Reports that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman is ready to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a possible trip to Abu Dhabi should come as no surprise. This is not only because of a rumored meeting last November, but because of wider regional dynamics that have brought Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel and the Abraham Accord partners in the Gulf closer.
While support for Saudi Arabia has waned in some Western countries, perceptions of Saudi Arabia’s importance to the recent Abraham Accords and thus to the region and Israel in general, have grown.
This paradoxical change in affairs has happened for a variety of reasons, including Iran’s increasing threats through groups like the Houthis in Yemen, and changes in Riyadh over the last decade that led to the conclusion that possible US reduction in focus on the region required a closer alignment with Israel.
The milestones on the way to the current mutual interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia include several key symbolic incidents. Saudi Arabia had an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the Obama administration in the wake of the 2015 Iran Deal. It intervened in Yemen that year to stop the Iranian-backed Houthis taking Aden and putting an Iranian foothold on the strategic Bab el-Mandab straits.
Reuters reported in 2017 on secret contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia. At the time, it was known that former Saudi Intelligence head Prince Turki al-Faisal had shaken hands with Yaakov Amidror, a former senior adviser to Netanyahu, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
In 2018, Israel denied a report that Saudi Arabia was seeking to purchase its Iron Dome air defense system. Saudi Arabia was key to enabling the Abraham Accords and signaled its support. Since then, rumors included the November meeting in Saudi Arabia and a February report about a possible four country defensive pact.
For Israel, the positive position of Saudi Arabia on various issues is important. More challenging is the cold shoulder Riyadh has increasingly received from the US. That is balanced by Washington’s signals that it wants to listen to Israel and the Gulf states more regarding any new Iran deal. This is a major departure from the lead-up to the 2015 agreement.
It also represents a shift in perceptions of Israel and Saudi Arabia in top level circles. Where once Israel was seen as needing to make concessions to the Palestinians to get closer to peace with the Gulf, recent statements indicate the US wants Riyadh to make changes to get closer to peace with Israel. This is a major shift in how the US views these pillars of its strategic partners and allies in the region.
The Kingdom has shifted in the last decades, from accusations that it was exporting extremism during the rise of al-Qaeda, to its quest for economic reforms and also political and religious reforms.
The broader winds of change in the Gulf are part of that with Bahrain and the UAE pushing coexistence as a national agenda. Saudi Arabia, a leader of the GCC and the Gulf states historically, as well as of the Islamic world, has a key role to play in shifting views across the region.
However it is also challenged, by Iranian attacks such as the assault on Abqaiq in 2019, and threats from Iranian-backed groups in Yemen and Iraq, as well as Turkey’s current government support for the Muslim Brotherhood. These twin threats have encouraged closer partnerships between Israel and the Gulf, and more broadly with Egypt, Greece, Jordan, India and other states.
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is a lightning rod of critique in many US circles, because of accusations of involvement in the killing of former Saudi insider Jamal Khashoggi. But others point out how key MBS has been to Saudi Arabia’s shift. They describe a crown prince that has driven these changes. “A visionary,” say those who have met him. Moving Saudi Arabia to a different place.
Saudi Arabia should not be pushed into a corner by US policies that are critical of the Kingdom. It should be listened to regarding Iranian threats. It has already lost US support for offensive operations in Yemen. Messaging in Washington is of recalibration of relations with Riyadh and also a tougher line on human rights issues in Egypt.
It may be that a tougher line from the US, much as in the case of the Iran deal in 2015, will accelerate Israeli connections with Riyadh. But Saudi Arabia has been cautious. Last year when rumors said it might make peace, it waited. Saudi Arabia watches carefully elections in the US and Israel.
However, it is also suffering an onslaught of daily attacks by the Houthis using ballistic missiles and drones. In recent days it has held high level meetings with Jordan, Malaysia, Sudan, and other countries. Unsurprisingly, this dovetails with other high level meetings that link Israel and Egypt, Israel and several countries in Europe and a growing relationship between Greece, Cyprus, France, Egypt, Israel and the UAE.
There are a constellation of broader question marks for Saudi Arabia in this equation.
These include both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s views on Syria and its role in the Arab world, concerns about Lebanon’s stability, relationships they have with Russia and how much they can patch things up in the wake of the Qatar Gulf crisis and also Turkey’s ambitions. This involves possible solutions to conflicts in Libya and also bids for influence in east Africa and places like Sudan, or farther afield in Pakistan. Israel’s growing sense of being part of the region now puts it increasingly at the crossroads of these discussions as well.
While Israel wants the US to stay vitally connected to the region, the overall trend binding Israel, the Gulf and partners from central Europe to India, is visceral.