A Mideast expert assesses if the Saudis could normalize relations with Israel.
I’ve long argued (most recently here) that Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS), the de facto ruler who’s destined to govern the kingdom for decades to come, is hesitant to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel anytime soon because doing so is likely to generate significant political costs at home.
For starters, his father, King Salman, is committed to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace that includes the Palestinians and preserves the relevance and integrity of Riyadh’s own Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which called for Israel’s complete withdrawal from Arab lands captured since 1967 in exchange for Arab recognition of Israel’s right to exist and normalization of diplomatic ties.
Then there’s the ultra-Orthodox elements of the Saudi religious establishment, who carry weight within a still largely conservative Saudi society. They are vehemently opposed to peace with the Jewish state that excludes the Palestinians and unjustly settles the fate of Jerusalem, Islam’s third-holiest site. If MBS ignores or alienates them, they can make things very difficult for him by undercutting what he cares about the most: his transformation plan for the country. MBS has to keep the fundamentalist sheikhs at bay so he can proceed with his Vision 2030, which they’re not that excited about because of its social reforms — so picking a huge fight with them over Israel might not be the smartest thing to do.
There’s also the violent Al-Qaeda types in the kingdom, who the moment they hear of Riyadh consenting to Muslim-Jewish peaceful coexistence will lash out at the House of Saud, like they did in 1979 and then again in 2003- 2004. MBS has to seriously worry about those, too.
Last but not least, there’s Iran and Turkey, who will viciously challenge Saudi Arabia’s global Muslim leadership and management of the religion’s holiest mosques if it prematurely accepts the Jewish state — which is most ironic in the case of Ankara since it has had diplomatic relations with Israel since 1949.
That, at least, has been my assumption all along.
The honest answer to all those questions is no.
The sample size is large enough to entertain all likelihoods and scenarios. While I remain skeptical that MBS would sign with Israel while King Salman is still alive — which would be a sight to see, if he does — I’m willing to believe that he just might after he becomes king, which is not a long time from now given the deteriorating medical condition of his 84-year-old father.
If he does — for the same security and economic reasons shared by the Emiratis and the Bahrainis — it will reveal important truths about him and Saudi Arabia, and suggest one of two things: Either he’s totally in charge in the kingdom and has effectively co-opted all forms of domestic opposition including the traditionally influential religious elite, or he’s not and once again he has decided to take his chances.
The first scenario would signal that for all his faults, MBS is the undisputed leader of the largest Arab partner of the United States, able to not only make historic foreign policy decisions but also implement groundbreaking domestic reforms without having to fear any major domestic backlash.
It’s true that kings in Saudi Arabia have always had absolute power, but they also have had to share authority with a powerful group of spiritual leaders, the ulama. MBS could be the first king to achieve an upper hand over them and upend that traditional power-sharing arrangement.
The second scenario would logically imply that MBS is not omnipotent at home and the Saudi ulama remain a powerful voice and challenger to his reign. A more aggressive push-pull dynamic between MBS and the ulama could spell trouble for the stability of the kingdom.
So, will MBS keep the cold peace with the clergy, fend off the violent extremists, and preserve his transformation project?
Or will he prematurely embrace Israel and possibly lose it all?
Bilal Y. Saab, a senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute (MEI), served from August 2018 to September 2019 in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy as the senior advisor for security cooperation in the Middle East.