Robert Satloff, the Segal Executive Director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), spoke to an August 4th Middle East Forum Webinar (video) in an interview with Dexter Van Zile, managing editor of the Middle East Forum's Focus on Western Islamism (FWI). Satloff discussed prospects for a trilateral "integration cooperation agreement" between the U.S., Israel, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The following is a summary of his comments:
The U.S. role in such an agreement would be "pivotal," given that the three parties have different priorities based on their own national interests. KSA's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) sees a trilateral deal as part of his vision for a "dramatic fundamental transformation" of his kingdom. A successful deal would help transform KSA's economy from near complete dependence on its own petrochemical market to a more diversified one. The changes would not only affect its economy, but also transform Saudi society socially, culturally, and even religiously.
A deal with KSA is a strategic priority for Israel because it would confer legitimacy on Israel's existence as a Jewish state in the Arab and Muslim world. It would also mark the end of the "inter-state" Arab-Israeli conflict that has raged since Israel's founding in 1948, as well as render the "intra-state" Israeli-Palestinian Arab conflict more "manageable" without damaging Israel's standing in the Middle East. The unknown variable is whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can convince the current government's rightwing coalition to support whatever concessions to the Palestinians the deal will presumably require.
A deal of this kind from the Saudi point of view "would be useful . . . reputationally to dramatically change the image of Saudi Arabia from the very negative image of recent years, from the very negative image that goes back to even before 9/11, to a peacemaker hand-in-hand with the Jewish state."
But "while a deal for Saudi Arabia is useful and beneficial, it is not urgent and necessary, and that's a big difference. . . . MbS, Muhammad bin Salman, the crowned prince has, shall we say, a lot of fish to fry domestically; this is just one of them."
Substantively, MbS has his eye on four benefits from the U.S.: (1) A defense treaty between KSA and the U.S. or, absent that, a U.S. memorandum of understanding to counter Iranian aggression; (2) fast-tracking provision of U.S. military goods; (3) a free trade agreement; and (4) making KSA's natural uranium deposits available as a source for global uranium supplies. Adding a civilian nuclear energy capability, which would draw on these deposits, would diversify KSA's domestic energy consumption to include nuclear power, thus increasing the export market for its petrochemicals.
The Saudi aim is to create a "nuclear Aramco," and it will be difficult to deny it this right after the U.S. administration certified the Iranian regime's right to enrich uranium. With the necessary safeguards, it is better for the U.S. to agree to a deal of this kind; if it will not, MbS will approach France or Russia for the same. As for defense treaties, few countries have such treaties with the U.S., and factions within both parties are likely to object to it because of KSA's "questionable human rights record." The Biden administration views the deal as a priority, not only for the benefit of Israel's acceptance by the Saudis, but also for how the deal could draw in other Arab and Muslim states.
The three benefits of a successful trilateral deal for America are: (1) Clearly delineating the limits of a Saudi-Chinese relationship, particularly in the "military and technology sphere"; (2) ensuring a consistent energy supply by forging a closer relationship with a leading OPEC producer; and (3) getting the Saudis to address human rights issues and legal rights for its citizens and foreigners within KSA. The third benefit is critical to assuaging concerns on Capitol Hill and securing votes for the deal. The most opportune time to pursue the deal is under a Democratic administration rather than a Republican one, according to Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Who better to corral the recalcitrant Saudi critics on the left than a Democratic president?
To avoid accusations of forging a separate deal with Israel, MbS will seek "both substantive and symbolic" benefits for the Palestinian Arabs. The prospect of the Saudis entering the deal directly and securing Jordanian endorsement of it places them in a position to "impose their views" on the Palestinian Arabs, who are the deal's "dependent variables." While there is "deep disdain" among Middle East Arabs for the Palestinian leadership, there is concern about the welfare of the Palestinian people. Symbolic moves the Saudis will likely expect from Israel include foreswearing annexation, committing to some form of Palestinian statehood, and Palestinian control of redeployed areas of the West Bank.
A recent WINEP public opinion poll reveals that the Saudi people support contacts with Israel in areas of business, sports, and culture. While there are still many moving parts, it is reasonable to anticipate a breakthrough by late 2023 or early 2024 that will be transformative for the U.S., Israel, and the Saudis.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.