Formal Relations Between Israel and Saudi Arabia: A Question of ‘When,’ Not ‘If’
by Henrique Cymerman
As a wave of normalization agreements between Israel and Arab Sunni states have swept the region, many have asked when regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia will also formalize its long-standing, quiet relationship with Israel.
Quietly, Riyadh and Jerusalem have already established a slowly advancing normalization process, made up of cooperation on defense and intelligence, business and trade, and inter-religious dialogue.
According to media reports, the IDF chief of staff and the head of the Mossad have been guests of the Saudi government — a part of the crawling normalization process.
Reports about Saudi anger over an Israeli leak in November of a visit by Prime Minister Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia, and his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), reflect genuine anger in Riyadh, although it is also convenient for the Saudis to publicly protest the leak. There is anger too in Israel over comments made about the Jewish state by Saudi prince Turki Al Faisal.
But there are always ups and downs in a relationship, and it’s the long-term trend that really counts. It therefore appears that it’s a question of when, not if, Riyadh will take the next step toward full normalization.
To see why that is the case, it’s worth taking stock of the strategic tidal shift that has washed through the Middle East in the past decade. Two meetings held between myself and Saudi princes help illustrate this geopolitical revolution.
In May 2010, in Rio de Janeiro, I chaired a panel at a UN conference for world leaders. At the end of the event, the Saudi Foreign Minister at the time, Saud Al-Faisal, approached the stage, and greeted me with a message: “Tell your friends you can use our air space.”
I smiled at him, and replied, “But your highness, I’m not a pilot.” Four years later, in New York, I was invited by Saud’s brother, Turki al-Faisal, to a Saudi-owned hotel in New York. “You in Israel have not yet understood that a revolution is taking place in the Middle East,” he told me. “It’s true that your path to Riyadh runs through Ramallah. But today, you have open doors in front of you in the region.”
In the 90-minute conversation, it became clear that the senior Saudi diplomat was presenting me with a message to take back to the Israel public. Nothing catalyzes new cooperation more than sharing a common enemy — in this case, Iran. The Saudis have one major nightmare: waking up to discover that Iran is days away from possessing nuclear weapons.
Israel is perceived as a natural partner to counter the threat. But there are other factors at play, too. Saudi Arabia’s 2030 vision is a plan to rescue its economy by diversification, which is today 90% reliant on oil. This vision fully lines up with developing an alliance with Israel, because the changes Riyadh seeks involve Israeli participation.
The clues are all around. Israeli airliners fly over Saudi Arabia en route to the UAE. Google is connecting Israel and Saudi Arabia to a single network of fiberoptics that runs all the way to India. Israel could also play a significant role in the Saudi plan to build a brand-new city on the Red Sea coastline. Neom, with a planned budget of 500 billion dollars, will be a zero-emissions city powered by renewable energy, and will feature flying drone taxis. Israeli hi-tech companies could receive contracts to help build it.
Another initiative being promoted by MBS, is a network of trains from Haifa to the Persian Gulf, via the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. MBS has much to gain from normalization with Israel fully, since this is also a strong path to reaching a good status with the Biden administration, which has deep doubts over Saudi Arabia due to concerns over human rights.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia could play a significant role in restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — and by doing so, earn credit in Washington. The Palestinians are hoping the Biden administration will resume all economic aid, reopen a consulate in Jerusalem, and reopen the PLO’s embassy in Washington, and it expects the Saudis to assist in these efforts.
On the other hand, there is Saudi anger at the Palestinians, who have been described in Riyadh as ungrateful for all the Saudi assistance they have received. But officially, the Saudi government places the Palestinians as a central issue, and the regime is keen to contribute towards a solution to the conflict.
During visits to Saudi Arabia in December 2019 and February 2020, it became clear to me that Riyadh is the large silent partner behind the dramatic decisions by the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco to normalize relations with Israel.
In parallel, MBS has good reason to wait before following suit himself. One major reason is that MBS, who could become king in the coming years, needs time to prepare public opinion in his country.
For decades, the Saudi people were nourished by incitement against Israel, including by the ultra-conservative Wahabi Islamic elements in the state. Suddenly, the messaging on Israel has seen a 180-degree turn. But the public requires time to process the change.
The UAE prepared its public thoroughly for normalization, with consistent new messaging on Israel across all media and social media. MBS is only now getting a similar initiative going, and is pushing it into a high gear.
In the meanwhile, Israel and Saudi Arabia continue to enjoy their deep, quiet alliance.
Henrique Cymerman is a publishing Expert at The MirYam Institute. Henrique is a journalist of global renown whose writings regularly appear in media publications in Europe, the USA, Latin America and Israel. He lectures in five languages. Henrique has covered current affairs in the Middle East for over 30 years and has been nominated “Comendador,” a title of nobility, by the King of Spain and the President of Portugal.
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