Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Steven Simon, the Robert E Wilhelm fellow at the Center for International Studies and a research analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, weigh in on recent efforts to normalize Israeli-Saudi relations. This article was originally published here in Foreign Policy.
The US-Saudi relationship is too big to fail. That’s clearly the Biden administration’s mindset as Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to the Saudi capital, Riyadh, this week, following National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s visit to the country last month, to woo a problematic partner. The latest twist in this complex relationship is a US push to test the waters for an Israeli-Saudi normalization agreement.
It’s an ambitious goal involving a triangular puzzle that needs to be solved. And among the most problematic of all the elements from a US perspective is Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reported demand for a formal US guarantee of Saudi Arabia’s security and for US assistance to create a Saudi civilian nuclear infrastructure, including the right for Riyadh to manage its own fuel cycle free from US or international controls.
Full normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a dramatic accomplishment, but not nearly as transformational as many may think. And Washington should be extremely careful about what kind of assurances and other enticements it provides to a repressive would-be Saudi king who’s recent outreach to China and Russia suggests he’s obviously not in thrall to the Biden administration.
These days, Saudi Arabia seems to be everywhere. The Biden administration has evidently taken note by warming ties and suppressing—at least publicly—any qualms it had about the Saudi crown prince’s abysmal human rights record. Whatever US President Joe Biden’s personal views of Mohammed bin Salman are, he’s keeping his thoughts to himself. Long gone are the days when he vowed to make Saudi Arabia a pariah nation and to impose “consequences.”
Forget the crown prince’s support of Russia in OPEC+, which has helped Russian President Vladimir Putin fuel his war machine; Mohammed bin Salman’s recent China-brokered détente with the United States’ erstwhile adversary, Iran; his leading role in bringing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in from the cold; or his serial repression and human rights abuses at home. The US administration has decided that it simply cannot afford to alienate the de facto Saudi leader.
There are some good reasons for this. Saudi Arabia remains the global oil market’s most important swing producer. It seems to be looking for a way out of Yemen via an arrangement with the Houthis that could yield a durable ceasefire. Startlingly, the crown prince even welcomed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to the recent Arab League meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where the Ukrainian leader chastised the Gulf States for not being more supportive.
At the same time, it’s unmistakable that Saudi Arabia no longer feels constrained by Washington’s “you’re either with us or against us” school of diplomacy. Mohammad bin Salman has improved relations with some of the United States’ top rivals—namely Iran and China—as well as some smaller fry such as Assad and Hamas.
And then, of course, there’s Israel and the Abraham Accords. The Biden administration inherited two peace processes involving Israel: an essentially defunct one with the Palestinians and a much more functional set of agreements brokered by the Trump administration, the Abraham Accords. These agreements, particularly between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, have held up despite Israeli-Palestinian skirmishing and the election last year of a hardline fundamentalist government in Israel.
But the big prize in the normalization sweepstakes is Saudi Arabia.
In the runup to Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia last summer, the administration succeeded in securing some modest gains, including a three-way accord on returning two small islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia that required Israel’s assent. Saudi Arabia also granted Israel overflight rights for its commercial aircraft flying to India and China (though an accord to enable direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for Muslims who want to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina is still pending). And there have been credible reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman have met.
Yet a full normalization deal remains elusive. For well over a year now, there have been reports of US-Saudi discussions about what Riyadh would want from Washington should it decide to move forward in normalizing relations with Israel. But lately matters have become much more focused. In a speech last month, Sullivan spoke openly about that goal. Shortly after, he flew to Jeddah to meet with Mohammad bin Salman and raised the possibility of concluding an agreement before the end of the year. US officials then briefed Netanyahu on the results of Sullivan’s meeting.
It’s not entirely apparent what’s driving the urgency. Perhaps in the wake of China’s brokering a détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration wants to demonstrate that it still has a unique role to play in the region. Brokering a Saudi-Israel normalization accord would also be politically advantageous for Biden domestically, especially heading into an election year. And it would clearly trump his predecessor’s Abraham Accord achievements. Indeed, administration officials reportedly believe that it’s important to get the deal done before Biden is consumed with the 2024 presidential election campaign, and they are trying to convince Mohammed bin Salman that it would be better to do the deal with a Democratic president. Much, of course, will depend on whether Israel and particularly Saudi Arabia share the same sense of urgency.
The road to a normalization accord, however, is strewn with obstacles. First is Saudi Arabia’s own calculations about whether and when to undertake such a move. Given Mohammad bin Salman’s seemingly low regard for Biden, the crown prince might well prefer dealing with a different leader—such as former US President and current candidate Donald Trump. One could easily imagine his waiting for the results of the 2024 election before risking a bold move with Israel.
There’s also the matter of Saudi succession. Mohammad bin Salman is not the king, though he does make many key decisions. His father, King Salman, has a much more traditional view of Israel and a stronger commitment to the Palestinian issue than the crown prince. But would the king want to tether his country—and his legacy—to an Israeli government that declares the West Bank and Jerusalem to be an inseparable part of the Land of Israel and whose ministers aim to change the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount holy site and encourage marches through the Muslim Quarter with supporters chanting “death to Arabs”?
The kingdom’s prestige and status in the Arab and Muslim world hinges on its role as the custodian of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, in addition to its fabulous wealth and support for Muslim causes worldwide. That’s why recognizing Israel would be such an extraordinary development. But for the same reason, Saudi Arabia is vulnerable to a far greater loss of prestige should Muslim anger be aroused by Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.
There’s also the issue of the recent détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. To the extent that it gives Iran an incentive to avoid pushing its nuclear program to a point that might lead to a major Israeli or US attack, détente is welcome. Concern that Saudi accession to the Abraham Accords would undermine tacit Iranian restraint by hamstringing the Chinese-brokered rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran and making Iran feel isolated is real.
Finally, there’s the question of whether Mohammed bin Salman is asking for too much from the United States. The Saudis are not only seeking a security guarantee and an open door to sophisticated weaponry, but they are also angling for US assistance in setting up a nuclear program with the capacity to enrich uranium without constraints. Saudi-Israeli normalization would be catnip for Israel’s supporters in Congress. But there may be a limit to any US administration’s readiness to pay for it.
Formal normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia has been a longstanding US goal. And if there were a serious prospect of making it happen, the United States would surely pursue it. The questions, though, are how much that normalization is worth in today’s climate, what Washington should be prepared to pay for it, and what it should receive in return.
Today, the old quest seems not nearly as compelling. Saudi Arabia and Israel are tacit allies against Iran, even if the kingdom is currently pursuing détente with Tehran. Behind-the-scenes intelligence sharing and security cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia has become frequent, even routine. And Israel today is a regional juggernaut with a large nuclear arsenal, an advanced defense industrial base, a hefty GDP, and a robust relationship with the UAE and Bahrain.
Moreover, both Saudi Arabia and Israel are diversifying their foreign policy portfolios. Each has demonstrated its growing independence from the United States. Saudi entry into the Abraham Accords would not alter this trend, which is a function of shifting interests on the part of all the players, including the United States. Nor would it mean that Riyadh would inexorably reduce its ties with China and Russia and bind itself to Washington. Those days are over.
In this new world, the strategic significance of a formal agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia is much diminished. An agreement would not materially change the military balance with Iran. If and when the United States decides to destroy Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, it will probably want to do so without having to coordinate operationally with Israel or the Gulf states, unless they involve themselves for reasons of their own—or if Iran lashes out, as it has done in the past, against Jews in Argentina, Israelis, or Saudi targets, including a US airbase and more recently, Aramco installations. And an Israel-Saudi agreement won’t change the trajectory of US relations with either state.
This loops back to the question of how much the United States should pay, if anything, to see a deal go through. The answer is very little, relative to the advanced weaponry, unconstrained access to US nuclear technology, and security guarantee that the Saudis are asking for. The transfer of sophisticated aircraft and munitions is being held up by the US Congress, not the White House. Perhaps Saudi entry into the Abraham Accords will unleash Israeli lobbying on their behalf that results in resumed weapons transfers. If so, demanding them from the Biden administration now would be pointless.
Nor is the Biden administration in a position to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in the absence of any controls. The United States is not likely to give the Saudis a pass when the UAE agreed to constraints in exchange for nuclear cooperation. The Saudis have reportedly recently proposed setting up a “nuclear Aramco”—a joint US-Saudi project to develop the latter’s civilian nuclear program “that would give US companies and entities a direct role in the development and oversight of nuclear power development in Saudi Arabia,”according to Semafor, which broke the news. However, uranium enrichment would still take place inside Saudi Arabia—something Washington has previously balked at. Ultimately, US global nonproliferation policy will outweigh other considerations, as it has nearly always done. (The fact that Mohammed bin Salman has expressed an interest in nuclear weapons will not help his case.)
A security guarantee of the sort that Mohammed bin Salman seeks is not likely to be on offer. Congress rarely approves treaties anymore, and executive agreements, such as the Iran nuclear deal, are no longer sacrosanct. Even canonical treaty commitments such as the Washington Treaty, which created NATO, promises its signatories nothing more than consultations if they are attacked. A potent combination of shared threat perceptions, intertwined histories, and cultural affinities has engendered the expectation of collective military action, but at the alliance’s inception none of the parties were willing to promise military intervention. These intangible factors, however, are not features of the US-Saudi relationship and may remain absent, especially given the authoritarian character of the Saudi regime and its insistence on an open marriage with the United States.
And what would the United States expect or get in return for its largesse? There are those putative political gains for Biden’s success in brokering a deal, but even in a close election they won’t matter very much. Presumably, Washington could ask for greater visibility into the burgeoning Saudi-Chinese relationship on a “no-surprises” premise, and it would certainly demand tight security safeguards for any military or technology transfers.
The United States could also ask that the kingdom take US equities into account within the OPEC+ framework, as well as request closer Israeli-Saudi coordination on matters relating to Iran’s nuclear program. Washington should press the Saudis to end their repressive human rights practices. And the United States should link its support for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia to Israeli flexibility in managing the West Bank and reversing recent steps toward annexation.
On that score, the administration could be thinking of outsourcing the application of pressure on the Israeli government to Mohammed bin Salman. The hope would be that—forced to choose between an historic advance in Israeli-Saudi relations and catering to an ultra-right-wing coalition—Netanyahu would take the heroic route. Even if he agreed, the relief would be short-lived given the instability of Israeli politics. Still, it would be a worthwhile near-term development if the cost to the United States were commensurately small.
But a security guarantee is no small thing, which is why it is the one thing that Mohammed bin Salman has been asking for since Biden took office. Washington is not going to give Riyadh an ironclad pledge to defend the kingdom with US forces in the event it’s attacked. Nor are the Saudis likely to accept the mutual responsibilities that such a guarantee might impose, such as aiding a US strike against Iran or limiting its ties with China.
Perhaps Riyadh is willing to settle for something far less. Still, the fact is that there is nothing much else Mohammed bin Salman needs from the United States that he is not already getting or could not get elsewhere. And what Washington needs from Riyadh—less Saudi repression and blatant violation of human rights, along with cooperation vis-a-vis China, Iran, and Russia—won’t be forthcoming.
It’s far from certain that the US administration has figured out how to square Saudi expectations with the limits any defense cooperation agreement entered into by the United States would inevitably have. US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf recently threw a bit of cold water on the likelihood of an impending normalization deal. Yet the parade of senior US officials to Riyadh continues.
Thus, either Mohammed bin Salman’s requirements have relaxed, or Biden is willing to do more for him than for transatlantic allies, let alone other Gulf states with which the United States already has defense cooperation agreements. If the former, then there seems little reason not to forge ahead. If not, then it seems imprudent to boldly take on a security commitment with a repressive and problematic partner playing footsies with both China and Russia that could outlive its raison d’être in just a few decades, during which US interests and priorities are sure to change.
Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2
Steven Simon is the Robert E. Wilhelm fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a research analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, Grand Delusion: The Rise and Fall of American Ambition in the Middle East, will be released in April. Twitter: @sns_1239