In November 2020, a private jet took off from Tel Aviv and landed in Saudi Arabia. The jet, carrying former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the former head of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, flew to an area near NOEM, the futuristic city in Saudi Arabia, stayed there for several hours and then returned to Tel Aviv. The trip raised a serious question: could Israel and Saudi Arabia be on the path to establishing diplomatic relations?
The answer is: it’s hard to tell. Israeli news outlets reported that a meeting took place between Netanyahu, Cohen and Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, where they discussed Iran, among other subjects. Yet the Saudis were quick to deny any such meeting took place: Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi Foreign Minister, said no meeting had occurred and that “Saudi and American officials were the only ones present”.
Irrespective of whether or not it happened (which it most likely did), relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel should be normalised. The signing of the Abraham Accords in August 2020 saw Israel establish relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, all states with which it had never had formal relations. This agreement forced a major shift in the way policymakers thought about the Middle East and, to use a cliché, made “peace in the Middle East” seem closer to becoming a reality than before.
The Abraham Accords demonstrate that Israel can have relations with other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia.
However, there are certain factors unique to both states that strengthen the case for normalising relations. Most important of all is Iran. Riyadh and Tehran have been engaged in a proxy war since the 1979 Iranian Revolution that has its roots in religious differences (the Saudis are predominantly Sunni Muslims whilst the Iranians Shi’a Muslims). Over time Iran has become Saudi Arabia’s primary regional rival. Likewise, Iran is no friend of Israel, with a Supreme Leader that openly calls for the destruction of Israel and military branches who generously finance groups such as Hezbollah who are explicitly anti-Israel.
Both Saudi Arabia and Israel see Iran as a major threat, and formalising relations would increase cooperation to fight against Iran and establish a stronger regional deterrent.
Moreover, Riyadh and Jerusalem already have a history of informal cooperation. For example, in 2012, an Iranian-developed computer virus called Shamoon, hit Saudi Arabia’s main oil company, Saudi Aramco, in a cyberattack that destroyed the data in approximately 30,000 devices connected to Aramco’s network. Soon after, Israeli cybersecurity firms helped Saudi Arabia to deal with the attack. In the field of counterterrorism, Saudi Arabia has collaborated with IntuView, an Israeli company that uses artificial intelligence to mine intelligence from online texts and scan for terrorist threats on social media.
Aside from Iran and cybersecurity, in recent years senior members of the Saudi Arabian royal family have expressed frustration at the Palestinian leadership. The Saudi government’s official position is that it supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. Yet in private differing views emerged.
In March 2018, while addressing the heads of US-based Jewish groups in New York, MBS said that the Palestinians should “take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining”. That same year he said that “the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to their own land”, marking a sharp break from traditional Saudi policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Evidently, frustration towards the Palestinian leadership doesn’t necessarily benefit Israel, but the position of MBS as the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, and his nonconformist views, provides an adequate foundation for Israeli-Saudi relations.
Thus, there are several reasons why Israel and Saudi Arabia should establish formal diplomatic relations. It would make previously hidden cooperation official, and each would find a strong partner with whom it can work against the threat of Iran.
This isn’t to say that any normalisation of relations will be easy. Several factors, including the Saudi citizenry’s perceptions of Israel make any swift break from diplomatic protocol unlikely. However, this also doesn’t make it impossible.
On October 20th 2021, it was reported that Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor, raised normalising relations with Israel on a recent call to MBS, highlighting the continuing bipartisan nature of the effort to establish relations between the two states. This is a step in the right direction because ultimately, formal diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel will ensure a more stable and secure Middle East.