Normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel is inevitable. Riyadh is the cultural and economic juggernaut of the Middle East. Jerusalem consistently punches above its weight in every stat category except diplomatic relations with its neighbors. It is no secret that Israel and Saudi Arabia are partners in all but name. Riyadh and Jerusalem are united by geopolitics. They share their greatest ally, America. They also have a common adversary, Iran. Formalizing diplomatic relations between the Jewish State and the birthplace of Islam would extend the 2020 Abraham Accords and lay the foundation for a broader peace in the Middle East. Their combined strengths would empower both countries to solve colossal regional and global challenges – together. The sky is the limit for a formal Israeli-Saudi partnership.
Israel faced existential threats and regional isolation since its inception in 1948. Unfortunately, it only has official diplomatic relations with five states in the Middle East and North Africa: Egypt (1979), Jordan (1994), the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Morocco (2020). To say those countries have benefited by establishing formal diplomatic relations with the Start-Up Nation is an understatement.
Egypt recovered the Sinai Peninsula, and received more than $50 billion in security assistance and $30 billion in economic aid from America since 1979. Jordan collects more than $1.5 billion in annual economic aid and security assistance from America and, as an arid country with the second fewest water resources per inhabitant in the world, receives much-needed desalinated water from Israel’s Mediterranean coast. The UAE and Israel signed a multi-billion dollar free trade agreement aimed at increasing their annual bilateral trade volume to $10 billion over the next five years. Bahrain remains the US Fifth Fleet’s headquarters and is also on the verge of signing a free trade agreement with Israel. Morocco obtained both American and Israeli reco
According to a March 2023 report in the New York Times, Saudi Arabia already outlined some of the criteria for making its longstanding partnership with Israel official. First, Riyadh seeks formal security guarantees from Washington. In September 2019, Iran launched drone strikes against Saudi oil facilities in Abqaq. Riyadh is seeking a formal mechanism to protect its construction projects, oil fields and refineries, and desalination facilities and deter further Iranian aggression. Second, Saudi Arabia intends to develop a domestic nuclear energy program. Put simply, Riyadh wants access to American nuclear technology to ease its transition from fossil fuels and satisfy part of its energy needs.
Washington retorted regarding Saudi Arabia’s request for formal security guarantees. Forgoing a South Korea-like arrangement, America would rather establish a comprehensive Middle East security architecture instead. Not a military alliance with a unified command structure nor commitments akin to NATO’s Article 5, but a broad coalition of like-minded states modeled after the Quad (America, Australia, India, and Japan) in the Indo-Pacific. This security architecture would combine US Central Command (CENTCOM), the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and the militaries of neighboring Arab states to detect, deter and defend against regional threats, namely Iran and its proxies.
Washington has not responded to Riyadh’s request to help it develop a nuclear energy program. Nevertheless, there is a regional precedent that provides a compelling roadmap for Saudi Arabia to follow. The UAE built the first commercial nuclear power plant in the Arab World with a consortium of South Korean companies. The Barakah Nuclear Energy Plant will supply the UAE with up to 25% of its energy needs once fully operational. Since Abu Dhabi is a signatory to a number of non-proliferation instruments, including the IAEA Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the UAE forwent both domestic enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear fuel. Instead, the Korea Electric Power Corporation manufactures the nuclear fuel in South Korea and then exports the fuel assemblies to the UAE. As a fellow NPT state, Saudi Arabia could institute a similar mechanism to maintain its non-proliferation obligations and ease the international community’s concerns regarding nuclear weapons development.
America is also mediating between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel in the Sanafir and Tiran islands stalemate. Located at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba, the Straits of Tiran are a critical economic artery for both Israel and landlocked Jordan. It’s their only path to access the Red Sea. Put simply, Cairo was supposed to cede sovereignty of the islands to Riyadh as part of a bilateral maritime boundary agreement ratified by Egypt in 2017. However, the 1979 Egypt Israel Peace Treaty states that both parties must respect their respective rights of navigation in the Straits of Tiran. Since Saudi Arabia doesn’t formally recognize Israel, there is no way for Cairo and Jerusalem to ensure that Israel’s right of navigation will not be impeded by Saudi Arabia when the islands are transferred over to them. In other words, the transfer is unlikely to happen until Israel and Saudi Arabia normalize relations.
American President Joe Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud all want to make a deal. From building water desalination facilities and combating desertification to securing Palestinian statehood, the good that can come from a formal Israeli-Saudi partnership is endless. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently announced a $27 billion dollar rail expansion, and hinted at linking Israel to Saudi Arabia. This would enable Riyadh to use ports on Israel’s Mediterranean coast to transport oil and other goods to Europe. Jerusalem also aims to build data transport infrastructure connecting Milan and Marseilles to Mumbai. This 20, 000 kilometre-long internet cable known as the Trans Europe Asia System (TEAS) will go through France, Italy, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Oman to reach India. For peace builders, normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia can’t come soon enough.
George Monastiriakos is a Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. You can read his published works on his website.