In October 2022, President Joe Biden verbally criticized the Saudi regime and threatened it with serious consequences. This was after Riyadh had cut oil production in the midst of escalating inflation and on the eve of the midterm elections in the United States.
But, on September 15, 2023 — three years after the Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were signed under U.S. mediation — Washington was frantically negotiating for what would be the mother of all agreements in the Middle East: a pact which would establish diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
This coming week, the talks will accelerate: Biden will meet in New York with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the U.N. General Assembly, as announced this past Friday by the White House. On the agenda are issues such as addressing “the vision for more integration” in the Middle East and how to confront Iran: an adversary of the United States and Saudi Arabia.
Negotiations have been underway for months. The rapprochement is so tangible that, this past week, an Israeli delegation traveled publicly to Saudi Arabia for the first time, even though the two countries do not have diplomatic relations. The official reason — the meeting in Riyadh of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which concludes on September 25 — mattered less than the symbolism of the visit. That trip was in addition to the one made this past week by Brett McGurk — the National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa — and Deputy Secretary of State Barbara Leaf. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Riyadh in June.
“Many of the elements of a pathway to normalization are now on the table,” said White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, on his way to the G-20 summit in New Delhi last weekend. However, he also pointed out that there’s still a long way to go: “We don’t have a framework. We don’t have the terms [of the agreement] ready to be signed. There is still work to do.”
For the Biden administration, a pact between two of America’s main allies in the Middle East would be a triumph. It has much to gain should there be a friendship between the most militarily powerful country in the Middle East (Israel) and the leading state in the Arab World (Saudi Arabia). The agreement would stabilize a region that has been the focus of Washington’s strategic interests for decades and, foreseeably, free up the U.S. government’s military resources and allow it to dedicate its attention to the two great open fronts in its foreign policy: its rivalry with China in the Asia Pacific and the war in Ukraine against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The pact would also be an important boost for the Biden administration, especially if it were to be implemented — something which, at the moment, is very unlikely — in the months prior to the presidential elections in November 2024. It would exceed the goal that Donald Trump’s administration scored with the Abraham Accords. And it would reaffirm Washington’s position in the Middle East, after Beijing managed to broker a diplomatic agreement between Riyadh and Tehran last spring.
“[A deal] would be a major geopolitical and geoeconomic win for the U.S. Its interests and policies have always been stymied by the long-standing reality that its main partners in the region have refused to talk or cooperate with each other,” noted Paul Salem, director of the Middle East Institute in Washington, in an article on the think tank’s website.
The agreement would also be positive for the Israeli and Saudi governments. For Netanyahu, the normalization of ties with Saudi Arabia would be an immense diplomatic triumph. In 2002, Riyadh proposed an important peace initiative — approved and later ratified by the Arab League — whose basis (any establishment of relations with Israel requiring the end of the military occupation of Palestine and the creation of a Palestinian state) is just the opposite of what the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan agreed to in the 2020 Abraham Accords.
One of the Israeli government’s objectives is to contain the influence in the region of its archenemy — Iran — which is a key backer of the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia and Iran have just completed the reestablishment of diplomatic relations after seven years of rupture, with ambassadors being exchanged. However, they continue to view each other with distrust, while still competing for regional hegemony. There’s also “enormous” economic potential at stake. That’s according to Netanyahu, for whom the agreement would also be a personal triumph. His popularity is declining due to his controversial judicial reform, which sparked months-long demonstrations.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, considers that reducing tension with its neighbors is the precondition for the country to concentrate on ambitious internal reforms. This is key to the 2030 agenda: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s roadmap to end the almost-total dependence of the country’s economy on oil revenues. Riyadh feels that “the best way to support its national economic development and internal security objectives is to mitigate regional tensions through more dialogue and diplomacy,” Anna Jacobs, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, who specializes in the Gulf region, said in an email to EL PAÍS from Doha.
Despite all the special interests at play, there are major obstacles to any kind of normalization, making it unlikely that such a pact will be closed in the short-term, or before the U.S. presidential elections in November 2024.
On the one hand, there are the demands that Saudi Arabia is making of Washington. Riyadh has asked Washington for a security guarantee, similar to what is enjoyed by NATO countries. That is, in the event of an attack on its soil, the United States would be obliged to intervene militarily in defense of Saudi Arabia.
Signing a NATO-style treaty would be almost impossible. U.S. legislation requires that treaties be ratified in the Senate with a two-thirds majority of the chamber: 67 votes. The Democrats only have 51 seats. It’s not unthinkable that Republican senators would join them, given that that party has traditionally maintained unconditional support for Israel, but it’s also likely that Democratic senators from the most progressive wing of the party would vote against such a proposal. They have been deeply critical of Saudi Arabia’s deplorable human rights record and its central role in the war in Yemen.
One option is to adopt a formula similar to the one signed this past Wednesday by the United States and Bahrain — a “Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement” — by which Washington vows to defend the kingdom from possible attacks. According to a senior U.S. government official — who spoke on the condition of anonymity — the document “doesn’t rise to the level of a treaty” but is a “legally-binding” promise to neutralize conflicts in the Middle East. While announcing the pact, Secretary of State Antony Blinken pointed out that it can serve as a “framework for other countries that wish to join in strengthening regional stability, economic cooperation and technological innovation.”
Riyadh is also calling for a civilian nuclear power industry, which it wants the United States to facilitate. At a talk at the Lowy Institute last week, Martin Indyk — a former U.S.-Middle East negotiator — opined that this would increase the potential for “nuclear proliferation.”
The Palestinian people
The Israeli side also presents significant problems to any kind of pact being signed. The agreement being negotiated includes concessions to the Palestinian people. Netanyahu will hardly be able to pay the price, given his far-right coalition partners, who would not accept such a move. At the moment, though, he claims that the concessions to the Palestinians weigh “much less than is believed” in the dialogue. He has compared them to “a box on a form” that must be checked off to be in compliance.
However, this is also a point on which several Democratic lawmakers — who support the two-state solution and Palestinian rights — are unwilling to compromise on. “Without a Palestinian component, this peace agreement would not be sustainable,” Indyk notes.
Saudi Arabia — the custodian of the Holy Places of Islam (Mecca and Medina) — cannot give in on this point, either. A survey conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in January saw that 84% of citizens of Arab countries firmly oppose the recognition of Israel. A rejection due — fundamentally — to the Palestinian question.
It is unlikely, Indyk acknowledges, that the Israeli extreme-right will accept concessions. Netanyahu’s coalition partners were angered in recent days over a very minor issue: the transfer of 18 SUVs to the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, financed by the United States. A controversy that — in the opinion of Amos Harel, a commentator for the newspaper Haaretz — “underlines how little room to maneuver Netanyahu has and how difficult it will be for him to accept Saudi requests for concessions to the Palestinians.” Indyk emphasizes that Netanyahu will have to choose between supporting the radicals in his government, or being able to present himself to his fellow citizens as the great negotiator who managed to reach an agreement with the leaders of the Arab world.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has just extended oil production cuts for three more months. This time, the U.S. government has maintained discreetly silent about that decision.
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