Senior US official in Saudi Arabia to discuss massive rail project with UAE, India

Israel reportedly not invited as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan arrives in kingdom shortly after Riyadh reaches agreement with Iran

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, December 12, 2022. (Susan Walsh/AP)
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, December 12, 2022. (Susan Walsh/AP)

A senior White House official was in Saudi Arabia on Sunday to discuss a massive infrastructure project with key Israeli allies, but without Israel at the table, according to reports.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan  is slated to met his Saudi, Emirati, and Indian counterparts, Axios reported on Saturday night. The four officials will discuss a rail and port network linking the Gulf states and India.

The idea reportedly arose during meetings of the I2U2 forum, which includes Israel, India, the US, and UAE, though Israel was not part of Sunday’s discussion.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen is flying to India on Monday to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

Sullivan spoke by phone to Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, on April 11. He is expected to meet MBS on the current trip to discuss bilateral relations and the possibility of normalization with Israel.

Last Thursday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a DC thinktank, Sullivan hinted at Sunday’s discussions, referencing “new areas of cooperation between New Delhi and the Gulf as well as the United States and the rest of the region.”

File: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia takes his seat ahead of a working lunch at the G20 Summit, Nov. 15, 2022, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia (Leon Neal/Pool Photo via AP, File)

The China challenge

Sullivan, the first senior US official to visit the kingdom since President Joe Biden made the trip last summer, arrived only weeks after Riyadh reached an agreement on restoring full diplomat ties with Iran under Chinese auspices.

The move toward China is widely seen as a signal from the Saudis to Washington that it is displeased with US pressure on human rights, and its perceived disengagement from the Middle East.

The message seems to have been understood in the Biden administration. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will follow Sullivan with a June trip to Saudi Arabia to join a meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

China has been developing major infrastructure projects across the region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The I2U2 forum, and the potential rail project, are part of a US response.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

The Chinese project also poses a major challenge to India, as its Chinese rival seeks to capture a far greater share of trade flows from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe.

New Delhi, which sees China’s modern Silk Road scheme as a curb on its own growth and international trade, initially sought to avoid being hemmed in by creating its own corridor to Central Asia via Iran, and then on to Europe.

But the project — known as the International North-South Transit Corridor — has been a failure.

With the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, India was presented with a new opportunity to challenge Chinese designs on regional and global trade.

Israel would seem a natural partner to a US-led initiative. Rail networks between Israel and the UAE would allow India to ship goods to the UAE, which would then be spirited by train across Saudi Arabia and Jordan, before crossing into Israel at Beit She’an and arriving at the Haifa port.

File: Shipping containers at Chennai’s port in India, Friday, Sept. 19, 2014 (AP Photo/Arun Sankar K)

From there, goods would be shipped to Greece’s Piraeus port, one of the largest in Europe, from which India would be able to access the entire continent.

Economic ties between the UAE and India are already robust. India is the largest importer of Emirati goods, and the UAE is India’s third-largest trade partner. Emirati companies invested billions of dollars to create the India-UAE Food Corridor last year in order to bolster the Gulf country’s food security.

India aims to become the breadbasket of the Middle East, and Israel is at the center of that ambitious goal. The Foreign Ministry has created 29 Indo-Israel Centers of Excellence to improve yields, water use, and crop diversity.

With no formal ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Jerusalem is sitting out Sunday’s talks with Sullivan.

While Saudi officials have privately expressed interest in such an agreement in recent years, the prospects of Israeli-Saudi normalization remain distant.

Chinese President Xi Jinping raises his glass and proposes a toast during the welcome banquet for visiting leaders attending the Belt and Road Forum at the Great Hall of the People, April 26, 2019. (Nicolas Asfouri/Pool Photo via AP)

Riyadh has presented extensive demands to the United States regarding major improvements to their bilateral relationship as a prerequisite for a deal. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government, which has already garnered blistering condemnations from the Gulf kingdom over its policies toward the Palestinians, has made normalization less palatable to either the palace or the street.

Nonetheless, the current US government has made some progress, including on issues that eluded the administration of former US president Donald Trump, which brokered the Abraham Accords.

Last year, the White House brokered the final stages of a deal to transfer control over a pair of Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, leading to Riyadh opening its airspace for civilian flights to and from Israel. It later coaxed Oman to do the same, shrinking the time required for Israelis to fly to the Far East.

On Thursday at the Washington Institute, Sullivan said that the US sees a benefit to its national security in brokering a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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