The Biden administration finally decided to hit the gas on a potential Israeli-Saudi normalization deal, which could prove transformative for the Middle East. The recent trips by senior White House officials to the Kingdom may not have achieved a breakthrough, but they established the initial parameters for what is sure to be a very complex deal.
Following two years of rocky US-Saudi relations in which President Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia "pay the price" for human rights violations and "make them, in fact, the pariah that they are," they moved closer to China, a correction is underway. This is the overarching dynamic of the ongoing three-way talks about a possible normalization agreement between the Sunni kingdom and the Jewish state under American tutelage. For the Saudis, this deal could be everything the Crown Prince needs to secure his kingdom for decades to come, as he is embarking on one of the most ambitious economic projects in the world. For Israel, it will be a historic breakthrough in having normal relations with the wider Muslim world. And for the US, this could be the transformative step that will open the door for a new US-sponsored regional structure that can secure the Middle East and initiate its economic transformation. There is a big carrot for everyone, yet the question remains if such carrots will manage to carry through the three parties through a very complex negotiation process.
While the White House hasn't officially confirmed the complex framework that Thomas Friedman laid out in his July 27, 2023, New York Times column, much has been said by the Americans, the Saudis, and the Israelis to confirm most of its details. Central to such a suggested framework are the Saudi conditions for such a potential normalization agreement which almost entirely revolve around Saudi security needs. Access to advanced American weapons systems, a NATO-like security pact with the US, and a civilian nuclear program are critical Saudi conditions.
One of the main challenges facing this potential agreement is getting a treaty with Riyadh passed through the US Senate with the votes of two-thirds of the legislators. Given the tension and bad reputation Riyadh has been struggling with in Washington, it is clear that this will be a tough, yet not impossible, sell. Senator Lindsey Graham, who used to be the toughest Republican critic of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, had recently visited Riyadh, met with the Prince in a warm environment, and voiced readiness to help the Biden administration provide the Saudis with what they need. This dramatic turnabout from one of the toughest critics of Saudis in Washington signals an existing bi-partisan base willing to accommodate the demands of the Crown Prince for the right price.
This agreement has the potential to transform the Middle East. The agreement would also guarantee America's central role in the Middle East and undermine China's recent efforts to gain regional influence. The Saudis may still wish to maintain strong economic and trade relations with China, but the potential agreement would keep them, lock, stock, and barrel, committed to America's strategic partnership. Despite all the Middle East-related tension in Washington, this clearly shows that Arab-Israeli normalization remains a highly attractive issue among Republicans and Democrats. Finally, a Saudi-Israeli deal would be a major achievement for the Biden administration before what could be a tough election year.
Everything the Saudis demand is perfectly understandable within the current geopolitical context and its challenges to their ambitious development conditions. The Saudi's access to advanced American defense systems, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antiballistic missile defense system, will be crucial to defend the kingdom against Iranian missiles. An American-monitored nuclear program is a major strategic asset and step in energy production. And a security pact with the US will provide Riyadh with the ultimate deterrent against Iranian aggression. Such an arrangement would guarantee Saudi security for decades allowing the young Crown Prince, who is likely to rule the kingdom for many decades to come, to focus on development, diplomacy, and augmenting Saudi power to become the dominant Arab power in the Middle East.
None of these ambitions could even be entertained if the kingdom is vulnerable and lacks military hard power. Also, relations with Israel, one of the Middle East's strongest and most innovative economies, is a major motivation. Direct access to Israeli technology would allow the kingdom to cut middlemen and invest directly in Israel, in which the UAE gained a first-mover advantage.
For Israel, the agreement would be a historic breakthrough for the Jewish state in the Muslim world. It would be an epoch-making agreement in which, following nearly a century of conflict, Israel may be able to build bridges with the Muslim world. According to many insiders, such a powerful dream is so alluring to Jerusalem that not a day goes by without Israeli politicians discussing Saudi Arabia. Israelis are reportedly reluctant about a nuclear program in the Sunni kingdom, afraid that the Middle East will become a nuclear powder keg. Yet many Israeli security officials seem open to the idea within acceptable American guarantees.
Moreover, the fact that the Saudis did not make any demands on behalf of the Palestinians central to the negotiations will make it significantly easier for Israeli politicians to sell it to the public. The only Palestinian-related issues mentioned so far have been a freeze of West Bank settlements and a promise not to annex the West Bank to Israel. Israeli officials already signaled they are willing to make the necessary gestures to the Palestinians. Regardless of the reality of such demands, it is clear that the Palestinian issue is not the focus for Riyadh, and the most pressure will likely come from Washington.
Saudi Arabia has been quietly developing relations with Jerusalem for years; the major question remains as to whether or not Prince Mohamad bin Salman wants to give Biden a foreign policy "win" before the election and whether or not King Salman bin Abdulaziz is psychologically ready to make peace with the Jewish state. It might have to wait for a different administration or until the King dies. The next few months will be crucial.
Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Program for Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).