There has been much excitement at the possibility that Saudi Arabia could join the Abraham Accords.
This is partly because of the religious role played by the kingdom, which is the custodian of the two holiest Islamic sites—Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia is also the world’s largest oil producer, generating nearly 15% of world oil output. As such, the kingdom exercises enormous influence over OPEC. The Saudis also have great sway, albeit under the table, over any important geostrategic decisions made by other Gulf nations.
As such, it is inconceivable that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco or Sudan would have agreed to join the Abraham Accords without the quiet consent of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS).
MBS has instituted a series of reforms, known as Vision 2030, because he is aware of global trends away from fossil fuels. He wants to prepare the kingdom for the day after peak oil by diversifying its economy. There has also been a gradual loosening of some of the kingdom’s strict religious restrictions.
There has been some softening of the kingdom’s educational materials as well, including changed attitudes towards Jews, excising many passages calling to “fight Jews.” Also excised from a tenth-grade textbook is a well-known quote from Muhammad: “The [Day of Judgement] will not come until Muslims fight the Jews and the Muslims will kill them all.”
However, other antisemitic elements remain, such as a Quranic passage about Allah changing the Jews back to “real monkeys.” Old attitudes die hard, and educational materials condemning Israel and Zionism remain unchanged.
Nonetheless, certain interests could move Saudi Arabia towards the Abraham Accords. The kingdom is deeply threatened by Iran, particularly the Islamic republic’s quest for a nuclear bomb and support for regional terrorism, including against the Saudis themselves.
While Saudi-U.S. relations have warmed since the Russia-Ukraine war caused upheaval in global fuel supplies, U.S. arms sales to the kingdom are not nearly enough in the face of a possible nuclear Iran. Thus, like other Gulf countries, the Saudis are looking towards Israel, with its vast military and intelligence capabilities. Quiet discussions between the Israelis and the Saudis have been underway for years.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had his first official meeting with a member of the Biden administration, hosting National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Jan. 19, Netanyahu stressed the possibility of Saudi Arabia joining the Abraham Accords. A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office stated that “next steps to deepen the Abraham Accords and expand the circle of peace, with an emphasis on a breakthrough with Saudi Arabia” were discussed.
President Joe Biden might find such a prospect attractive. At the moment, he has no foreign policy victories to boast of. Israel and Saudi Arabia signing a peace agreement on the White House lawn would be a priceless gift to the beleaguered president.
The Saudis, however, have made several demands in return for joining the Abraham Accords. Foremost among them is the creation of a Palestinian state. When interviewed in Davos on Jan. 19, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan stated, “We have said consistently that we believe normalization with Israel is something that is very much in the interest of the region. However, true normalization and true stability will only come through giving the Palestinians hope, through giving the Palestinians dignity. And that requires giving the Palestinians a state.”
Palestinian statehood may well be important to MBS. It is fairly clear, however, that he reads the neighborhood quite well. He knows how destabilizing a Palestinian state would be to his ally Jordan. This instability would cause a ripple effect across the region. MBS is also aware of the fact that the various Palestinian factions are pitted against one another in a lethal rivalry, and that the Palestinian Authority has little grassroots support. According to a recent Palestinian poll, 79% of respondents said they would take up arms against the P.A. in favor of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad or the newly formed Lion’s Den factions. MBS knows there is no one to talk to who speaks for all Palestinians.
MBS is shrewd and has a long memory. He cannot forget the stinging words Biden said about the Saudis during his campaign: “I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them. We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
Biden also said there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia” and added, in reference to the civil war in Yemen, that he would “end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children.”
MBS also remembers the almost two years of obsequious negotiations the Biden administration conducted with Iran. Perhaps the kingdom does care passionately about the Palestinian cause, but I suspect there is more to it than that. It is very likely that MBS does not want to hand a foreign policy victory to Biden, together with triumphant photo-ops on the White House lawn.
Yes, there will probably be a peace accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia at some point, but it may well have to wait until Biden is out of office. The question remains: Will the Iranians have their nuclear bomb by then or not?
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).
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