The Platform

Aidas U.; מינוזיג - MinoZig; Photo illustration by John Lyman

Saudi Arabia’s decision to normalize ties with Israel has been derailed for now.

On October 7, Hamas launched a devasting attack against Israel, killing over 1,400 civilians and soldiers, that caught the Israeli government by surprise. Hamas, widely designated as a terrorist organization, has a long history of anti-Israeli attacks. Such hostilities, spurred by contentious Israeli settlements and alleged mistreatment of Palestinians in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, have been frequent since the group’s inception in 1987.

Yet, the abruptness of this latest assault seems at least partly provoked by an accelerated push for Israeli normalization efforts, highlighted by Saudi Arabia’s sudden diplomatic overtures toward Israel in recent months. This distinct move toward the Israeli alliance likely unnerved Hamas, prompting the militant group to act aggressively in an attempt to disrupt the ongoing negotiations. So, what led Saudi Arabia to commence these talks just now?

Saudi Arabia, the self-proclaimed ‘custodian’ of the Sunni Muslim world, has maintained a cautious distance from the normalization process, even as it encouraged and supported neighboring Gulf states to engage. When the United Arab Emirates set the precedent as the first Arab nation in the 21st century to formally normalize relations with Israel in 2020, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco quickly followed suit. Intriguingly, Saudi Arabia chose not to partake, despite its influential role among Arab states. This reticence may be traced back to the kingdom’s own shifting political climate and strategic considerations, which seem to have recently aligned more favorably.

As the principal representative of Sunni Islam in the region, Saudi Arabia has been embroiled in a relentless struggle to preserve its dominance while countering Iran, its Shia adversary. However, Saudi Arabia’s geopolitical standing has become increasingly precarious. The protracted conflict with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen shows little signs of resolution, while the Syrian civil war has largely concluded with a victory for the Iran-Russia alliance. Moreover, Iran’s regional influence has expanded into Lebanon through Hezbollah, which wields considerable political clout.

Israel, although a smaller and traditionally detached player in Arab politics, offers Saudi Arabia an alternative pathway for shifting regional alliances away from Iran. Israel’s status as a nuclear-armed nation with a formidable military capacity affords potential allies both security advantages and expanded trade opportunities. Financial and cultural cooperation between Israel and the UAE, for instance, has bolstered trade estimates to an impressive $4 billion annually. Such optimism has been echoed by other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries like Bahrain, which views Israeli normalization as a pathway to reduce its dependency on the UAE. For Saudi Arabia, the region’s largest economy, the financial gains from normalization may not be transformative, but the strategic benefit of military collaboration could be invaluable.

This circumspect approach is reinforced by two critical factors that have enabled Saudi Arabia to openly pursue normalization with Israel in 2023. First, a lessening of hostilities and intensive diplomatic negotiations with Iran culminated in an agreement in March. Although far from erasing decades of enmity, this accord provided Riyadh with some assurance that its diplomatic gestures toward Israel would not incite extreme Iranian aggression. Second, U.S. involvement in the negotiations has lent added credibility and urgency, permitting Saudi Arabia to propose conditions less likely to be dismissed by Israel if the talks had been bilateral.

In the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, analysts speculated that Joe Biden’s administration would influence Middle East policies, particularly concerning Arab-Israeli normalization. The prevailing assessment was that Biden would likely favor normalization as a step toward amicable Arab-Israeli relations. This U.S. involvement has allowed Saudi Arabia to push for conditions like a security agreement with the United States and American support for its civilian nuclear initiatives, providing Saudi Arabia with potential military backing that could prove crucial in regional confrontations.

Amid these shifting sands, Saudi Arabia’s principal condition for normalization has been that Israel must make concessions toward the Palestinians, including territorial returns to the Palestinian Authority. As tensions between Israel and Hamas escalate, Riyadh finds itself in a precarious situation. Hamas’ recent offensive has temporarily stalled Saudi-Israeli negotiations—a development Hamas had likely hoped for—but has also complicated any forthcoming pro-Palestinian advocacy by Saudi Arabia, rendering the situation even more unstable for the future of the Palestinian cause.

In this intricate landscape, Saudi Arabia’s decision to court Israel is a multi-dimensional gambit, influenced by internal politics, regional rivalries, and international dynamics. Only time will reveal the full ramifications of this intricate and high-stakes diplomatic maneuver.

Kemi Alawode holds a Master's degree in Security Studies from University College London (UCL) and a Bachelor's degree in International Relations from King's College London (KCL). As an independent analyst, she has written publications on Middle Eastern geopolitics, global conflict, and terrorism.