James M. Dorsey
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A Saudi-Israeli agreement to establish diplomatic relations involving enhanced US commitments to Gulf security could be a game-changer for great power rivalry in the Middle East.
To be sure, US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu face formidable obstacles in paying the price tag Saudi Arabia puts on the normalisation of relations with Israel.
U.S. President Joe Biden. Photo: Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
In return for relations, Saudi Arabia has demanded legally binding security commitments from the United States, support for its nuclear programme, and unfettered access to sophisticated weaponry – conditions that would be challenged in Congress.
The kingdom has also linked diplomatic relations to ambiguously defined progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a demand Mr. Netanyahu will have difficulty meeting with his current coalition government, the most ultra-nationalist and ultra-conservative in his country’s history.
Speaking to Fox News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman described the Palestinian issue as “very important” and one that “we need to solve.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP
Mr. Bin Salman shied away from spelling out what a solution would entail beyond saying he hoped it "will ease the life of the Palestinians.”
Within days of the interview, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan told the United Nations General Assembly and a webinar normalising relations with Israel would require a plan to establish an independent Palestinian state.
On the first visit to the West Bank by a senior Saudi official since the creation of the Palestine Authority in 1994, Ambassador Nayef al-Sudairi, the kingdom’s first envoy to the Palestinian entity, said Saudi Arabia was “working towards establishing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”
Palestinian officials told their Saudi counterparts that as part of the kingdom’s agreement to recognise the Jewish state, Israel would have to stop building new settlements, expand Palestinian control over security and construction in the West Bank, accept full Palestinian membership of the United Nations, and consent to the opening of a Palestine Liberation Organisation office in Washington and a US consulate in East Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, senior Israeli officials asserted that Saudi Arabia was merely paying lip service to the Palestinian issue in talks about Israel.
A senior Palestinian official conceded “that what is being discussed includes elements that are less than statehood. We’re talking about a pathway to getting there.”
The obstacles haven’t prevented Messrs. Bin Salman and Netanyahu from raising heightened expectations recently by suggesting significant progress in agreeing on the terms of a US-Saudi-Israeli deal.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s 78th session. Photo: UN/Cia Pak
Largely overlooked in public discussions about a possible Saudi-Israeli normalisation of relations is the fact that the Saudi demands signal that the kingdom, like the United Arab Emirates, which is requesting an “ironclad” security arrangement with the United States, prefers the US rather than China to be its security partner for the foreseeable future.
“Isn’t it interesting? When you look at MbS’ asks from us, they start with he wants a defense treaty with us… What that tells you is that at the end of the day, they don’t think there is anybody else they can rely upon if they really stranded,” said Dennis Ross, a former US Middle East peace negotiator. Mr. Ross was referring to Mr. Bin Salman by his initials.
Former US National Security Council official Kirsten Fontenrose argued that Mr. Bin Salman had created a situation where he could forcefully argue for a binding security arrangement even if efforts to forge a deal with Israel failed.
“MbS looks at this and says, ‘Right now, it looks like the sticking point is Israeli politics. So, even if I don’t get this, I look like the good guy’,” Ms. Fontenrose said.
I expect there will be pressure from the Saudis moving forward, even if we don’t get normalisation, to follow through… (saying), 'Well, we have arrived so closely on some of these ideas on a US security pact, we’ve done so much work on civilian nuclear cooperation, why don’t we just continue this?” Ms. Fontenrose added.
Even so, it is hard to believe that Saudi Arabia and the UAE think they can retain the freedom to hedge their bets and expand relations with China, as well as Russia, particularly regarding the Ukraine war and Western sanctions, in ways that the United States would see as threatening its national security and undermining its policies.
While the United States would likely not disrupt the Gulf states' economic and trade ties with China, the Gulf’s largest trading partner, it would limit Saudi and UAE cooperation with China on geopolitical issues, nuclear development, technology collaboration, and arms acquisition.
“The administration is asking for some things from the Saudis. They want them to continue to peg oil to the dollar, there was some talk that they may allow the Chinese to buy oil with the Chinese currency... What is being asked here is not to stop their commercial relationship but to create boundaries in some of the high-tech areas… It's a two-way street," Mr. Ross, the former US negotiator, said.
The kingdom “cannot have it both ways. If it wants that kind of commitment from the United States, it has to line up with the United States… If our security relationship with Saudi Arabia is to be deepened because the Saudis want it, then there are certain obligations that come with that,” said former US diplomat and prominent analyst Martin Indyk.
Undoubtedly, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will test how far they can push the envelope if they come to a security understanding with the United States.
Ultimately, however, they are likely also to find that a security arrangement would, at least in the Middle East, shift the geopolitical US-China power balance in the United States’ favour.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
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