Informed Comment / May 24, 2023
Ann Arbor – The Biden administration is devoting what energy the State Department has aside from the effort to defend Ukraine to achieving diplomatic normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The premise for this entry of the Saudis into the Abraham Accords is that it would seek an alliance with Israel against Iran. Like many US pipe dreams for the Middle East, this one could easily crash and burn.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman clearly has decided to go in a different direction, seeking to lower tensions with Tehran. That was the point of his agreement to reopen a Saudi embassy in the Iranian capital and allow the Iranians to reopen theirs in Riyadh. Bin Salman sought the good auspices of China to negotiate that agreement.
It may be that Bin Salman, who is focused like a laser on creating a post-oil prosperity in Saudi Arabia, finally realizes that military adventurism only siphons off needed investment funds and threatens to leave the kingdom penniless when electric cars take over and petroleum becomes worthless.
Not only do the Saudis not want more tension with Iran, they now want to see if they can use diplomatic relations with that country to extract themselves from some losing battles. They would like to end the war in Yemen, but need to be reassured that the Zaydi Shiite Houthis or Helpers of God won’t use an armistice as an opportunity to rearm and to subject Saudi Arabia to rocket or drone attacks. They clearly are hoping that Iran can use its good offices to convince the Houthis to stand down, as well.
Likewise, Bin Salman invited Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League summit in Jedda, even though back in 2013 Saudi intelligence was attempting to blow him and his government up and even though Saudi Arabia backed the fundamentalist Army of Islam around Damascus in hopes of overthrowing Al-Assad. The hard line Saudi policy toward Syria was shared among the Gulf Arab states, though each had their own Syrian proxy militias. It has failed, defeated by Iran, Shiite militias from Lebanon and Iraq, and by the Russian Aerospace Forces, along with what was left of the Syrian Arab Army after the bulk of it defected or just went AWOL.
The first of the Gulf Cooperation Council states to recognize that Al-Assad had won was the United Arab Emirates, the ruler of which, Mohammed Bin Zayid, is far more afraid of the Muslim fundamentalist rebels than he is of Al-Assad’s secular, fascistic Baath Party. Bin Zayid appears to have convinced most of the rest of the Arab League, including Saudi Arabia, to join him in rehabilitating the mass murderer, al-Assad. Bin Salman has now gone along with this program. One of the reasons the Gulf had wanted to unseat Bashar al-Assad was his government’s long-standing and cozy relationship with Iran. But now they appear to see that relationship as an asset, since they can used al-Assad to open a back channel to Iran.
Both the Saudis and the UAE have also grown closer to Russia, because the latter joined OPEC+, the expanded oil cartel. Both Bin Salman and Vladimir Putin need oil prices to stay up around $80 a barrel in order to keep their economies afloat, and so they convinced OPEC to take two million barrels a day off the market. Russia in turn has become an ally of Iran not only in Syria but in economic relations, since both are under heavy US sanctions.
So the US hopes for a polarization between the Arab Middle East and Iran, which would push the rest of the Arabs into the arms of Israel have evaporated during the past few months, and regional leaders are going in the opposite direction.
At the same time, Binyamin Netanyahu could only get back into power as prime minister this winter and spring by allying with the most fascist and extreme anti-Palestinian elements in Israeli politics, the Religious Zionism Party of Bezalel Smotrich and its coalition partner, the Jewish Power bloc of Itamar Ben-Gvir. They want to weaken and if possible expel the 5 million occupied Palestinians, and to usurp Muslim holy places like the al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Netanyahu’s domestic policy is therefore diametrically opposed to his foreign policy. The UAE and Bahrain, which signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, have been deeply embarrassed by the words and actions of the Jewish supremacists in the Netanyahu government, including calling for the Palestinian hamlet of Huwara to be annihilated and repeatedly storming al-Aqsa, the third holiest site for the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims.
Bin Salman is still only crown prince even though he is de facto ruler. His father, the 87-year-old King Salman B. Abdul-Aziz, still has the final say on some things. A man of the older generation deeply devoted to the Palestinian cause, he is unlikely to sign off on normalization. His is probably the voice insisting that normalization come only after there is a Palestinian state. In fact, that he blocked an Israel alliance may have helped decide his son on reducing tensions with Iran instead.
Finally, there is a demographic issue. The UAE and Bahrain are postage stamp countries with small citizen populations, where the government has enormous wealth with which to bribe citizens into submission. Saudi Arabia probably has about 22 million citizens and several million more guest workers. Many Saudi citizens are extremely wealthy and could fund anti-government movements if they liked. Some Saudis are fundamentalist hard liners. In 2003-2006 al-Qaeda staged an insurgency against the Saudi royal family that was costly to put down. For Saudi Arabia fully to normalize ties with Israel would risk popular turmoil from the powerful Saudi Wahhabi religious movement.
For all these reasons, the Biden administration’s hopes for full normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel are probably forlorn for the foreseeable future. Small incremental steps may be taken, but a big signing of a treaty at the Rose Garden is way too high concept here.
The Biden administration would be better off putting its energies into repairing relations with Iran.
Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment; he is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan He is author of, among many other books, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam