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Why the US continues to advance the Abraham Accords despite Gaza

Washington is anchoring the US’s security architecture in the region in order to deter Iran and blunt China’s growing influence
In this photo provided by the Indian Navy on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, a view of  the Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker Marlin Luanda on fire after being hit by a missile launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, in the Gulf of Aden. (Indian Navy via AP)
In this photo provided by the Indian Navy on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024, a view of the Marshall Islands-flagged oil tanker Marlin Luanda on fire after being hit by a missile launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, in the Gulf of Aden. (Indian Navy via AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent comment on normalization between Israel and the Saudi Kingdom seemed to contrast starkly with the public headbutting between the US and Israel. The two countries have lately been at odds over the UN resolution concerning a ceasefire and Israel’s imminent incursion into Rafah. Yet on March 21 Blinken declared, “We had a very good discussion about the work that we’ve been doing for many months now on normalization, and that work is moving forward. We’re continuing to make good progress. I believe we can reach an agreement which would present a historic opportunity for two nations, but also for the region as a whole.” 

This has recently been followed up by national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s planned talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to push for normalizing ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has to walk a tightrope between shoring up its strategic interests in the region and fostering security and intelligence ties with Israel while not alienating its public, which favors cutting ties with Israel due to the Gaza conflict. On one hand, Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan demanded the establishment of a Palestinian state as part of normalization to quell its street’s hostility towards Israel. At the same time, Riyadh, which prioritizes its strategic objectives of attaining a mutual defense pact with the US or a civilian nuclear program, will not allow the Gaza conflict instigated by Iran and its Hamas proxy to undermine its strategic objectives. 

My recent report, “Unfreezing the Abraham Accords: A New Transatlantic Strategy for Greater Peace, Stability and Integration in the Middle East” notes that during Israel’s conflict with Hamas, the Middle East Air Defense Alliance (MEAD) that was spearheaded by the Biden administration has contributed to intelligence and missile defense cooperation between Israel and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, enabling the successful interception of Houthi missiles fired at Israel.

Saudi Arabia’s strategic priorities led Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to profess, prior to the Oct 7 attack, that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia was “serious for the first time.” In turn, Saudi Arabia’s conflicting interests complement the Biden administration’s aim to leave a foreign policy legacy of promoting a Palestinian state as part of Saudi normalization with Israel. 

Iran’s strategic ambition is to expel the US from the Middle East. As part of this strategy, on Oct 7, Tehran unleashed Hamas and subsequently its Hezbollah and Houthis proxies to thwart the emerging Sunni economic landscape and NATO-styled security architecture that the US underpins as it incorporates Israel and increases Iran’s sense of alienation. Iran’s role as a regional disruptor has not affected Saudi Arabia’s desire to normalize relations with Israel. Similarly, Abraham Accord signatories have indicated that they will maintain their ties with Israel despite the conflict in Gaza, building upon the Abraham Accords and anchoring the US’s security architecture in the region to deter Iran and blunt China’s growing influence in the region.

Indeed, it is not only Iran that serves as a regional disruptor. China’s security competition with the US is leading Beijing to become an additional security guarantor in the Middle East. As China’s economic ties to the region expand, it is increasing its military footprint to protect its interests. China is funding a military base in the UAE at the Khalifa Port as part of “Project 141” to expand China’s military and logistical support network globally. China is also aiming to develop a military presence in Saudi Arabia, with its People’s Liberation Army Navy’s escort taskforce using Saudi Arabia’s port as it sails in the Gulf of Aden and along Africa’s east coast. Saudi Advanced Communications & Electronics Systems Co., and China Electronics Technology Group Corp have created a joint venture named ‘Aerial Solutions’ to build military drones in the kingdom. 

China seeks to bring GCC states into its sphere of influence and away from the West, having in 2023, brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, leading both countries to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Harley Lippman has noted that in the aftermath of Oct 7, the US’s positioning of aircraft carriers, ships, and jets to the eastern Mediterranean was not only to interdict rocket attacks against Israel but to prevent China from exploiting the regional void. Lippman further assesses that US attempts to promote normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia are geared at constructing a regional architecture predicated upon shared defense and trade that would hinder China’s growing influence in the region. Thus, any attempt to revive and expand the Accords must also confront the challenge of China’s influence.

Beyond seeking to normalize Saudi-Israel ties, Gulf states can gravitate towards the West’s sphere of influence away from the East by Western states such as the UK leveraging their combined naval and military operations with the US, joint exercises with Gulf allies, and trade in the Gulf. This would promote confidence among Gulf allies that the US is not going to retreat from the region and pivot towards Asia. This would have the desired effect of deterring Iran from heightening regional risk and blunting China’s rivalry in the Middle East.

About the Author
Barak Seener is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, founder of Strategic Intelligentia and co-presenter of The Geo Godfather Wars Podcast. Barak can be followed on X at @barakseener.