Co-written by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Saudi officials are vigorously denying that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mossad director Yossi Cohen met this week with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Neom, the mega-city under development on the Red Sea coast.
Saudi sources nevertheless told the Wall Street Journal, in anonymity, that the visit had taken place, and online flight tracking data indicates that a private jet flew from Tel Aviv directly to Neom and back on the evening of November 22, coinciding with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s own meeting with the Crown Prince.
Both the timing and the secretive nature of the visit, assuming it did occur, illustrate some of the sensitivities facing the Saudi and Israeli leadership as the Trump administration draws to a chaotic close.
Israeli and U.S. media reports have suggested that the issues of Iran and normalization were the focus of the Netanyahu-Mohammed bin Salman meeting. Officials in both countries have expressed concerns that the Biden administration will seek to return the United States to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) once it takes office in January, and Netanyahu himself urged Biden not to return to the Iran deal (in its pre-2018 form), just hours ahead of his trip to Neom. Within hours, Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Abdallah al-Mouallimi, made exactly the same point as he told Fox News that “I don’t think anybody is going to be naïve enough” to go back to a deal which “has proven its failure to the entire world.”
The prospect of Saudi and Israeli officials coming together to push back against U.S. engagement with Iran may come as little surprise to Biden’s incoming foreign policy team, many of whom are veterans of the Obama-era State Department and the Iran nuclear negotiations between 2012 and 2015. Then, a shared concern about U.S. diplomatic outreach toward Iran led to discreet coordination of messaging between Israeli and various Gulf States’ security and intelligence officials.
In March 2015, Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya even published an op-ed by its editor, Faisal Abbas, entitled “President Obama, listen to Netanyahu on Iran.” Now, in a post-Abraham Accord setting, such coordination is likely to be more open and higher-level, especially if the Biden administration moves to rejoin the JCPOA. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s pick for National Security Advisor, suggested rejoining would be a priority for its first 100 days in office in an August 2020 interview.
The fact that Secretary Pompeo was in Neom at the time of Netanyahu’s ostensible visit suggests that Iran may have been the primary focus of the meeting, with the recent normalization of Israeli relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain a clear contextual factor. The agreement signed by the UAE and Israel at the White House on September 15 included mention of a “Strategic Agenda for the Middle East” (which did not appear in the separate document signed by Israel and Bahrain the same day). The Strategic Agenda was not limited to Israel and the UAE, and noted that “others, as appropriate” could join to “advance regional security and stability.”
The Neom get-together may have been an early operationalization of this emerging strategic realignment just as Pompeo and the Trump administration are gearing up for a final squeeze of its maximum pressure campaign on Iran before leaving office.
A somewhat unconvincing denial of the reported meeting by the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, adds to the impression that Netanyahu’s trip to Neom was more about coordinating policy toward Iran than about publicizing a historic first visit by an Israeli leader to Saudi Arabia. Had normalization been on the agenda, then either the meeting did not produce a breakthrough — as has since been reported in some media outlets — or it is consistent with the Saudis’ practice of maintaining a careful balancing act when engaging with Israel. Mohammed bin Salman is not yet formally in power and cannot simply bypass King Salman’s decades-long support for the Palestinian cause.
Although the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan opened relations with Israel this year, Saudi Arabia faces more constraints. One factor is the size of the Saudi population. The UAE and Bahrain have both successfully disempowered their relatively small populations of nine million and 1.5 million inhabitants, respectively. The UAE disburses oil wealth to its citizens, while violently suppressing dissent. Bahrain, with Saudi help, successfully smashed its opposition movement during the Arab Spring almost ten years ago, and cracked down again in 2016. Many of the protest’s key figures remain imprisoned.
In contrast, Mohammed bin Salman must contend with a population of more than 20 million Saudi citizens. A history of popular mobilization against the state, such as the Sahwa movement of the 1990s, may undermine Mohammed bin Salman’s confidence that he could force through such a controversial decision.
Sudan’s decision to establish relations reflected the transitional government’s desperation to get off the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list in order to gain substantial assistance to deal with a collapsing economy. The fact that Sudan’s population of 41 million people only engaged in sporadic demonstrations against this move may have encouraged MBS as to the possibility that Saudis might also exhibit a muted reaction. However, Sudan does not have the same history of leadership in trying to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict that still resonates powerfully with Saudi Arabia’s 84-year old King Salman.
The Arab Peace Initiative, which was adopted by the Arab League in 2002, asserts that no Arab country will normalize with Israel unless significant progress has been made on resolving the conflict, including Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state. The API is also known as the Saudi Initiative, for then-King Abdullah’s role in developing it and hosting the Riyadh Summit to reaffirm its principles in 2007. In contrast, the countries that agreed to normalize with Israel do not have the same history of commitment to the Palestinian cause.
Another constraining factor is that MBS has already imposed numerous changes on the Saudi population, from loosening long-standing restrictions on gender separation to imposing and then tripling the country’s first taxes this year. Although MBS has brutally repressed dissent, he has yet to face mass opposition to his policies, as many young Saudis continue to support his efforts to diversify the economy. To add normalization with Israel to the many other controversial changes he has imposed could be the final trigger for mobilizing political dissent at a time of economic precarity.
Despite their authoritarian character, the Gulf monarchies remain sensitive to popular opinion, generally preferring to avoid policies likely to anger large portions of their citizenry. Mohammed bin Salman has demonstrated that he is willing to implement more substantial changes than many Gulf rulers, yet his primary concern is becoming king. Once his position is secure, MBS may be willing to move forward with normalization, but until that time he is unlikely to risk it.
This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.