Effective Israel-Saudi Arabia cooperation is a derivative of both countries’ national security and economic interests. The current, unprecedented, Saudi-Israeli security, technological, and commercial cooperation, and the central role played by Saudi Arabia in inducing the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan to conclude peace treaties with Israel, are driven by the Saudi assessment that Israel is an essential ally in the face of real, clear, lethal security threats, as well as a vital partner in the pursuit of economic, technological and diplomatic challenges.
It is a win-win proposition.
The blossoming cooperation is driven by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s (MbS) “Vision 2030,” which aspires to catapult the kingdom to a regional and global powerhouse of trade and investment, leveraging its geo-strategic position along crucial naval routes between the Far East and Europe (the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and the Red Sea). Vision 2030 has introduced ground-breaking cultural, social, economic, diplomatic, and national security reforms and upgrades, leveraging the unique added value of Israel’s technological and military capabilities.
Saudi Arabia, like the UAE and Bahrain, is preoccupied with the challenge of economic diversification. The country is overly reliant on oil and natural gas, which are exposed to price volatility and depletion, and could be replaced by emerging cleaner and more cost-effective energy. Israel’s ground-breaking technologies are seen as an effective vehicle to diversify the economy, create more jobs in non-energy sectors, and establish a base for alternative sources of national income, while bolstering homeland and national security.
The future of “Vision 2030” – which defies traditional Saudi religious, cultural, and social norms – and the future of Saudi-Israel cooperation, depend on domestic stability and the legitimacy of MbS. The crown prince is determined to overcome and de-sanctify the fundamentalist Wahhabis in central and southwestern Saudi Arabia, who were perceived until recently as the Islamic authority in Saudi Arabia and an essential ally of the House of Saud since 1744. MbS will keep expanding cooperation with Israel, as long as he deems it beneficial to his ground-breaking vision of Saudi Arabia, while overcoming potent Wahhabi opposition.
This ambitious strategy is preconditioned on reducing regional instability, minimizing the threat of existing rogue entities, and preventing the rise of additional such threats (e.g., domestic, Iranian-supported Shiite elements, Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen, similarly backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the proposed Palestinian state, whose potential leaders already feature a rogue intra-Arab track record).
Notwithstanding the March 2023 resumption of diplomatic ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia is aware that the Middle East resembles a volcano, which frequently releases explosive lava – domestically and regionally – in an unpredictable manner, as evidenced by the 1,400-year-old stormy intra-Arab/Muslim relations, and recently demonstrated by the Arab Tsunami, which erupted in 2010 and is still raging.
Saudi national security interests include the mounting threats posed by Iran’s ayatollahs, “Muslim Brotherhood” terrorists, Iranian-supported Shiite terrorists in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, the Iranian-based al Qaeda, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s aspirations to resurrect the Ottoman Empire, which controlled large parts of the Arabian Peninsula. In addition, Saudi Arabia is aware of Erdoğan’s security ties with the neighboring, pro-ayatollah Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, Erdoğan and Saudi Arabia militarily support opposing sides in Libya’s civil war, where Erdoğan backs Islamic terrorists.
Role of the US
The survival of the Saudi government, and the implementation of Vision 2030, depend upon the formation of an effective coalition against rogue regimes. However, Saudi Arabia is frustrated by recent geo-strategic developments that have produced a powerful tailwind for its mortal enemies: the erosion of the US posture of deterrence; the 43-year-old US addiction to the diplomatic option toward Iran’s ayatollahs; the American embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood; and appeasement of Tehran-backed Houthi terrorists. In addition, Saudis are alarmed by the ineffectiveness of NATO (No Action Talk Only?), European vacillation in the face of Islamic terrorism, and the vulnerability of the Arab regimes. This geo-strategic reality has driven the Saudis (reluctantly) closer to China and Russia, militarily and commercially.
Israel’s Value Added
Against this regional and global backdrop, Israel stands out as the most reliable “life insurance agent” in the region and an essential strategic ally, irrespective of past conflicts and despite disagreements over secondary and tertiary issues for the Saudis, including the Palestinian issue. In addition, Riyadh faces economic and diplomatic challenges – which could benefit from Israel’s cooperation – such as economic diversification, innovative technology, agriculture, irrigation, and enhanced access to advanced US military systems, which requires an improved posture on Capitol Hill.
MbS has recognized the commercial and military capabilities of Israel; the added value of its special standing among most US voters and Capitol Hill legislators; Israel’s can-do mentality in the face of extraordinary odds; and its reliability as a partner.
Saudi interest in expanding military training, intelligence, counter-terrorism, and commercial cooperation with Israel is a byproduct of its high regard for Israel’s posture of deterrence and muscle-flexing in the face of Iran’s ayatollahs (in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran itself), and Israel’s systematic war on Palestinian and Islamic terrorism. Furthermore, the Saudis respect Israel’s principle-driven defiance of US pressure, including Israel’s policy on Iran and Israel’s 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor (in the face of brutal US opposition to the bombing), which spared the Saudis the devastating wrath of a nuclear Saddam Hussein.
On a rainy day, MbS (just like the US) prefers a deterring and defiant Israel on his side.
A deterring and defiant Israel is a cardinal force-multiplier for Saudi Arabia (as it is for the US). On the other hand, an appeasing and retreating Israel would be irrelevant to Saudi Arabia’s national security (as it would be for the US).
To reiterate, Saudi Arabia’s top national security priorities transcend – and are independent of – the Palestinian issue. Expanding Saudi-Israel cooperation, and the key role played by Riyadh in accomplishing the Abraham Accords, have contradicted Western conventional wisdom that the Palestinian issue is central to Arab policy makers, and that the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is, ostensibly, preconditioned upon substantial Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, including the establishment of a Palestinian state.
On the contrary, MbS is aware that the Palestinian issue is not the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict, neither a crown-jewel of Arab policymaking nor a core cause of regional turbulence.
Independent of the pro-Palestinian Saudi talk, Riyadh (like the Arabs in general) has demonstrated an indifferent-to-negative walk toward the Palestinians. Arabs know that – in the Middle East – one does not pay custom on words. Therefore, the Arabs have never flexed military (and barely financial and diplomatic) muscles on behalf of the Palestinians. They acted in accordance with their own – not Palestinian – interests, and certainly not in accord with Western misperceptions.
Unlike the Western establishment, MbS accords critical weight to the Palestinian intra-Arab track record, which is low on moderation but top- heavy on subversion, terrorism, treachery, and ingratitude. The Saudis don’t forget and don’t forgive (especially) the Palestinian collaboration with Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which was the most generous Arab host of Palestinians. The Saudis are also cognizant of the deeply rooted Palestinian collaboration with Islamic, Asian, African, European, and Latin American terror organizations, including Muslim Brotherhood terrorists and Iran’s ayatollahs (whose machetes are at the throat of the House of Saud), North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela.
Riyadh and the Abraham Accords
Saudi Arabia has served as the primary engine behind Israel’s peace treaties with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, and has forged unprecedented defense and commercial cooperation with Israel, independent of the Palestinian issue and consistent with the Saudi order of national priorities. Precisely because the Saudis do not sacrifice Middle East reality and their national security on the altar of the Palestinian issue, they have played a major role in the establishment of the Abraham Accords.
The success of the Abraham Accords was a result of avoiding the systematic mistakes committed by Western policy makers. The latter have produced a litany of failed Israeli-Arab peace proposals, centered on the Palestinian issue, while the Abraham Accords focused on Arab interests, bypassing the Palestinian issue, avoiding a Palestinian veto. Therefore, the durability of the Accords depends on the interests and stability of the respective Arab countries, and not on the Palestinian issue, which is not a top priority for any Arab country.
Their stability, however, is threatened by the volcanic nature of the unstable, highly fragmented, unpredictable, violently intolerant, non-democratic and tenuous Middle East. The tenuous nature of most Arab regimes yields tenuous policies and tenuous accords. For example, in addition to the “Arab Spring” of 2010 (which is still raging on the Arab Street), non-ballot regime-change occurred (with a dramatic change of policy) in Egypt (2013, 2012, 1952), Iran (1979, 1953), Iraq (2003, 1968, 1963-twice, 1958), Libya (2011, 1969) and Yemen (a civil war since the ‘90s, 1990, 1962), etc.
Impact of a Palestinian State
With this in mind, Saudi Arabia, the Abraham Accords, and US interests would be severely undermined by a Palestinian state west of the Jordan River. It would topple the pro-US Hashemite regime east of the river and transform Jordan into a chaotic state in the vein of uncontrollable Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. It would produce another platform of regional and global Islamic terrorism, which would be leveraged by Iran in order to tighten its encirclement of Saudi Arabia via Iraq, Syria and Yemen. This would trigger a domino scenario, which would threaten every pro-US Arab oil-producing country in the Arabian Peninsula; jeopardize the supply of Persian Gulf oil; threaten global trade; and yield a robust tailwind to Iran, Russia and China and a major headwind to the US and its Arab Sunni allies, headed by Saudi Arabia.
Why would Saudi Arabia and the Arab regimes of the Abraham Accords precondition their critical ties with Israel upon Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, who they view as a rogue element? Why would they sacrifice their national security and economic interests on the altar of the Palestinian issue? Why would they cut off their noses to spite their faces?
The well-documented fact that Arabs have never flexed a military muscle (and hardly a significant financial and diplomatic muscles) on behalf of the Palestinians, provide a resounding answer.
Israel’s Bottom Line
Notwithstanding the importance of Israel’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia, it takes a back seat to Israel’s critical need to safeguard/control the geographic cradle of its history, religion and culture, which coincides with its minimal security requirements in the volcanic Middle East: the overpowering mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria (West Bank).
The unpredictable nature of the Middle East defines policies and accords as variable components of national security. On the other hand, topography and geography are fixed components of Israel’s minimal security requirements. The mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, and the Golan Heights have secured Israel’s survival and dramatically enhanced its posture of deterrence. They transformed the Jewish State into a unique force and dollar multiplier for the US.
An Israel-Saudi Arabia peace treaty would be rendered impractical if it required Israel to concede the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, which would transform Israel from a terror and war-deterring force multiplier for the US to a terror and war-inducing burden upon the US. Contrary to the Western (mis)perception of peace treaties as pillars of national security, the unpredictably violent Middle East features a 1,400-year-old reality of transient (non-democratic, one-bullet, not one-ballot) Arab regimes, policies, and accords. Thus, as desirable as Israel-Arab peace treaties are, they must not entail the sacrifice of Israel’s most critical national security feature: the permanent topography of the mountain ridges of Judea and Samaria, which dominate 80 percent of Israel’s population and infrastructure.
In June and December of 1981, Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor and applied its law to the Golan Heights, both in defiance of the Western – primarily American – foreign policy establishment. The latter warned that such actions would force Egypt to abandon its peace treaty with Israel. However, Egypt adhered to its national security priorities, sustaining the peace treaty. Routinely, Western policy makers warn that construction in Jerusalem (beyond the “Green Line”) and in Judea and Samaria would trigger a terroristic volcano and push the Arabs away from their peace treaties and cooperation with Israel.
None of the warnings have materialized, as Arab states act in accordance with their own interests, not in accordance with Western misperceptions and the rogue Palestinian agenda.
Yoram Ettinger is a retired Israeli ambassador and frequent writer on Arab-Israeli and US-Israel relations.