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Biden in Jeddah: Pursuing U.S.-Saudi-Israeli Alignment

President Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East, and more specifically Saudi Arabia, has put the enduring U.S.-Saudi-Israeli “security triangle” back on the geopolitical map. After a tense year of U.S.-Saudi relations, the Biden administration is changing its idealistic policy towards the Kingdom, apparently abandoning its human rights agenda in favor of pursuing its amoral national interests. The recent reconciliation entails a return of bilateral relations based on common interests, deeper Saudi-Israeli relations, and closer coordination between the three partners against Iran.

Recalibrating the Recalibration

Relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been tense since President Joe Biden, a longtime critic of the Saudi monarchy and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East more broadly, won the 2020 presidential election. While Riyadh maintained warm relations with the Trump administration, Biden advocated a different policy towards Saudi Arabia. During his campaign, the then-presidential candidate had cast Saudi Arabia as apariah” state, and had initially refused to speak with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the country’s de facto leader, after his election. Biden’s Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, stated that human rights would be at the center of U.S. foreign policy, explicitly including its relationship with Saudi Arabia. As a President, Biden also issued a statement on the anniversary of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and stated that the relations with Saudi Arabia will be reassessed.

However, the Biden administration’s professed idealism took a backseat after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, leading to a spike in global oil prices and inflation. These developments led the Biden administration to renew its interest in Saudi Arabia and the core bargain underlying the eight-decade partnership: security for stable oil markets. In marked contrast to his earlier declaration, Biden not only traveled to Saudi Arabia, but met (and fist-bumped) with MBS. Therefore, the opening of Saudi airspace to Israeli civilian flights, a relatively painless giveaway for Riyadh, should be seen as the first step of improved U.S.-Saudi relations in which both countries agree on short-term mutual interest while also reevaluating their strategic partnership. In the short run, the Saudi crown prince will receive much-coveted recognition from the President of the United States, while the Biden administration will appear as a peace-maker in facilitating improved relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, while also pushing for increased Saudi oil output.

Prelude to Peace

Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow Israeli aircraft through its airspace has set the stage for more open relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The increased geopolitical threat presented by Iran, despite the current negotiations between Tehran and Riyadh, has pushed the latter to strengthen its still-furtive relationship with Tel Aviv. The attacks on Saudi Arabia by Iranian proxies in Iraq, as well as Iran’s support for the Houthis, have created a Saudi sense of encirclement and an urge to counter Tehran’s influence in the region at any cost. At the same time, Israel, which also fears Iran and has sought a broader reconciliation, also perceives an opportunity through broadening its relationship with Riyadh. There are reports, for example, that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Saudi Arabia during his time in office. Israeli President Isaac Herzog also declared in May that he would be happy to visit Saudi Arabia openly—an obvious hint that the Israeli ceremonial head of state had already visited Saudi Arabia secretly. In Riyadh, MBS discussed normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in 2021, and claimed on another occasion that Israel could be a “potential ally.”

In other words, there has been a noticeable shift in Saudi foreign policy since the rise of MBS, prioritizing national interest over ideological objectives. Today, Riyadh is much less concerned with the Palestinian cause than with increasing its security and improving its economy. Relations with Israel, starting overtly with opening its airspace, is in line with this new Saudi view. Improved relations with the U.S., and emerging relations with Israel, could pave the way for a more closely aligned trilateral united front against Iran.

Probable Attack

Finally, Riyadh’s decision to open its airspace to Israel could be an important step in facilitating an Israeli airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Long before the Iranian nuclear program represented a threat to Israel, the Iraqi nuclear program was considered as a major threat to Tel Aviv. In response, Israel launched a daring mission—ironically with information provided by revolutionary Iran—and Israeli fighter jets destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, dealing a devastating blow to the Iraqi nuclear program.

It is no secret that Israel has made similar preparations to conduct another such strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. For more than a decade, the Israeli military has been preparing for a strike against Iran. The most recent simulation by the Israeli Air Force occurred a few months ago and involved dozens of fighter jets simulating a strike against Iranian facilities. The drill included long-range flights, aerial refueling, and striking distant targets—all considerations that access to Saudi Arabia’s airspace would make far less troublesome. Two of the possible routes that Israel might use to attack Iranian targets run through Saudi airspace, which will be particularly important in hitting Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility, located across the Gulf from Saudi Arabia.

In short, the result of the Biden trip appears to be the reinvigoration and coalescence of a regional partnership intended to address an increasingly assertive and unyielding Iran. It has also paved the way for greater cooperation and recognition between Saudi Arabia and Israel, establishing a groundwork that could ultimately lead to normalization between the two countries. Finally, the trip could be “resetting” Saudi-U.S. relations after recent challenges to the decades-old partnership. Whatever the outcome of the meeting, the implications of Biden’s visit to Jeddah will certainly be felt long after the president returns to the United States.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Dr. Massaab Al-Aloosy is a Non-Resident Fellow at Gulf International Forum and a researcher focusing on Iraq, Iran, and Shia non-state armed groups. He holds a PhD from the Fletcher School-Tufts University and is the author of The Changing Ideology of Hezbollah, Palgrave 2020.

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