Analysis

Rocky US-Saudi ties get boost from push for normalization deal with Israel

Analysts say that while the hurdles to an agreement between Riyadh and Jerusalem remain high, relations between the kingdom and US have warmed in recent months

(L) Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP); (C) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90); (L) US President Joe Biden on November 2, 2022 in Washington, DC (Michael A. McCoy / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)
(L) Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP); (C) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90); (L) US President Joe Biden on November 2, 2022 in Washington, DC (Michael A. McCoy / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

RIYADH (AFP) — A spate of high-profile visits by US officials to Saudi Arabia underscores how ties have warmed amid talks over a potential deal that would see the Gulf kingdom recognize Israel, analysts say.

Less than a year after US President Joe Biden warned of unspecified “consequences” for Riyadh during a dispute over oil supply, he is dispatching top aides to meet Saudi royals at a rapid clip.

Over the weekend, his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, landed in Jeddah for a summit on Ukraine –- his third visit to Saudi Arabia in just a few months.

While bilateral sessions –- including during a three-day tour by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in June -– have touched on topics from terrorism to Yemen, the prospect of normalizing Saudi-Israeli ties has been a mainstay agenda item, fueling rosier exchanges even if it is still seen as a long shot.

“US-Saudi ties have warmed unquestionably in recent months,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi analyst close to the government.

“Dialogue has just gotten much more extensive and friendly and this subject is driving that.”

Representatives from over 40 countries posing for a photo during talks on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, August 6, 2023. (Handout from the Saudi Press Agency)

The hurdles to an actual deal remain high: Riyadh is reportedly bargaining hard for benefits like security guarantees and assistance with a civilian nuclear program with uranium enrichment capacity.

And Saudi officials have long vowed not to normalize relations with Israel before the conflict with the Palestinians has been resolved.

All the same, coordination between Washington and Riyadh is today “better now than at any point in the last two years,” said Hesham Alghannam of the Naif Arab University for Security Sciences in Riyadh.

“It’s much warmer and closer. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best moment since President Biden came into office.”

Familiar friction

The issues bedeviling the decades-old relationship are well-known, from flare-ups over human rights to Saudi concerns about Washington’s reliability as a security partner.

Those concerns took on new importance after attacks on Saudi oil facilities in 2019, claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels but widely attributed to Iran, temporarily halved crude output.

Smoke billows from an Aramco oil facility in Abqaiq about 60km (37 miles) southwest of Dhahran in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province on September 14, 2019. (AFP)

Saudi officials were deeply disappointed by the tepid response of then-US president Donald Trump’s administration, which they believed undermined their traditional oil-for-security trade-off.

Growing cooperation with Moscow and Beijing highlights how, as Alghannam put it, Riyadh is no longer content to place “all the eggs in the American basket.”

The Saudis also leaned on China to broker a landmark rapprochement with Iran announced in March, something the Biden administration was in no position to do.

Yet it is important not to exaggerate any slip in Washington’s status, Alghannam added.

“No major power has a significant military presence in the region other than the US, and this will be the case for many years to come,” he said, a point driven home by the recent deployment of 3,000 US military personnel to the Red Sea, part of a beefed-up response after tanker seizures by Iran.

‘Onus on Israel’

During last October’s dust-up over oil production, both sides were rankled by the stern exchanges that ensued, said John Hannah, a former US senior foreign policy official who has been visiting the kingdom for three decades.

“It extended to the point of very senior (Saudi officials) saying, ‘OK, you may be re-evaluating the relationship and may have questions about the future of this partnership, but let us tell you we do as well,'” Hannah recalled.

Even then, though, a genuine rupture was never seriously considered, as the Saudis were simultaneously pitching normalization terms that would lock in long-term cooperation with Washington.

The recent flurry of visits and “serious discussions aimed at taking security ties to new levels” indicate “a much improved atmosphere between top decision makers,” said Hannah, now with the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.

A neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Eli overlooking a nearby Palestinian village, January 17, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The new US-Saudi closeness has not gone unnoticed elsewhere, including among Palestinian officials who hope Riyadh will insist on an independent Palestinian state.

“I hope that the Saudis will stick to that position and not yield to any kind of pressure, intimidation, coming from the Biden administration or any other power outside of that,” Palestinian Authority foreign minister Riad al-Maliki said last week.

Alghannam said Riyadh needs to know whether the Israelis are “actively working towards making tangible progress on resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

He added: “The onus now lies not on Saudi Arabia, but on Israel, to demonstrate its readiness for peace with the kingdom.”

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