Prior to the October 7 massacre in Israel, diplomatic corridors were abuzz with conversations about a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The atrocities conducted by Hamas on October 7 seemed to put an end to this. Yet, at a White House briefing, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan expressed that the momentum towards normalization was “not on hold” but said the focus was on other immediate challenges. On November 11, 2023, Saudi Arabia joined Abraham Accords Countries, including the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, in blocking anti-Israel measures at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the Arab League emergency summit. More recently, Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan announced that normalization with Israel could occur as part of a broader path towards a Palestinian state.
At first glance, the notion of a conservative Israeli administration joining hands with Saudi Arabia seems like a diplomatic fantasy. Despite their disparate stances on the West Bank and settlements, or conflict between Israel on one side and Hamas and Hezbollah on the other, both nations show subtle signs of growing rapport. Scratch beneath the surface, and one will find a tapestry of intricate relationships and mutual interests.
This cooperation isn’t merely about mutual benefits to Israel and the Saudi Kingdom. Rather, it is part of a larger geopolitical game between the United States and the emerging power in the East. China is at play. Beijing’s ever-increasing influence in the region is prompting sleepless nights in Washington. The United States, wary of China’s intent, is keen to establish a counterbalance. The voyage of aircraft carriers, ships, and jets to the eastern Mediterranean is not only to assist Israel but to prevent China from exploiting the regional void and its bid to leverage Israel’s conflict with Hamas and Hezbollah.
China is making significant inroads in the region, partnering closely with Saudi Arabia on various projects. General Michael Erik Kurilla, a key figure in U.S. Central Command, emphasized the urgency that the United States is racing against time to shape the future narratives of one of the world’s most volatile and strategic regions by strengthening its regional partnerships before China plants its roots. He stated, “The People’s Republic of China has chosen to compete in the region. The PRC is aggressively expanding its diplomatic, informational, military, and economic outreach across the region.”
Hence, the push towards consolidating the ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel isn’t just about regional stability; it’s a broader play on the grand chessboard of international politics.
By incorporating Saudi Arabia in the Abraham Accords, Washington aims to construct a framework of shared interests, trade partnerships, and defense alignments to blunt China’s burgeoning influence in the region. The U.S. approach stands in stark contrast to China’s. As opposed to China’s debt-driven infrastructure projects in the Middle East, the United States is dedicated to fostering sustainable development through transparent means, such as free trade agreements. For instance, in 2022, President Biden launched the UAE-Jordan-Israel solar energy project. Similarly, the U.S. Development Finance Corporation provides a transparent alternative to China’s opacity by offering financial incentives for American companies to invest in developing markets. These projects, combined with diplomatic initiatives and enhanced security ties, have the potential to create a common market in the Gulf and counter Iranian influence.
The most tantalizing gesture is the proposed India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor overland train link connecting the Persian Gulf to Europe and Asia. Beyond the steel tracks and bustling carriages, this railway signifies the bridging of erstwhile gaps, creating a conduit for commerce and reshaping the trade dynamics from Europe through the Middle East to the bustling markets of Asia. This trade route could serve as an alternative to China’s Belt Road Initiative. While China and Iran may seek to capitalize on Israel’s war with Hamas, it is hardly imaginable that the United States., Saudi Arabia, and Israel would allow Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah to thwart the prospects of economic growth the entire region would benefit from.
The Saudi Kingdom is not going to allow Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah to thwart its prospect of benefiting from a NATO-style security treaty with the United States, other GCC States, and Israel that would ensure enhanced protection against shared adversaries. Saudi Arabia also recognizes the significance of Israel’s compromising on Saudi Arabia’s civilian nuclear program and would not allow Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah to derail this.
The United States and Israel’s possible agreement for Saudi Arabia to attain a civilian nuclear program underlines their commitment to peace, aware of the geopolitical implications of a Sino-Saudi nuclear collaboration. Both nations are also keen on bolstering their defenses against mutually shared threats. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s recent initiatives for sharing information could enhance cybersecurity resilience for Israel and the Sunni Gulf States, especially against Iranian threats. In a new regional security architecture, the Biden administration can make Saudi Arabia more reliant on U.S. weapons and prevent Beijing from establishing a military base on Saudi soil while curtailing Saudi Arabia’s engagement with Chinese technology firms like Huawei.
Progress towards a Saudi-Israel peace agreement hinges on these incremental steps towards mutual security and economic cooperation. The geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China propels the Biden administration to advance Saudi Arabia and Israel’s normalization, reshaping the Gulf’s future despite Israel, Hamas, and Hezbollah’s conflict.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), observant of shifting regional dynamics, aimed not to be left behind. This has resulted in the PA pragmatically seeking to capitalize on this situation by demanding resumed financial support to the PA and a halt to Israeli settlement expansion. Hamas’s atrocities at the Supernova music festival, Kfar Aza, and Kibbutz Be’eri in Southern Israel undermined the PA that is likely to be sidelined. In essence, the Middle East geopolitical chessboard is rapidly evolving.
Formalizing an Israel-Saudi Arabia alliance presents a diplomatic maze. Yet, the upsides of navigating this labyrinth are manifold. It could lay the groundwork for a new Middle Eastern order and serve as a bulwark against external influences, offering the region the chance to script its destiny.
In essence, while appearing deceptively simple on the surface, the Israel-Saudi equation is a crucible of historic resentments between Israel, Iran, its proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah, and superpower rivalries. Yet, it is precisely shared threats and economic opportunities that may draw Israel and Saudi Arabia closer together.
Even at a time of conflict between Israel and Hamas, Riyadh and Jerusalem may very well continue to tiptoe toward each other. The world watches with bated breath. The Biden administration has a historic opportunity to broker a groundbreaking deal encompassing Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority, not merely despite Israel’s conflict with Hamas but because of it. Whatever the outcome, the implications of Israel and Saudi Arabia’s decisions will undoubtedly shape the trajectory of the Middle East and, by extension, the world at large.
Harley Lippman is a board member of the United States Agency for International Development’s Middle East Partnership for Peace Fund (MEPPA). MEPPA is the largest investment by the U.S. Congress in peace-building in the Middle East, fostering economic, social, and political connections between Israelis and Palestinians. The views offered above are solely those of the author.