It seems now that the Biden administration has recognized, perhaps belatedly, that the Iran-Saudi rapprochement has the potential of not only removing the US as an influencer in the Middle East region, but the Chinese might somehow replace the US dollar with the Chinese Yuan as the international currency. Already, with mega deals between China and Saudi Arabia, as well as Chinese huge deals with Iran, and potentially more deals with the remaining Arab Gulf states, US influence and prestige is bound to be eviscerated.
The kingdom’s decision to engage with Iran and China is part of a broader diversification of the kingdom’s international relationships that have unfolded over the past decade. During the Cold War, Saudi Arabia was closely tied into the US-led regional security network in the Persian Gulf. Being fiercely anti-Communist made Riyadh ties with the US natural. Since the advent of the Biden administration in particular, Saudi foreign policy has shown an increasingly non-aligned tendency.
The erosion in US-Saudi relations began during the “Arab Spring.” The Saudis believed that the Obama administration abandoned Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. The Saudis wondered if they would be next. This was compounded by the Gulf states’ exclusion from U.S. negotiations with Iran, initially in secret bilateral talks in 2013 and subsequently as part of the P5+1 framework of the U.N. Security Council permanent members, plus Germany, which culminated in the Iran nuclear deal of July 2015. The Obama administration, in its final months, suspended the sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia amid high levels of civilian casualties in the Yemeni civil war. The Trump administration has reversed this. Finally, in 2021, the chaotic nature of the Biden administration’ withdrawal from Kabul, Afghanistan, served to reinforce deeply-rooted perceptions about U.S. disengagement from the Middle East, irrespective of the situation.
It is for this reason that Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Advisor was dispatched to the region with his primary focus being Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Sullivan made a commitment to Israel’s National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, that the Biden administration would seek to bring about peace between Jerusalem and Riyadh. It is meant to advance the spirit of the Abraham Accords of September 2020, engineered, and executed by the Trump administration.
Sullivan, in an address at the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, declared last Thursday (prior to visiting Saudi Arabia) that the Biden administration has “The interest and the bandwidth to promote normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia…getting to full normalization is a declared national security interest of the United States. We have been clear about that.”
In a previous phone conversation with his Israeli counterpart, Hanegbi, joined by Prime Minister Netanyahu, Sullivan discussed the US administration’s efforts to bring about normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. This was meant to counter reports that the Biden administration is actually slowing down its efforts to bring about an accord between Riyadh and Jerusalem as a result of the escalation taking place between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian terrorists affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas. This move by Sullivan was encouraging news in Jerusalem.
In Israel, the estimation is that Biden might have a window of opportunity of about one year to advance the normalization process. Israeli officials are cognizant of the fact that it cannot be a rushed process since the Abraham Accords took long months before coming to fruition. Moreover, with the US presidential elections next year, and the Saudis expectations that the US side would fulfill their demands, promises a lengthy process with no guarantees of success.
Since Saudi regime is the guardian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest places, the Kingdom sees itself as “protectors” of fellow Sunni Muslims worldwide. One of the conditions the Saudis bring up for formal peace with Israel, is a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Regrettably, the Palestinians aren’t willing to engage in such a deal.
The Saudis have a long list of demands from the US in exchange for normalization with Israel. They still consider the US their ideal protector. They were, however, disappointed when the US refrained from responding to the Iranian attack last year on the ARAMCO oil facilities. They expect the US to defend them against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Riyadh also demands significant arms deals with the US. Additionally, they seek a deal with the US for the purchase of a nuclear reactor that would enrich uranium, supposedly for peaceful means. Even if the Biden administration was to comply with the Saudi demands, it is unlikely that the US Congress would go along.
In Washington, it was finally understood that the US cannot afford to leave a vacuum in the Middle East, since China is eager to replace the US there. In Jerusalem, this realization on the part of Washington has created a win – win situation according to Israeli foreign policy officials. The US administration is now apparently committed to strengthening the Abraham Accords and seeking normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Jerusalem though, is concerned that should the US once again sign massive arms deals with the Saudis, it must ensure against the erosion of Israel’s qualitative edge.
Notwithstanding the Saudi rapprochement with Iran, Riyadh and Jerusalem still share a common threat in the Islamic Republic, and a common interest to address it. PM Netanyahu has been banking on Saudi Arabia to effectuate the mutual understanding between Riyadh and Jerusalem. In a meeting last month in Jerusalem with US Senator Lindsey Graham, Netanyahu said, “We want normalization and peace with Saudi Arabia. We view that as perhaps a giant leap towards ending the Arab Israeli conflict.”
The Biden administration declared foreign policy of “pivoting to Asia,” was certainly a warning sign in both Riyadh and Jerusalem. Then, in October 2022, OPEC decided to cut production by 2 million barrels. The fact that Russia was part of this decision angered Biden who saw it as Saudi Arabia (the largest oil producers in OPEC) tilt towards Russia, when the US was heavily involved in supporting Ukraine. As a result, Biden threatened the Saudis with “consequences.” All of that has created “bad blood” between Washington and Riyadh. The killing of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey, added to the tension. Then, Biden’s left-wing democrats’ pressure compelled Biden to call Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) a “pariah.” Washington recognizes now, albeit belatedly, that the Middle East is too vital a region to abandon.
US Middle East envoy Brett McGurk and energy czar Amos Hochstein, who accompanied Jake Sullivan to Saudi Arabia, flew indirectly to Israel to brief Netanyahu. For Israel, recognizing that formal peace with the Saudis may take time, would like in the meantime, to see a simple gesture from Riyadh, allowing direct flights of Israeli Arab-Muslims to Saudi Arabia to observe Islamic Haj in Mecca.