The need for Israeli-Saudi Normalization is Felt to be Urgent
The Saudi National Museum in Riyadh had the following narrative etched into the wall –
The Prophet Muhammad traveled with his uncle Abu-Talib in a camel caravan to Damascus. The caravan passed a Christian monk’s residence in the Syrian desert who had invited the traders to dinner.
The young Muhammad was showing signs that he would grow up to be a great prophet, and this monk saw them. Abu-Talib was pulled aside by the monk who warned him that the Jews would also notice the signs.
The monk foretold that the Jews would attempt to have the boy killed in Damascus to thwart his prophecy. Indeed, this timely warning prevented the Jews from killing the Prophet as planned.
The Arabic version of the story was written down hundreds of years after the Prophet’s lifetime and is not found in the Koran. The numerous Saudi schoolchildren who came to the museum on field trips did, however, see it.
This anecdote is meant to show that to reverse decades of demonization, normalizing Saudi-Israeli relations will require years of productive interactions between Israelis and Saudis. While ignoring positive portrayals that also exist, Saudi institutions have drawn on the derogatory depictions of Jews found in their religious tradition.
These representations are still prevalent in Arab popular culture, not just in Saudi Arabia but also in countries that have had treaties with Israel for a long time, like Egypt and Jordan.
The possibility of economic synergy between the two nations—whose economies rank first and fourth in the Middle East, respectively—is good news for any future normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel. This interplay between Israeli technology and entrepreneurship and Saudi finance and planning presents the possibility of finding common ground on a constructive agenda.
The US acting as a mediator
The US government should encourage the Saudi side and, where necessary, provide seed money for joint ventures while letting Israeli and Saudi businesspeople explore the synergy without interfering.
The size of the western United States, Saudi Arabia is a complex, multiethnic nation that differs from the Gulf city-states that ratified the Abraham Accords.
One of its complexities is that several hundred thousand university graduates from Saudi Arabia who were educated in the due to Saudi education policy since the oil boom of the early 1970s may be the most Philo-Semitic segment of the population in the entire Arab world.
This technocratic elite speaks English and controls the major corporations, financial institutions, and government agencies. They also host American delegations that come to town, most recently ones that support Israel. During their time in the US, some of these Saudis had American Jewish friends, classmates, and professors, and many of them seem eager to forge close ties with Israel.
But unlike the Israeli hi-tech sector in Tel Aviv, which controls Israeli politics, the Saudi technocratic elite does not shape the nation’s popular culture or its government.
Even though they are absolute monarchs, the king and crown prince of Saudi Arabia pay close attention to public opinion, especially when it comes to delicate matters like their country’s relationship with Israel. They also know not to push their country’s boundaries too far because doing so has led to the assassination of previous reformers in Saudi Arabia and other countries.
Governmental ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia are gradually improving, particularly on the military front, thanks to US Central Command’s mediation, which is motivated by a shared desire to deter Iran. There is no need for another White House signing ceremony for another agreement, nor is there any urgency.
If there is a sense of urgency, it stems from US politics as the Biden administration looks to progress on its foreign policy in its fourth year in office. However, Americans should be aware by this point that attempts to force the Middle East onto a four-year US presidential cycle frequently fail or worse, as in the case of the Second Intifada, as demonstrated by Bill Clinton’s Camp David summit in 2000 and John Kerry’s peace initiative in 2014.
Let’s also acknowledge the failure of the US government’s decades-long efforts to promote investment and trade between Israel and its Arab treaty partners. Less than $200 million is exchanged between Egypt and Israel each year (including Egypt’s purchase of Israeli natural gas), a trade relationship that has been the focus of intense US government attention since the 1979 peace treaty.
the advantages of normalization
The largest trading relationship in the Middle East will be between Turkey and Israel, whose two-way trade will surpass $8 billion this year even without any special government incentives of any kind.
If trade between Saudi Arabia and Israel is permitted, businesspeople will meet and strike deals. Employment, familiarity with products and people, and business go hand in hand.
As positive memories of Jewish-Muslim interactions emerge from a long shared history, the portrayal of Jews in Saudi society will gradually diversify. We ought to exercise the deliberate patience necessary to allow this process to proceed at a Middle Eastern pace.
Along with an already powerful bureaucracy that is supposed to be overseeing Israel-Arab normalization, the Biden administration wants to add another permanent position at the State Department. Congress should find out how this new special envoy intends to let the private sector take the lead before approving it.