US President Trump and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman arrive for a meeting on “World Economy” at the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28, 2019. Credit – Eliot Blondet—AFP/Getty Images
The grainy video clip began trending on Arabic-language Twitter on Sept 16. It showed a famous speech by Saudi Arabia’s late King Faisal, who in 1973 embargoed the Kingdom’s oil exports in a bid to punish the U.S. and other nations who had supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War. “If all Arabs agreed to accept the existence of Israel and divide Palestine, we will never join them,” Faisal says in the video, his head covered by a white keffiyeh and his voice cracking with emotion. Standing directly behind him is Saudi Arabia’s current ruler, King Salman.
Almost a half-century later, the House of Saud may have to decide whether to make good on that promise. Buoyant after the UAE and Bahrain signed a historic peace pact with Israel, President Trump suggested on Sept. 15 that up to nine other countries would soon join the “Abraham Accords.” Trump had spoken with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, he told reporters at the White House, and he believed the world’s largest oil exporter would recognize Israel, “at the right time.”
Experts doubt that’s anytime soon. For all its regional adventurism, the UAE is considered peripheral to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, while it is seen as central to the legitimacy of Saudi Arabia’s kings. But the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, often known by his initials MBS, adds an element of uncertainty to the Kingdom’s traditionally conservative conduct.
Widely viewed as its de-facto ruler, the Crown Prince has spearheaded a number of radical foreign policy moves—including the war in Yemen and the Gulf blockade of Qatar. Still, on relations with Israel, “there’s such a disconnect between the ideas of the Crown Prince and his advisors and the rest of Saudi Arabia that it’s going to be very difficult to push through in the short to mid-term,” says a former advisor to Saudi Arabia’s government, who asked to remain anonymous in order to be able to speak freely.
Here’s what to know about the state of Israel–Saudi Arabia relations, why MBS is pushing for them to change, and how the issue speaks to deeper fissures in Saudi Arabia’s society:
Why would Saudi Arabia making peace with Israel be such a big deal?
Saudi Arabia’s Al Saud tribe is the custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities, and the global seat of the ultra-conservative Wahabist ideology. Although Jordan acts as the custodian of Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, Saudi monarchs are also deeply vested in Sunni Islam’s third holiest site. Support for Palestinian statehood is woven into Saudi Arabia’s own identity as a state, and normalization of relations with Israel would carry far greater weight than other Gulf nations.
So experts say under the current regime there’s little chance of Trump’s prediction coming to pass. “Saudi Arabia will not pursue full diplomatic relations with Israel while King Salman is in power,” says Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Insitute in Washington (AGSIW).
But the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel is definitely warming. Backchannel diplomacy has been an open secret for years; like Israel, Saudi Arabia is concerned about waning U.S. influence in the region, and wants America to remain committed to pressuring its archrival Iran. Their bilateral co-operation on security strategy has seeded commercial relationships too—such as Israel’s sale of spyware to Gulf leaders who used it to hack dissidents’ phones. As recently as July, a delegation headed by a retired Saudi General that included Saudi academics and business people visited Israel.
While other Gulf nations normalize relations, the Kingdom has made some concessions. Earlier this month, it agreed to open its airspace to flights traveling between Israel and the UAE, a move Trump’s special advisor and son-in-law Jared Kushner claimed showed that “countries are starting to let go of old conflicts and move in the direction of peace.”
More significant still is Bahrain’s last-minute signing of the accord—which would not have occurred without the blessing of its much larger neighbor. “The sudden turnaround in the Bahraini position only happened after the Emiratis got specific assurances from MBS that the King of Saudi Arabia wouldn’t get upset with them going ahead with the Emirati plan,” the former Saudi government advisor tells TIME.
Says Smith Diwan, “there is a real generational divide within the ruling family regarding views toward Israel and the Palestinians, and the weight of Jerusalem to Saudi Islamic legitimacy.”
Why does Mohammed Bin Salman want a closer relationship with Israel?
The commercial incentives are clear. MBS’s Vision 2030—a plan designed to wean the Kingdom from its near-total dependence on oil—relies heavily on inward investment into Saudi Arabia. Central to the Crown Prince’s plans is the development of the Kingdom’s Red Sea Coastline through high-end tourism ventures and a new “smart city” called NEOM. Israel, which also has a Red Sea coastline and is a leader in tech innovation and desalination, would seem an ideal partner.
But making peace with Israel would also help repair MBS’s tarnished image in the U.S. His attempts to cast himself as a modernizing reformer have been undermined by his brutal crackdowns on dissent—including his jailing of activists that fought for those changes. The war in Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, has further damaged the Crown Prince’s reputation. President Trump claimed to have “saved his ass” from Congress over the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Bob Woodward writes in his new book.
Saudi Arabia normalizing relations would repay Trump with a pre-election gift—but it would also be consistent with his stated plan to change Saudi Arabia by “shock” therapy rather than by increments, says Yasmine Farouk, a Saudi foreign policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “What would be more of an electric shock than having public relations with Israel?”
Although Farouk agrees a peace accord is unlikely in the short term, she says MBS may be inclined towards action. “This is how he’s going to shock society, this is how he’s going to shock the religious establishment. This is how he’s going to shock the U.S.—because this is the U.S.’s definition of moderation and of a “new” Saudi Arabia.”
What has Saudi Arabia’s media said about the deal?
The messaging has been mixed. According to Saudi’s state-run press agency, King Salman told Trump on their call that Saudi Arabia would not pursue normalization until there is a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Saudi’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, meanwhile, offered a guarded assessment. The move “could be viewed as positive,” he said, a possible reference to the freeze the deal puts on Israeli plans to annex portions of Palestinian territory.
That’s consistent with the Kingdom’s official line. After the UAE’s August announcement of its intention to sign a pact with Israel, the foreign minister told reporters in Berlin that anything was possible but “peace must be achieved with the Palestinians” before the Kingdom would contemplate similar actions.
Media outlets, lobbyists, and clerics considered closer to MBS have adopted a different tone. Salman al-Ansari, the founder and president of the Washington-based Saudi Public Relations Affairs Committee, for example, has been effusive in his praise for the White House’s dealmaking, on Twitter crediting Trump and King Salman for paving the way for a “tsunami of peace” in the Middle East. In a sermon broadcast on state television on Sept 5, the Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca Abdulrahman al-Sudais urged Muslims to avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” towards Jews.
“One can see an intentional Saudi policy of widening permissible views toward Israel and encouraging greater religious tolerance towards Jews using Saudi media and religious figures,” says the AGSIW’s Smith Diwan. “It appears to be an intentional policy championed by personalities close to MBS to prepare the Saudi public for future warming of ties.”
How have people in the Gulf responded to the Abraham Accords?
While Arab leaders clamped down on dissent towards the UAE–Israel pact in places like Jordan and Israel, Bahrain’s signing of the Abraham Accord has already proved contentious. Since then, nightly protests have broken out in the tiny Persian Gulf state, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet and was the only Gulf state to experience significant unrest as popular uprisings broke out against the region’s autocratic leaders in 2010 and 2011. Placards held aloft by demonstrators in Bahrain carried slogans like “normalization is treason,” Reuters reports.
That sentiment has found echoes on Saudi social media. On Sept 16, the Arabic-language hashtag “normalization is betrayal” trended, as did the hashtag “Gulfis_Against_Normalisation.” Then there was the much-shared video of King Faisal: a symbol of the Kingdom’s traditional policy towards the Israelis and Palestinians.
Although there are limits to how far one can read public sentiment based on Saudi Arabia’s social media, space notoriously compromised by armies of bots, experts say it appears to be largely critical. “Right now the Saudi public is uneasy with these changes,” says AGSIW’s Smith Diwan. “But as the Saudi leadership exerts pervasive control over public discourse, one can expect views to change.”