There has been a growing consensus within the American foreign policy community that the route toward establishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel runs through Washington. This consensus has come about in part due to leaks of discussions that U.S. diplomats and think tank leaders have held with both Saudi and Israeli officials. As it is usually framed, the argument is that if the Biden administration agrees to certain Saudi demands, then Saudi Arabia will agree to join the Abraham Accords and establish diplomatic relations with Israel. However, such thinking ignores the Saudi government’s strategic independence, its position as a leader of the Arab and Islamic worlds, and its reluctance to go against the wishes of its own people, most of whom still have strong sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians.
Beginning in March 2023, several press reports suggested that the Saudis have laid out their demands for moving ahead with diplomatic relations with Israel. According to the media, Riyadh’s demands are overwhelmingly U.S.-centric; Saudi leaders have asked that Washington support a Saudi civilian nuclear program that includes uranium enrichment on Saudi territory, increase arms sales to the kingdom, and make an ironclad commitment to U.S.-Saudi mutual defense akin to NATO’s Article 5. In exchange for this support, Riyadh would agree to join the Abraham Accords, formalizing political, security, and trade ties with Israel for the first time in its history.
The seriousness of the Saudi proposal is open to interpretation. Through their lobbyists in Washington, Saudi leaders clearly know that it is doubtful the U.S. Congress would approve their demands in the current political climate. A second possibility is that the demands were a signal to Washington that Saudi Arabia has other potential foreign partners; if relations with the United States remain cold, Riyadh could turn to China, which has sought to make diplomatic inroads into the Gulf in recent months. Indeed, the news of the Saudi proposal came only hours before the announcement that Saudi Arabia and Iran had agreed to restore relations—a deal that was brokered by Chinese diplomats in Beijing. Moreover, even Israeli and Saudi shared antipathy towards Iran, long a motive for covert cooperation between the two nations, could decrease in importance if the Chinese-brokered normalization agreement leads to a broader thaw between Riyadh and Tehran.
After several Arab states—including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, two Saudi neighbors with historically close ties to the kingdom—established diplomatic relations with Israel, there was widespread speculation that Riyadh would be next to join them. After the Accords were announced, Saudi Arabia initially made cautious steps in this direction; in July 2022, it opened its airspace to civilian aircraft, and continued to privately host Israeli security officials for discussions on shared geopolitical concerns including Iran. In addition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken openly about his desire to have Saudi Arabia establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state since regaining office.
This speculation, however, has generally ignored Saudi Arabia’s role as the leader of both the Arab and Islamic worlds. Even though Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has reined in the Wahhabi religious establishment, loosened social restrictions, and eliminated the widely-loathed religious police from public life, these actions do not mean that he can simply ignore the underlying religious aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Doing so would jeopardize Riyadh’s standing as leader of the Islamic world and—perhaps more importantly—would undermine his position among his own people.
Consequently, Saudi Arabia has taken steps to distance itself from Israel when it perceived that doing so was in its interests. In early January, only a few days after the latest Netanyahu government took office, Saudi Arabia joined other Arab states in condemning Israel’s far-right national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, after he and dozens of uniformed security officers marched into the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount) in Jerusalem in what many observers described as a deliberate provocation of the Palestinian community. Later that month, Saudi Arabia—in response to an Israeli raid in the West Bank town of Jenin in which nine Palestinians were killed—warned that the situation between Israelis and Palestinians was showing signs of a “dangerous escalation.” Saudi condemnation of subsequent Israeli violence against Palestinians continued throughout the spring.
In May, the Saudi government again joined other Arab states in condemning a second march by Ben-Gvir to the Haram al-Sharif, describing it as a flagrant violation of international norms and covenants and a “provocation to the feelings of Muslims around the world.” Riyadh also said it held the Israeli government “fully responsible” for such abuses.
Hurdles for Normalization
With this context, Saudi officials have so far demurred on joining the Abraham Accords, insisting that relations with Israel be predicated on ensuring the rights of the Palestinians. At the 2023 Arab League summit in Jeddah, Saudi leaders took the lead in promoting the “Arab Peace Initiative” of 2002, in which Arab normalization with Israel is predicated on Israel’s withdrawal from all of the territories it has occupied since the 1967 war and the creation of a Palestinian state with full sovereignty in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In this atmosphere, it seems highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia will join the Abraham Accords in the near future. Perhaps most importantly, it should be noticed that Riyadh’s reticence appears to have nothing to do with Washington—and it is unclear what Washington could realistically do to bring the two sides together. Even if Washington acceded to Riyadh’s reported demands, MBS or other Saudi leaders could justify a continued refusal to establish relations on the basis that Israel’s far-right government made doing so impossible—an argument that U.S. leaders would have little answer to. If and when the Saudis decide to establish relations with Israel, the route to that agreement is not guaranteed to pass through Washington.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.