Analysis: How much closer can Biden bring Saudi Arabia to Israel?

United States President Joe Biden has somewhat danced around questions about how he will interact with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) when he arrives in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah on Friday.

The debate over how and when Biden should directly engage with MBS is sensitive. This appears to be the reason the White House is domestically selling his trip as beneficial to Israeli security, which can make the trip less controversial in the eyes of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Washington.

The Biden administration wants its own addition to the normalisation deals known as the “Abraham Accords”, a process under former President Donald Trump that saw Israel normalise ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

For Biden, and Israel, a deal with Saudi Arabia would be the ultimate breakthrough.

Before the official confirmation of the trip to Saudi Arabia, Biden was asked whether he was waiting for “commitments” from Riyadh.

“The commitments from the Saudis don’t relate to anything having to do with energy,” Biden replied.  “It happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia. That’s the reason I’m going. And it has to do with national security for them – for Israelis.”

Many analysts believe that Bahrain’s deal with Israel could have only come about with a green light from Saudi Arabia, considering the close relationship between Manama and Riyadh.

“Bahrain’s measures toward Israel are understood as Saudi signals given Saudi influence over Bahrain’s foreign policy,” Ali Bakeer, an assistant professor at Qatar University’s Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, told Al Jazeera. “I think that in this sense more steps can be taken following Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, whether it comes to business, tourism, or indirect communication between the two sides.”

Looking ahead, if Saudi Arabia gives the go-ahead to other Arab or Muslim allies and partners of Riyadh to normalise with Israel, the Abraham Accords have greater potential to expand.

Normalisation with Saudi Arabia, or even increased ties short of full diplomatic relations, would have a knock-on effect for Arab states which have already normalised ties.

For example, the announcement on Thursday that Saudi Arabia was lifting restrictions on all airlines using its airspace, representing Riyadh’s latest mini step towards normalisation with Israel, will allow Israel’s partnership with the UAE and Bahrain to grow faster.

Biden immediately praised Saudi Arabia for the move, with a White House statement saying the US president “commends the historic decision”, which it called a “result of the President’s persistent and principled diplomacy with Saudi Arabia over many months, culminating in his visit today”.

Put simply, Saudi Arabia does not have to fully enter the Abraham Accords to be a part of the Arab world’s trend towards normalisation.

Another major development that indicates a closer Saudi-Israeli relationship is Tel Aviv’s approval for the transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

This has major implications for Riyadh and Tel Aviv’s relationship for several reasons, including the fact that the deal would require the Saudis to pledge to Washington that they will adhere to the terms of the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace deal, including maintaining freedom of navigation for Israeli ships in the Straits of Tiran.

Although the development does not bring Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords, it further highlights how Riyadh and Tel Aviv are moving in phases towards de facto normalisation.

A Palestinian backlash?

Despite Saudi Arabia and Israel moving closer, the Biden administration understands that it is highly unlikely that any normalisation deal between the two countries will be announced while Biden is in Jeddah.

This is especially so considering that King Salman, who has been considered a supporter of the Palestinian cause for many decades, is still on the throne.

Saudi Arabia’s current position is that the kingdom will not formally normalise with Israel unless and until the Palestinians have a sovereign and independent state based on the 1949-1967 borders.

It has been suggested that MBS, who is next in line to the throne and of a different generation, might like to see Riyadh establish full-fledged diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv.

But even after MBS ascends to the throne, Riyadh will likely move carefully on the normalisation issue, mindful of the kingdom’s role in the wider Islamic world, as well as the risks of a backlash from within Saudi Arabia, where strong support still exists for the Palestinians.

There would also be considerable backlash from the Palestinians themselves, who increasingly feel abandoned by the Arab world, and argue that Israel is essentially being rewarded while it continues to occupy Palestinian land, and restrict Palestinian life – with little possibility of compromising and allowing an independent Palestinian state to be formed in the short or medium term.

“It is very demoralising for Palestinians to see one Arab and/or Muslim country after the other join the train of normalisation, especially hearing about the Saudis cosying up to the Israelis,” Ahlam Muhtaseb, a professor of media studies at California State University, San Bernardino, told Al Jazeera. “I really hope that Saudi Arabia would never join that trend because it is very harmful for the Palestinian struggle and the steadfastness of our people facing the ugliest forms of colonialism and repression.”

“Normalisation with the Israelis emboldens Israel to go on with their war crimes against Palestinians, including daily killing and imprisoning of Palestinians, land theft, road closures, and making every aspect of Palestinian daily life a living hell,” Muhtaseb added.

Business potential

Nonetheless, for years the Saudis and Israelis have undeniably established an unofficial relationship.

“I don’t see normalisation happening yet,” Courtney Freer, a fellow at Emory University, told Al Jazeera. “The Saudis have said repeatedly that they’re committed to their peace initiative when it comes to Arab-Israeli relations.”

While much is made of the potential security implications of increased Saudi-Israeli ties, most notably in an “alliance” confronting Iran, the financial implications are interesting to note.

Yet, Freer maintains that the Saudis and Israelis will probably take “incremental steps” towards a strong de facto partnership through economic ties, business-to-business relations, and changes in the Middle East’s larger security architecture.

“Encouraged by the Abraham Accords, Israel set the widening of its relations with Saudi Arabia – even without an official agreement – as a key priority,” said Ilan Zalayat, a Tel Aviv-based defence and political risk analyst. “Some Israeli officials dub Saudi Arabia the ‘crown jewel’, assuming that due to its power and status in the Muslim and Arab world, every step the kingdom makes toward normalisation with Israel would spur and legitimise other Arab and Muslim countries to follow suit, regardless of the situation of the Palestinian issue.”

An “economic normalisation”, of sorts, is already under way in Saudi-Israeli relations.

Israeli businessmen and people with Israeli passports and special visas to the kingdom have been visiting Saudi Arabia for discussions about investment relationships.

The Saudis have invited Israeli technology firms to the country, which has been possible due to Riyadh eliminating its previous blanket ban on Israelis coming to Saudi Arabia.

The claimed November 2020 visit of Israel’s then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Neom, a planned city in northern Saudi Arabia, may be a sign that some within the kingdom want a greater Israeli role in their country’s Vision 2030 agenda.

However, the fact that the Saudi foreign minister denied the meeting also indicates the sensitivities that still exist.

Saudi businessmen and Israelis are meeting in the two Gulf Arab states that normalised ties with Israel almost two years ago, underscoring how the Abraham Accords have helped Saudi Arabia advance its commercial ties with Israel. “The government here sees the potential, and this fits with the plans and big reforms advanced by the crown prince,” one anonymous Saudi official has been quoted as saying.

“I think things like this – opening airspace, opening up business-to-business contacts – is one avenue through which Saudi-Israeli ties could change … because that can be presented to the Saudi public as beneficial economically, beneficial to diversification efforts,” explained Freer.

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