region. Others point to Saudi Arabia's strive to secure security guarantees from the United States and develop a civilian nuclear program under U.S. assistance. However, such analyses miss a significant part of the picture.
Cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel is not a new phenomenon. In the past, both countries perceived Nasser's regime and Saddam's regime as a common threat to their states, leading them to tacitly cooperate against their shared foe. During the Yemen civil war, when Nasser's regime and the revolutionary Yemeni republicans were fighting against the Yemeni royalists, both Saudi Arabia and Israel provided assistance to the Yemeni royalists to counter Nasser's influence in Yemen. The Saudi elites even turned a blind eye when the Israelis crossed Saudi airspace to deliver weapons, ammunition, and paramilitary assistance to the Yemeni royalists.
The current public rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia cannot be solely explained through the lens of cooperating against Iran or terrorism. Quiet diplomacy, intelligence sharing, and tacit understanding and cooperation were common between the Saudis and Israelis when deterring a common enemy.
Regarding the argument that the normalization of ties with Israel by the Saudi elites is only to obtain security guarantees from the United States and develop a civilian nuclear program under U.S. assistance, this is also far from the truth.
Saudi Arabia acknowledges the importance of Israel in the United States' domestic policy and understands that any U.S. administration would be willing to provide concessions to any Arab states normalizing ties with Israel. Notably, the generous military assistance to Egypt, a pledge for 35 stealth fighters for the UAE, lifting Sudan from its state sponsors of terrorism blacklist, and recognizing the sovereignty of Morocco over the Western Sahara are all gifts from the United States to Arab states that willingly normalized ties with Israel. However, arguing that the primary motives of these Arab states, including Egypt, the UAE, and Morocco, behind normalizing ties with Israel were to acquire these "concessions" from the United States is both a lazy and weak argument.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, is aware that if Saudi Arabia, as the custodian of the two sacred places in Islam and the current de facto leader of the Arab states, were to normalize its ties with Israel, the majority of Arab and Muslim states would follow suit. Saudi Arabia is the only country that could provide Israel with unchallengeable legitimacy in the Middle Eastern system. Therefore, it is logical that the Saudi elites set the bar high and ask the United States for security guarantees and assistance in developing a civilian nuclear program as U.S. concessions, but this should not be seen as the only or even the most important factor behind Saudi Arabia's move.
The big picture
Saudi Arabia never perceived Israel as an existential threat to its survival. Instead, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the main concern of the Saudi elites. Revolutionary regimes in the region, whether Nasser or revolutionary Iran, have long relied on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to penetrate Middle Eastern societies and gain influence in the region. Indeed, the liberation of Palestine is the main cause, if not the only cause, on which the majority of Arabs share the same opinion. Each Israeli aggressive offensive against the Palestinians shakes the very foundation of Muslim and especially Arab societies. In 2001, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the ambassador of Saudi Arabia, warned the Bush administration that Saudi Arabia is facing domestic instability for the first time in 30 years due to the Israeli onslaught on the Palestinians, and Saudi Arabia could not conduct business as usual with the United States until the latter restrains the Israelis. By the same token, in 2002, the Mubarak regime faced the biggest protests in the history of modern Egypt, due to what the Egyptians perceived as Arab states' regimes, including Mubarak's, passive reaction to the Israeli onslaught. .
In the Nasser era, Saudi Arabia faced a threat from Pan-Arabism, which was adopted by the Nasser regime of Egypt. The Saudi elites perceived that Nasser's ability to manipulate Arab public opinion and Saudi citizens turned into an existential threat to the survival of Al Saud.
Nasser, through his ability to manipulate Arab public opinion through the lens of Pan-Arabism, projected a narrative that only the union of Arab states, under Egyptian hegemony, could lead to the liberation of Palestine.
The Saudi elites perceived that Nasser's real motives were to turn Egypt into the de facto hegemon in the Arab system. Thus, the Saudi elite understood that only by grabbing the Palestinian cause from Nasser's propaganda machine could they decrease Nasser's influence in the region. Saudi Arabia, especially under the leadership of King Faisal, strived to turn the Palestinian question from an Arab affair to an Islamic affair.
With the coming of the Iranian revolution, the circumstances changed 180 degrees. The Iranian state adopted an Islamic revolutionary anti-Western, anti-monarchist regime with Shia flavor, which happened to be the main enemy of Saudi Arabia's Islamic regime model of Sunni conservative monarchist Western-friendly Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi elites found themselves in an awkward position. While in the Nasser era, they relied on the unchallengeable place which Islam enjoys in the collective memory of Middle Eastern societies, especially the Arabs, they turned, after the Iranian revolution, cooperating with a regional rival which also relies on pan-Islamism (although a revolutionary one) to project its influence in the region.
Like in the Nasser era, although by using pan-Islamism ideology, Iran projected a narrative that only the union of the Muslim states in the region, under Iranian hegemony, could lead to the liberation of Palestine.
Saudi Arabia since the 1990s, in order to counter Iranian influence in the region, turned eager to project the narrative that the Palestinian affairs are an Arab affair, and Iran, as a non-Arab state, does not have a legitimate right to interfere in an exclusively Arab issue. Furthermore, the Saudi elites, since 2004, adopted the narrative of the Iran Shia crescent, formulated by the Hashemite king of Jordan, which stressed that Iran is striving to create a Shia sphere of influence in the region. Iran, on the other hand, effectively used its relations with Sunni Palestinian non-state actors such as Hamas and Jihad to project the narrative that Iran is not implementing a Shia expansion policy in the region, as the Sunni Arab elites, including Saudis, are arguing, but rather an axis of Islamic resistance against American imperialism, Zionism (Israel), and the Arab conservative regimes friendly to the latter two.
In this context, Saudi elites have strived to find a diplomatic and peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, aiming to diminish the efforts of revisionist Middle Eastern regimes in the region, particularly Iran since the 1990s, to exploit the Palestinian issue to infiltrate Arab societies.
Redefining Saudi Efforts: A Fresh Approach to Diplomatic Resolution in the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict
Since 1981, Saudi elites have been eager to actively pursue a peace initiative for the Palestinian question. The then Crown Prince Fahd announced an eight-point peace initiative, but neither the Israelis paid too much attention to it nor the leader of Fatah, Yasser Arafat, was cooperative with the Saudis. After the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam linked his withdrawal from Kuwait to the withdrawal of Israel from the territories conquered in 1967. The Saudi elites turned tired of the eagerness of the non-status-quo players in the region to exploit Palestinian grievances to pursue their revisionist policies. Indeed, King Fahd, in a conversation with the then Secretary of State, James Baker, called the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the crux of all problems in the region and promised that Saudi Arabia would normalize its relations with Israel if the latter would give the Palestinians a homeland. It is under these circumstances that Saudi Arabia lobbied the Bush father and Clinton administrations heavily to broker a peace resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Saudi elites from the 1980s to the outbreak of the Second Intifada relied on Washington to be an honest broker between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Saudi elites' strategy was to legitimize Palestinian negotiations with Israel and provide political, diplomatic, and financial assistance to the former. By the same token, the Saudi elites relied on their influence in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s to pressure the American administrations from Carter to Clinton to use their influence on Israel to extract maximum concessions. Saudi elites also promised the Americans that if the Palestinian elites turned satisfied with the deal, they would automatically normalize their relations with Israel and pressure the Arab states to do the same.
The failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000, however, put the Saudi elites in an awkward position. The Saudi elites turned skeptical of Arafat, the leader of Fatah, and although Saudi elites' relations with Hamas were still far from antagonism, Saudi Arabia never relied on Hamas in its vision, as Hamas did not even recognize the right of Israel to existence as the starting point for any negotiation with Israel, not to mention Hamas's relations with Iran.
However, after 9/11, Saudi elites, disillusioned by the Bush administration and the Palestinians, adopted a new strategy. In 2002, when Saudi Arabia turned aware of Bush's unwillingness and/or inability to make a breakthrough, it announced Saudi's peace plan and lobbied the Arab states to ratify the plan in the Arab League, which has been called the Arab Peace Plan. The then Crown Prince and de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah ibn Saud, wanted to make the Arab states provide a carrot for Israel by promising that the Arab states would normalize their relations with the Israelis if the latter would give the Palestinians their rights to an independent state. Indeed, Saudi elites, aware of their position as the de facto leader of the Arab states, their eagerness to counter Iranian influence in the region by finding a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian question, and after perceiving that the Bush administration could not be relied on concerning this issue, turned to the Arab states. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia faced not only resistance from Israel under the Sharon administration but also faced resistance from a number of Arab states that were eager to abort the Saudi peace initiative from the start. Indeed, Saudi's peace plan has been modified after pressure from a number of Arab states to abort the Saudi peace initiative and insisted that the Arab peace initiative should include the right of all Palestinian refugees to come back to their lands (while the Saudis wanted to make the subject vague to put Israel on the table of negotiation first).
With the coming of King Salman and his son, de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is pursuing yet another different strategy.
Saudi Arabia turned more willing to engage directly with Israel if the latter would make concessions to the Palestinians and end the decades-old conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. Saudi Arabia's strategy, by relying mainly on Washington and then on Arab states' cooperation since 2002, has failed miserably. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman could only have reasoned that the unilateral kingdom's public recognition of Israel could end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Saudi's public rapprochement with the Israelis has been pursued incrementally. In 2018, Israeli and Saudi high-ranking officials met publicly for the first time in Washington in a Counter–Violent Extremist Organizations Conference. By the same token, after the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, Saudi Arabia opened its airspaces to all Israeli flights from Israel to the UAE. Still, while the UAE could have pursued an independent policy by normalizing its relations with Israel without waiting for a green light from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain could never normalize its relations with Israel without Saudi authorization, as Bahrain is dependent on Saudi security and financial assistance for its survival.
Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been eager to see and wait with the current normalization process of Israel with the Arab Gulf states. Crown Prince Mohammed Salman, aware that the Israelis could be willing to make concessions to the Palestinians if influential Arab states normalized their relations with Israel, wanted to see what the current normalization between Israel and the Arab Gulf states could lead. Indeed, when Jared Kushner, the architect of the so-called Abraham Accords, approached the Crown Prince about normalizing ties with Israel, the Crown Prince said that he would rather wait and see whether the normalization between the UAE and the Israelis could help find a final diplomatic resolution to the Palestinian question. By the same token, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was under pressure from his father, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, who was still relying on the Arab peace initiative launched by the then King of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah, in 2002.
However, negotiations between the Saudis and the Israelis have turned public from 2023. In 2022, Saudi Arabia had already opened its airspace to Israeli flights. In an interview in September 2023, the Crown Prince said that he wants to see Israelis be legitimate players in Middle Eastern politics, but first, we need to ease the Palestinian life.
Thus, after the operation launched by Hamas on October 7, Saudi Arabia's state-backed media criticized Hamas's unpredictable move and argued that Israel's retaliation would be catastrophic for the Palestinian citizens in Gaza. Prince Turki al-Faisal, former head of Saudi intelligence for more than three decades, attacked Hamas on October 23 and said that when Saudi Arabia was about to find a diplomatic solution to the Palestinian crisis, Hamas simply wanted to abort it.
Some analyses claimed that the current massacre of Israelis would make the Saudi elites unable to normalize their relations with Israel anytime soon and the press revealed that the talks have been suspended.
However, the Saudi elites could only turn more eager to normalize their relations with Israel, after the the outbreak of a permenant cease fire. On December 30, Prince Turki al-Faisal said in an interview that the current situation reveals that the Palestinian question is still in the Arab collective memory, unlike all that has been said about the decreasing importance of the Palestinian question in the Arab street.Thus, it became only understandable that the Saudi elites would further strive for a final resolution to the crisis to shut the door once and for all to all the regional players, especially Iran and its allies in the region, which are perceived by the Saudi elites, as using the Palestinian rhetoric to gain influence in Arab societies and legitimize their foreign expansionist policies in the region. Indeed, In January 2024, Tony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, conveyed to Israeli leaders that Saudi Arabia expresses a desire to establish normalized relations with Israel following the conclusion of the Gaza war. However, Saudi Arabia insists that any agreement must hinge on the Israeli government's commitment to the fundamental principle of a two-state solution.
To sum up, the Israel-Palestinian conflict has always posed a challenge to Saudi Arabia's internal stability and regional position. From the Egypt of Nasser to revolutionary Iran, the rhetoric of Palestinian liberation has been effectively used by Saudi Arabia's rivals to legitimize their revisionist policies in the region. The previous Saudi strategy, initially relying on Washington and later on "the concert of the Arab states" to find a just diplomatic resolution to the Palestinian question, has failed miserably. Since the arrival of the Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has adopted a bold diplomacy by engaging with Israel, albeit under the auspices of Washington, to find a diplomatic solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and to deprive Iran and the so-called axis of resistance from exploiting the Palestinian card.