On the surface, Israel might not appear to be the crux of U.S.-Saudi relations ahead of a visit by President Joe Biden to both the kingdom and the Jewish state on a Middle East trip next month. Energy issues amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and the persistent problem of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia—a country candidate Biden called a “pariah”—dominate the discourse around ties between Washington and Riyadh. But President Biden told reporters over the weekend that there “happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia.”  

“That’s the reason I’m going,” Biden said Sunday. “And it has to do with national security for them—for Israelis. I have a program, […] it has to do with much larger issues than having to do with the energy piece.”

Recent developments on the Saudi-Israeli front put the president’s statement in context. Of course, there have been no dramatic openings with photo-ops on the White House lawn, but the latest steps are still important. 

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported expanding business contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel is also set to formally approve the transfer of two Red Sea islands from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty. (Jerusalem’s assent was needed under the terms of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.) The move would see international forces stationed on the islands since Israel withdrew forty years ago relocate for the first time to the Egyptian mainland. In exchange, Israeli commercial planes could receive long-coveted overflight rights in Saudi airspace currently only available on routes between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

As ever, Iran is central to Saudi thinking on Israel, but the prospect of expanded business and travel ties evokes the quiet steps that preceded Israeli normalization with the UAE. Although the rumblings about broader Saudi-Israeli relations coincide with a tense period in Israeli-Palestinian relations, the UAE and Bahrain weathered far more extreme fighting in Jerusalem and Gaza last year and emerged with their relationships to Israel intact.

Saudi Arabia is Israel’s ace-in-the-hole when it comes to normalization with other Arab and Muslim countries. Ties with Riyadh could create opportunities for Israel elsewhere, something successive American administrations have recognized as well. Shortly after taking office, President Obama made an abortive attempt to get Saudi Arabia and other Arab governments to play ball with Israel. When the Abraham Accords were first unveiled in 2020, President Donald Trump declared that ten countries were waiting in the wings to normalize relations with Israel. Nearly two years later, that statement has yet to materialize. 

Trump’s prediction carried some of the ex-president’s penchant for bombast and stretching the truth. As for Biden, there is still uncertainty about how he  would steward Israel-Arab state normalization compared with his predecessors. The Saudis did not move forward with public steps after a meeting between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in December 2020. By then, Biden, who was vocally critical of the Saudis on the campaign trail, had already been elected president and the Trump administration was in its lame duck period. When National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan raised the issue of Saudi-Israeli normalization with MBS last October, the crown prince neither rejected nor outright accepted the proposal.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, September 2019

There is an incentive for Riyadh to both play for time and to forge ahead more publicly with the Israelis. Upon taking office, President Biden and his team did not appear keen to lavish gifts on new normalizers like the provision of F-35 fighter jets and Reaper drones for the UAE negotiated under Trump, seeing these as inappropriate rewards for undeserving governments. The Saudis and other potential future normalizers may be slow-rolling their engagement with Israel, postponing full ties until another president is willing to compensate them more generously or Biden changes his tune. This also gives the Saudis time to address internal opposition to normalization. Speaking to Israel’s Channel 12 two years ago, an anonymous Saudi source claimed that normalization would have to wait as long as King Salman remained on the throne. Whether officials in Riyadh actually wait out the rest of the monarch’s reign remains to be seen, but there is clearly a generational divide between MBS and his father around Palestine solidarity and relations with Israel.

On the flipside, while Iran is in the foreground for Riyadh and Jerusalem, part of the Saudi calculus on Israel always involved making inroads in Washington. This was the case four decades ago when then-Crown Prince Fahd put out a loose plan for Arab ties with Israel while seeking American arms sales, and it was a factor at play in 2002 when Saudi Arabia launched the Arab Peace Initiative amid speculation about the kingdom’s role in the September 11 attacks. Since Saudi Arabia’s destructive war in Yemen and assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi poisoned the kingdom’s standing on Capitol Hill and the American public, Riyadh has been eager to blunt American criticism. Biden, for his part, may be looking for a way out of his harsh rhetoric, and normalization could allow him to elide thornier issues. However, Israel, usually popular in Washington, is itself under scrutiny, with a bipartisan call from Senators Mitt Romney and Jon Ossoff to investigate the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin last month. 

President Joe Biden talks on the phone with King Salman of Saudi Arabia Wednesday, February 9, 2022, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Biden’s openness to the Saudis when he visits the Middle East could help dictate the pace of Riyadh’s interaction with Israel. Talk of a “larger meeting” in the kingdom of the sort the president mentioned on Sunday means something significant could be in the works.