The normalisation of relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, in the wake of the Abraham Accords, has become the Biden Administration's new priority in the Middle East region

Saudi Arabia, next in line for the Abraham Accords?

AFP/TASS/RACHEL MENDELSON/INSIDER - Combined image of Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his heir, Prince Mohammed bin Salman

"It won't happen like last time. It will be a long and slow process [...], but someone will be here, and then we will celebrate," Yair Lapid

Barely 24 hours. That was the time it took for history to account for the complicated diplomatic future that would henceforth await the fledgling 1948 state of Israel. Yet now, more than half a century after Israel's so-called War of Independence, the Arab world's rigid hostility towards the Hebrew country seems to be a long way off. 

The signing of the 1979 Camp David Convention with Egypt and the 1994 Wadi Arabi Peace Treaty with Jordan - both negotiated under the auspices of former US presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton respectively - were but a foretaste of what was to come in 2020. A year that will see the massive normalisation of relations between Israel and many countries in the Arab world. 


"Israel is a country in the region... and it is there to stay," declared Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa to The Times of Israel in 2019. Proof of the changes in the making in the Middle East. And so, less than a year later, just as in 1994, a US president again brokered the recognition of the State of Israel as a subject of international law, no longer by one, but by four Arab powers. 

Sudan, in exchange for its removal from the list of 'terror-supporting countries'; and Morocco, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, in the framework of the Abraham Accords, fully normalised relations with Israel after negotiations with Donald Trump.

Now, as it works to boost collaboration among its Middle Eastern allies, the US may be close to scoring another diplomatic coup. Several Hebrew media outlets have reported on new efforts by Tel Aviv, along with Washington and other Gulf powers, to normalise relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. "We believe that it is possible to have a normalisation process with Saudi Arabia. We have already said that this is the next step after the Abraham Accords, although we are talking about a long and slow process," said the Hebrew foreign minister, Yair Lapid, in an interview with The Times of Israel. 


These statements seem to be in line with Israel's Channel 12 report, which publicised the recent visit of a senior Tel Aviv official to the Saudi capital of Riyadh where they reportedly discussed bilateral relations and regional security issues that have threatened the territory in recent years. 

Chronology of pragmatic relationships 

However, the possible normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel becomes a puzzle to be solved when we consider the complicated history that, for almost 70 years, has characterised their diplomatic and political ties

In addition to playing a key role in regional politics through its leadership of organisations such as the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, Riyadh is also a key player in religious matters. The Saudi king is considered the Guardian of the Holy Places of Islam. This has almost inevitably made the Kingdom one of the main defenders of the Palestinian people in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a key issue in its relations with Tel Aviv. 


Non-recognition of the state of Israel, non-negotiation with the state of Israel and a clear no to peace with the Hebrew country were the three essential principles agreed by the Arab states back in 1967. But time is not in vain, and the shifting balances in the region have finally tempered the hostilities of a large part of the Middle East towards the new state. Pragmatism and strategic adaptation to new realities. 

In this sense, the proposal of the Fahd Plan in 1981, as well as the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, attest to the progressive and pragmatic moderation of Saudi Arabia's stance towards Tel Aviv over the last decades. While Saudi Arabia still maintains its support for the Palestinian people, rumours of secret cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia on regional and security issues have multiplied since 2019. Meanwhile, officially, Riyadh has continued to open the door to possible rapprochement with Tel Aviv by opening its airspace to certain Israeli flights, and by participating in military exercises involving Israeli units. 

Indeed, during former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's Middle East tour, he and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in an informal meeting that already hinted at improved relations. 


"Normalisation (of relations) in the region can only succeed if we address the problem of the Palestinians and if we are able to achieve a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders that gives them dignity and grants them their rights", remains, however, the country's official position in the words of Fisal bin Farhan, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, in 2021.

A different Middle East

Many and varied factors have led Saudi Arabia to rethink its roadmap for relations with the State of Israel, because many and varied have been the changes that the Middle East region has undergone since the turn of the 21st century


Thus, after the Gulf War at the beginning of the century showed that historically antagonistic countries - such as Israel and Saudi Arabia - could unite on the same front against a common enemy, Iran's emergence as a destabilising force in the region consolidated this dynamic. And, as the famous proverb goes, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend", the joint fight against the nuclear and expansionist threat from Tehran (which aspires to control the "Shiite Crescent"), already considered "the greatest threat" in the Middle East, is turning Riyadh and Tel Aviv into "friends". Israel "is a potential strategic ally" in the fight against Iran, Mohammed bin Salman has already acknowledged on more than one occasion.


The Tiran and Sanafir islands, strategically located at the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba, also represent a key element in the future of Saudi-Iranian relations. While awaiting an agreement on the presence of international observers that would ensure freedom of navigation and allow the official ceding of the islands to Riyadh - now under Egyptian guardianship - Washington is striving to maintain its presence in these negotiations and score one of the first points in the Middle East since Joe Biden came to power. 

In parallel to these issues, the strengthening of fundamentalist Islamist movements, the instability caused by the Arab uprisings and the emergence of numerous jihadist terrorist groups, such as Daesh, have all contributed to the fact that, while the Palestinian question has not yet been forgotten, it has been relegated to a secondary role. 

A plus for the Biden Administration  

In this scenario, the US, whose influence in the region has been severely undermined since the arrival of Democrat Biden in the Oval Office, is now redoubling its efforts to re-establish itself as a key player in the Middle East. In contrast to Donald Trump, who broke the nuclear deal with Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional rival, and focused much of his diplomatic efforts on the territory, Joe Biden's roadmap - more committed to the defence of Ukraine and the creation of an Asian front to isolate Xi Jinping - has cooled Washington's relations with some of its historic partners, such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. 

The shift towards the Asia-Pacific - where Washington aims to counterbalance the rise of Chinese power - and, more specifically, criticism of the murder of journalist Jamal Khassogoui in 2018, the imposition of restrictions on arms sales to Riyadh and the withdrawal of support for operations against the Houthis in Yemen have driven a wedge between the Saudi royal house and the White House. 


Therefore, possible US mediation between Saudi Arabia and Israel, both in terms of the Tiran and Sanafir negotiations and the official normalisation of their relations, now seems to be the Biden Administration's only trump card to reassert its role in the Middle East and move closer to Riyadh. Several observers have criticised this, arguing that the Saudi intention to recognise and establish full relations with Israel was already definitive, and that Washington is merely trying to pin a medal on itself. 

Meanwhile, the Democratic leader is preparing the ground for his Middle East tour at the end of June. The trip will include a visit to Israel, as well as Biden's first meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which is expected to result in a rapprochement on oil and energy security

An OPEC with Russia, added tensions between Riyadh and Washington 

As if the historical, diplomatic and interests puzzle between the three powers were not already convoluted enough, the energy and oil problems arising from Russia's invasion of Ukraine also play a key role. The disagreements between Washington and Riyadh over oil production have further strained ties between the two powers. 

Rising oil prices following the outbreak of conflict in Eastern Europe led the Biden administration, as well as many other Western powers, to call for an increase in oil production from the countries of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)


Finally, after debate and pressure, OPEC+, which includes Russia, agreed to increase oil production by 50% by July. 

A new member of the Abraham Accords? 

All in all, normalisation in Saudi-Israeli relations, as well as US influence in the process, seems an increasingly plausible and realistic future. The discreet, sometimes secret agreements, the meetings between leaders of the two powers and the softening of the tone of discourse seem to point, almost unequivocally, towards an extension of the Abraham Accords. 

Indeed - if one looks back at the shift in Saudi priorities on the Israeli issue - the criticism of Palestinian leaders for their obstruction of negotiations and their rejection of the Abraham Accords by Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud, the Kingdom's former intelligence chief and former ambassador to Washington, clearly exemplifies the change in Riyadh's stance. 


Prince bin Salman's modernisation plans are the ideal project to frame the rapprochement with Israel, but although strategically and commercially the normalisation of relations represents an important opportunity for both countries (in terms of defence, arms and security), the truth is that the decision would be met with rapid responses from within the Saudi kingdom itself. In addition to a notable social backlash - along the lines of what has already occurred in the Jordanian, Sudanese and Bahraini populations -, the agreement would also arouse discontent among part of the Royal Court itself, and could call into question the country's religious influence as a defender of Muslim values in the Arab world. 

Thus, the Saudi Arabian dilemma now remains: whether to move closer to Israel in order to curb Iran's influence, repair relations with the United States and gain relevance on the Western international scene, or, on the contrary, to maintain its role in the Middle East with the Palestinian cause as the standard-bearer of its position. Israel, for its part, will continue to wait patiently. "It won't happen like last time. We will not wake up one day and there will be a new member" in the Abraham Accords. "It could be that as many as three foreign ministers will pass through office" before Riyadh and Tel Aviv normalise relations, but "someone will be here, and then we will celebrate", Yair Lapid said.

Americas Coordinator: José Antonio Sierra.