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Saudi – Israeli normalization: The role of Washington

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Middle East

By Athanasios Papadopoulos, Analyst KEDISA





In recent months, the United States has intensified its efforts to mediate a normalization agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which would drastically alter the geopolitics of the Middle East.[1]

Historical Patterns

But this was hardly an unexpected result. Historically, regional rivalries led the Saudis not be hostile towards Jews, adopting a pragmatic approach owing to the existence of common foes. Abd al-Aziz’s stance in the Arab-Israeli conflict was characterized by pure realpolitik, securing Western backing and defeating Hashemite aggrandizement. This skillful balance of national objectives with local limitations was a legacy that would be enhanced by future monarchs who had to deal with other threats, such as Nasserism, Saddam Hussein, and ultimately Iran. Despite their refusal to acknowledge Israel, Saudi decision – makers view Israel as a useful distraction for dissent and a safety net for the monarchy’s stability and survival.[2]

After the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, Saudi Arabia initiated covert contact with Israel on national security matters. The relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia is a prime example of quiet diplomacy, involving concealed cooperation in security and intelligence sharing to achieve peaceful goals. Historically, Saudi Arabia has been perceived as an extremist and fanatical religious regime that supports terrorism. After the 2006 Lebanon War, Israeli politicians realized that they share regional interests, particularly countering Iran, Islamic violent extremism, and Hezbollah. This realization led to a shift in Israeli policy. The Arab Spring of 2011 and Iran’s aggressive actions exposed long-standing ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Saudi Arabia’s eagerness to reveal this connection is a result of its aim to discourage Iran by playing both the American and Israeli cards. The initial basis of mutual interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel was the realistic principle that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”[3].[4]

Saudi Arabia’s discontent with the United States and apprehension about Iran were sparked by the Obama administration’s efforts to distance itself from Israel and strengthen ties with Iran. Saudi Arabia’s ties with the United States improved as a result of the Trump administration’s total reversal of Iran’s approach. From both Saudi and Israeli perspectives, this was a chance to limit Iran, their greatest mutual enemy in the Middle East. Even though Saudi Arabia and Israel have yet to establish formal diplomatic ties, their relationship has significantly progressed thanks to the practical logic of the anti – Iranian alliance framework, which was greatly advanced by the United States.[5]

The role of Washington

The Saudi – American alliance is too important to fail. That was evidently the Biden administration’s thinking when Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Riyadh in early summer, after National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had visited the country, as part of an American effort to explore the possibility of an Israeli – Saudi normalization deal.[6] Dan Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, was named a Special Advisor on Regional Integration by the Biden administration in July 2023, expressing the desire to strengthen ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel with this action.[7]

This would be regarded by the US as a significant diplomatic victory, strengthening regional integration by building on the Abraham Accords with the most desired participant and providing a chance to counter China’s growing influence over the area. Unquestionably, Washington’s intense pursuit of this agreement is also greatly influenced by the competitiveness between the United States and China. While Southeast Asia is usually viewed as the primary vector of U.S. – China competition, the Middle East has increasingly become a key geopolitical theater.[8] Furthermore, China has recently made significant gains in the area. In March of this year, Beijing assisted in mediating a diplomatic agreement between Riyadh and Tehran that had been strained for years. In addition, brokering a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel will benefit Biden politically at home, particularly as we approach the election year. And it would undoubtedly surpass his predecessor’s Abraham Accord accomplishments.[9]

The United States is considering imposing restrictions on Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with China and Russia, particularly in areas of military, technological, and intelligence. The US aims to encourage Riyadh to adopt a more pro-American stance and avoid these countries, ensuring the country’s security and cooperation in the region.[10] For the US it’s about anointing the new western leaders of the region. It’s about pushing China and Russia out of the Gulf, as anything other than trading partners.[11]. Furthermore, President Joe Biden announced during the G20 gathering that the US, Israel, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Arab Emirates aspire to establish an “India – Middle East – Europe Corridor” (IMEC). The ambitious proposal, if it comes to pass, may open up new avenues for economic cooperation between Europe, South Asia, and the Middle East.[12]

The Saudi stance

Over the course of time, the close ties between Israel and the United States have been an incentive to the Saudis to demonstrate realistic attitudes toward Israel, so as to draw closer to the United States and strengthen its reputation in the West, on the assumption that the road to Washington runs through Jerusalem. However, due to Saudi Arabia’s position in the Muslim and Arab world, public anti – Israel sentiment, and conservative and religious nature, the kingdom must proceed cautiously with normalization of relations with Israel. Because of this standing, the monarchy in Riyadh is obligated to hear the opinions of those who oppose normalization, mainly the religious establishment, which is still important despite losing power and still aspires to be the leader of the Arab world. These factors necessitate Saudi Arabia exercising caution and sensitivity in the Palestinian context.[13] The correct approach may resemble Saudi Arabia’s 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which called for a permanent settlement freeze, the demolition of certain illegal outposts and settlements, and a public commitment to a two – state solution. At the very least, Saudi Arabia would have to demand all of this. The plan, which has significant weight for the Saudi leadership, highlights the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and find a fair solution for the Palestinian refugees that is accepted by all parties, including Israel, in exchange for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 lines.[14] Saudi Arabia’s official stance is that complete normalization with Israel is impossible without a suitable resolution, namely advancements in the resolution of the Palestinian question.[15]

Riyadh is seeking a security guarantee from Washington and access to advanced military equipment in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel. The United Arab Emirates was promised the F-35 joint strike fighter, MQ-9 Reaper drones, and precision-guided missiles in return for normalization. Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” plan aims to build an independent defense industrial base, addressing the turbulence and delays associated with purchasing largely from the United States. This development is seen as a way to achieve greater independence, boost economic growth, and potentially gain influence abroad through arms exports.[16] On the nuclear file, Saudi Arabia wants to build 17 civilian nuclear reactors as part of its energy diversification and Vision 2030 goals. The US is interested in driving this project, rather than transferring it to other powers like China, Russia. This is driven by the priority of growing, diversifying, and modernizing the Saudi economy to avoid becoming a post – oil state and emerge as a central player in the 21st-century global economy.[17]

The Israeli perception

For Israel, normalizing relations with as many Arab states as possible — especially if it does not have to give up much in exchange — has always been a strategic goal.[18] Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his goal of achieving peace with Saudi Arabia and made it a central objective, together with blocking Iran’s nuclear plans. The assessment is that an agreement with Saudi Arabia would give other countries in the Muslim and Arab world greater if not absolute legitimacy to form ties with Israel. The size of the Saudi market also represents significant potential for Israeli companies in various fields.[19] Last but not least for Israel, normalization with its Arab neighbors is about sealing its place as the dominant military and hi-tech power in the region. However, many agreements are signed, Israel will always insist on military superiority in conventional and nuclear arms. Normalization with Saudi Arabia is all about declaring the victory of the Zionist project.[20]

Potential implications

Formalizing Saudi-Israeli relations would help each country achieve a number of strategic, military, and financial objectives.[21] But the obstacles to rapid progress on all three sides of this triangle are steep: any deal would require for the Saudis, and especially for King Salman, a fairly significant concession for the Palestinians, and no such concession is conceivable with today’s extreme right-wing Israeli government. U.S.-Saudi relations during this administration started as hostile and have improved to near workable, but the level of mistrust still makes rapid progress difficult. And U.S. administration relations with the current Israeli government are also facing a high degree of uncertainty and instability.[22]

Chinese involvement in the Gulf troubles Washington, which is making closer ties with the Saudis conditional on reducing China’s access to the Kingdom, particularly for aspects of technology and security. It is not inconceivable that Saudi Arabia is exploiting relations with China as a bargaining chip to use against the United States.[23] A new Saudi narrative portrays normalization with Israel as part of a moderate Saudi Arabia, promoting national interests over Islamist identity. However, this identity discourse is not popular across all Saudi societal elements.[24] Lastly, Palestinian officials argue that the Abraham accords undermine peace and a two-state solution, as the occupied West Bank is engulfed in the worst violence for 20 years. Concessions to the Palestinians are unpalatable for Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners, who have vowed to annex the entire West Bank.[25]


The bid to establish diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia has definitely turned upside down by the attack that Hamas launched against Israel on October 7th [26] and the ongoing conflict that is still unfolding. Nonetheless, some facts are unaffected by these developments. In order to maintain peace between two of the most significant US partners in the Middle East, the Biden administration seeks to resolve the Israel – Hamas conflict as quickly as possible. This will not be a simple task, though, since the war has limited the window for dialogue between Israel’s far – right government and the kingdom, which faces the dilemma of choosing between policies of balance of power and identity. Realist politics is what has defined ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, as previous instances demonstrate. Thus, after an armistice or cease – fire in Palestine, it would not be at all unlikely that the discussions would carry on and even result in anything within a short time.


Aboudouh, Ahmed. ‘An India–Middle East–Europe Corridor Is Unlikely to Boost Saudi–Israel Normalization | Chatham House – International Affairs Think Tank’. Chatham House, 15 September 2023. Accessed: October 29 2023,

Cook, Steven A. ‘Surprise Palestinian Attack Spawns Fears of Wider Mideast War’. Council on Foreign Relations, 7 October 2023. Accessed: October 29 2023,

Farouk, Yasmine. ‘What Would Happen If Israel and Saudi Arabia Established Official Relations?’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 15 October 2020. Accessed: October 29 2023,

Guzansky, Yoel. ‘The Road to Normalization: Relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia’. INSS (blog), 23 July 2023. Accessed: October 29 2023,

Hearst, David. ‘Saudi-Israel Normalisation: The Grand Illusion’. Middle East Eye, 28 September 2023. Accessed: October 29 2023,

Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, Lucy, Hesham Youssef, Robert Barron, και Adam Gallagher. ‘Is a Saudi-Israel Normalization Agreement on the Horizon?’ United States Institute of Peace, 28 September 2023. Accessed: October 29 2023,

McKernan, Bethan. ‘Saudi Arabia ‘Getting Closer’ to Normalising Relations with Israel, Crown Prince Says’. The Guardian, 21 September 2023, dpt. World news. Accessed: October 29 2023,

Niu, Song, και Tongyu Wu. ‘Changes and Trends in the Current Relations Between Saudi Arabia and Israel’. Asian Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies 15, vol. 2 (3 April 2021): 172–88.

Podeh, Elie. ‘Saudi Arabia and Israel: From Secret to Public Engagement, 1948–2018’. The Middle East Journal 72, vol. 4 (21 November 2018): 563–86.

Rumpley, Grant. ‘Israel Normalization Negotiations and the U.S.-Saudi Defense Relationship’. The Washington Institute, 25 September 2023. Accessed: October 29 2023,

Salem, Paul. ‘The Oncoming Saudi-Israeli Normalization’. Middle East Institute, 5 September 2023. Accessed: October 29 2023,

Simon, Aaron David Miller, Steven. ‘Is Saudi-Israeli Normalization Worth It?’ Foreign Policy (blog), 5 June 2023. Accessed October 29 2023,


[1] Kurtzer-Ellenbogen et al, ‘Is a Saudi-Israel Normalization Agreement on the Horizon?’

[2] Podeh, ‘Saudi Arabia and Israel’.

[3] Niu and Wu, ‘Changes and Trends in the Current Relations Between Saudi Arabia and Israel’.

[4] Podeh, ‘Saudi Arabia and Israel’.

[5] Niu and Wu, ‘Changes and Trends in the Current Relations Between Saudi Arabia and Israel’.

[6] Simon, ‘Is Saudi-Israeli Normalization Worth It?’

[7] Guzansky, ‘The Road to Normalization’.

[8] Kurtzer-Ellenbogen et al, ‘Is a Saudi-Israel Normalization Agreement on the Horizon?’

[9] Simon, ‘Is Saudi-Israeli Normalization Worth It?’

[10] Salem, ‘The Oncoming Saudi-Israeli Normalization’.

[11] Hearst, ‘Saudi-Israel Normalisation’.

[12] Aboudouh, ‘An India–Middle East–Europe Corridor Is Unlikely to Boost Saudi–Israel Normalization

[13] Guzansky, ‘The Road to Normalization’.

[14] Salem, ‘The Oncoming Saudi-Israeli Normalization’.

[15] Guzansky, ‘The Road to Normalization’.

[16] Rumpley, ‘Israel Normalization Negotiations and the U.S.-Saudi Defense Relationship’.

[17] Salem, ‘The Oncoming Saudi-Israeli Normalization’.

[18] Salem.

[19] Guzansky, ‘The Road to Normalization’.

[20] Hearst, ‘Saudi-Israel Normalisation’.

[21] Farouk, ‘What Would Happen If Israel and Saudi Arabia Established Official Relations?’

[22] Salem, ‘The Oncoming Saudi-Israeli Normalization’.

[23] Guzansky, ‘The Road to Normalization’.

[24] Farouk, ‘What Would Happen If Israel and Saudi Arabia Established Official Relations?’

[25] McKernan, ‘Saudi Arabia ‘Getting Closer’ to Normalising Relations with Israel, Crown Prince Says’.

[26] Cook, ‘Surprise Palestinian Attack Spawns Fears of Wider Mideast War’.