With Qatar feud solved, are Saudis better placed for Israel normalization?

While admitting that deal unlikely before Trump leaves office, senior US official says Gulf detente does remove an obstacle; analysts assert the two issues are unrelated

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Jared Kushner alongside a member of the Saudi delegation, during a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office of the White House, March 20, 2018. (Kevin Dietsch/ Pool/ Getty Images)
Jared Kushner alongside a member of the Saudi delegation, during a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office of the White House, March 20, 2018. (Kevin Dietsch/ Pool/ Getty Images)

NEW YORK — White House senior adviser Jared Kushner will attend a Tuesday ceremony in the Saudi city of Al-Ula during which Riyadh and Qatar will officially put their years-long diplomatic spat to bed.

Kushner had been shuttling around the region seeking a breakthrough in the final days of the Trump administration, which views unity among Gulf states as essential in isolating Washington’s nemesis Iran.

That broader goal has also been advanced via Kushner’s brokering of normalization deals between Israel and four Arab countries, including the UAE and Bahrain, both of which joined Saudi Arabia and Egypt in instituting a blockade of Qatar in 2017. The four countries accused Doha of supporting Islamist groups in the region and of having warmed up too closely to Iran — accusations that Qatar dismissed.

But with the diplomatic crisis behind them, is Kushner now in a better position to push Saudi Arabia to join its Gulf neighbors that have normalized with Israel and create an even more powerful front against Tehran?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, meets with presidential adviser Jared Kushner in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 1, 2020. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

“It was an impediment to [normalization], but ending [the boycott of Qatar] is not in and of itself sufficient,” said one senior US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“It’ll probably be difficult in the time that we have left, but at least it removes an obstacle,” the official said.

However, analysts who spoke to The Times of Israel were skeptical about drawing a connection between ending the Gulf diplomatic crisis and inking another normalization agreement.

“I’m sure Jared Kushner would see his Middle East efforts as being cohesive, but… I don’t think there’s a connection,” said Karen Young, a Gulf expert at the American Enterprise Institute. She argued that the Saudi move toward detente with Qatar was based more on “repositioning” itself ahead of US President-elect Joe Biden’s entry into the White House later this month.

In this September 15, 2020 file photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose for a photo on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Biden has vowed to institute a reset of US relations with Saudi Arabia, whose image has soured among Democrats more broadly due to its human rights record.

“A lot of the foreign policy choices made in the last four years aren’t really working well for them, so it’s time to draw some of them to a close,” said Young, referencing Riyadh’s boycott of Qatar and bombing campaign in Yemen.

Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said that in addition to pleasing Biden, who did not want to inherit the diplomatic spat, Riyadh could also package its decision to end its blockade of Qatar as a “victory” for the outgoing Trump administration, which has been looking to solidify its foreign policy legacy.

But to suggest that the decision could somehow contribute to the elusive Saudi-Israeli normalization deal was a leap too far, Ibish asserted.

A combination image shows then-Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) during a press conference in the capital Riyadh on April 25, 2016; and Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani (R) attending the 136th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit in Riyadh on December 10, 2015. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)

“The whole question of normalization runs parallel. It doesn’t really cross over,” he said.

Ibish acknowledged that ties with Israel would be discussed at this week’s Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Al-Ula, where the Saudi-Qatari detente will also be signed. But he said the key factors in Riyadh’s decision on normalizing with Israel will ultimately relate to US-Saudi relations and the dynamic between King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The latter is seen as more willing to forge relations with the Jewish state, while his aging father remains more loyal to the Palestinian cause.

It might be argued that warming ties with Doha could put Riyadh in a better position to weather potential blowback against a subsequent normalization decision, in that the Qatar-run Al Jazeera network, which influences public opinion in the Arab world, would be less inclined to criticize Riyadh over the move.

But both Ibish and Young dismissed that logic, pointing out that Qatar’s rift with the UAE has been much more severe than the one with Saudi Arabia, yet Abu Dhabi was able to move forward with its own normalization deal months ago, with minimal pushback from Doha.

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