By Ari Heistein
Saudi Arabia has already shown a profound interest in making US President Donald Trump happy, and Trump has shown a deep affinity for Israel.
“Why should the Saudis buy the cows if they get the milk for free?” is what many experts concluded after examining the prospects for Riyadh establishing formal relations with Jerusalem in exchange for military assistance. Noting the numerous domestic and external challenges that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is already facing, others wondered why would he add another destabilizing factor into the mix by recognizing Israel.
While these arguments have some merit, they do not necessarily translate into a correct conclusion.
Conventional wisdom holds that because what is bad for Iran is good for Israel in this zero-sum game, Israel is providing the Saudis with all the support that they request in their battle against Tehran. Therefore, Riyadh has little to gain and much to lose from going public as a friend of Israel.
But this logic ignores several possibilities. First, Saudi Arabia has already shown a profound interest in making US President Donald Trump happy, and Trump has shown a deep affinity for Israel – even if Israel cannot offer Saudi Arabia much more than it is currently providing, it is possible that Saudi interests elsewhere could be advanced by establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
Second, if Israel does consider formal ties with Saudi Arabia a significant priority then perhaps it is withholding some aid, to be released on the condition it is granted formal recognition. Third, the Saudis may be limited in the scope and visibility of the aid they can accept without formally recognizing Israel.
Finally, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now fairly low on the agenda of a Middle East in turmoil, the cost of recognizing Israel may not be very high despite possible Iranian or Qatari efforts to capitalize on the issue for their propaganda war against Riyadh.
It is also worth noting that MBS’s perception of his interests may not be in line with how experts see them. He has already taken on a military campaign in Yemen, blockaded Qatar, forced the resignation of the prime minister of Lebanon – and none of these appear to have turned out well. The question is whether these were a string of mistakes due to inexperience or if there is some method to the madness.
Considering that he does not seem eager to reverse any of those decisions and climb down the escalation ladder, it is far from certain whether MBS himself sees his aggressive policies as missteps, despite the large volume of political commentary deriding them. Mistakes or not, it is possible or even likely that in the future he will employ policies that are counterintuitive to the community of foreign policy experts.
And there are signs that change may be afoot in the Israeli-Saudi relationship.
First, the Kingdom of Bahrain, which takes its foreign policy cues from Saudi Arabia, recently sent a delegation to Israel to promote religious tolerance. It seems possible that sending this group of Bahraini nationals was a litmus test regarding the potential backlash in the Arab for increasing the visibility of ties with Israel (in the week after Trump’s declaration recognizing Jerusalem, no less).
Second, the construction of the Saudi “smart city” nicknamed “Neom” may broaden both the convergence of Saudi and Israeli economic interests as well as the venue for cooperation to achieve them. It is reported that Israeli firms are in talks with the royal court about investing and developing MBS’s latest project, which seeks to diversify the Saudi economy and turn the desert kingdom into a trade hub.
But with these minor steps forward, there are also clear instances in which Riyadh resists changing its long-standing policies that make relations with Israel contingent on a peace agreement with the Palestinians. For example, the kingdom recently blocked Israel’s participation in the World Chess Championships in Riyadh.
All that being said, it is certainly possible that an unpredictable actor like MBS could decide to circumvent the Palestinian issue and build open relations with Israel either gradually or in a single bold move. True, it may mean taking on another challenge at a time when the crown prince already has his hands full, but similar arguments do not appear to have influenced his decision-making calculus in the past.
The author is the special assistant to the director of the Institute for National Security Studies.