Much excitement has been expressed about the possibility of Saudi Arabia becoming a part of the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia, that vast expanse of 830,000 square miles, of mostly arid desert, is the custodian of the two holiest Islamic sites, Mecca and Medina, where every Muslim must bow when he prays.
Saudi Arabia is also the world’s largest oil producer, generating nearly 15% of world oil output. It is not surprising that Saudi Arabia has a dominant voice in the decisions of OPEC. Understandably, the Saudis have a dominant voice in any important geostrategic decision that any Gulf nation would take, albeit under the table. Therefore, it is inconceivable that the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, or Sudan would agree to join the Abraham Accords without the quiet consent of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman.
Prince bin Salman has instituted a series of reforms, known as Vision 2030. Many of these actions are made with a deep awareness of the global trends straying from relying solely on fossil fuels for the world’s energy supply and being able to prepare and diversify their economy. And some have to do with a gradual loosening of some of the strictly religious, Wahhabi control on society.
Since my book, Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Terrorist Network, (Palgrave MacMillan) came out in 2011, Saudi Arabia has made some notable strides. One shining example is that the religious police no longer have the power to patrol the streets and arrest women not dressed in the abaya, and allow people to attend (certain) movies that evade their strict censorship.
There is some softening within their textbooks. For example, the Saudis have expunged their exaltation of martyrdom as being the highest value of Islam. They have also somewhat modified some of their attitudes towards Jews, even exorcising many passages to “fight Jews”. Also excised from a 10th-grade textbook is the well-known quote from Mohammad, “The (Day of Judgement) will not come until Muslims fight the Jews and the Muslims will kill them all”. However, other antisemitic passages remain, citing a Koranic passage about Allah changing the Jews back to “real monkeys.” Old attitudes die hard, and their position in their schoolbooks towards Israel and Zionism remains wholly unchanged.
Much has been made of the decision to allow women the right to drive within the Kingdom. Women now also have the right to travel to Mecca, (only in groups), to own a passport, to travel abroad independently, and to live without a male guardian. Although modest dress codes are strictly enforced, women are no longer required to wear the abaya in public. However, Saudi Arabia still remains extremely conservative and patriarchal, and the right to marry and divorce is strictly enforced by male-governed Shariya law. Despite some gradual loosening of restrictions, the gender gap remains vast.
The human rights situation is generally deplorable. The kafala system remains in place, giving Saudis the authority to abuse their foreign workers. Women and human rights defenders who have been demanding more rights have been lavishing in prison for years without habeas corpus.
The Kingdom is deeply threatened by Iran’s vast power in the region, and the Shiite nation’s rapid advances toward a nuclear bomb. It has become a frequent target of Iranian drone attacks. In 2019, the ARAMCO oil fields were attacked, cutting oil production in half. As recently as November 1, 2022, Saudi intelligence notified the White House of an imminent Iranian attack, putting the U.S. military on alert.
As a result of the Khashoggi affair, President Biden and many congressional Democrats had called for a cooling down of relations with Saudi Arabia going so far as reviewing arms sales. However, the need for a steady supply of fuel, particularly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, led Washington to approve $650 million worth of missiles and an air defense system to the Kingdom against Iranian drone missile attacks.
When confronted with a looming Iranian bomb, this is far from sufficient. Like other Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia looks towards Israel, with its vast military and intelligence capabilities, as a lifeline against Iran. We know that the Israelis and the Saudis have been holding quiet discussions regarding Iran for years.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had his first official meeting on January 19th with President Biden’s White House, meeting with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, he stressed the possibility of Saudi Arabia signing the Abraham Accords. A statement sent out by the Prime Minister’s office regarding the meeting stated, “The next steps to deepen the Abraham Accords and expand the circle of peace, with an emphasis on a breakthrough with Saudi Arabia.”
With an embarrassing failure of reigning in Iran using the diplomatic option, a humiliating withdrawal from Kabul, and the war raging on with no apparent end in Ukraine, the Biden White House has absolutely no foreign policy victories to boast of. A Saudi-Israeli lawn signing ceremony would be handing President Biden a priceless gift.
Yet, the Saudis have predicated their joining the Abraham Accords with several demands, the foremost being a Palestinian state. When interviewed in Davos, on January 19th, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan stated “We have said consistently that we believe normalization with Israel is something that is very much in the interest of the region. However, true normalization and true stability will only come through giving the Palestinians hope, through giving the Palestinians dignity. And that requires giving the Palestinians a state.”
Palestinian statehood might, indeed, be important to Price Salman. However, it is clear that Mohammad bin Salman reads the neighborhood quite well. He knows how destabilizing a Palestinian state would be to his ally, Jordan, which would have a ripple effect across the region. He knows how the Palestinian factions are pitted against one another in a lethal rivalry, and that the Palestinian Authority garners just a fraction of support, according to a recent Palestinian poll, 79 percent said they would take up arms against them in favor of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad or the newly formed Lions’ Den factions. And he knows there is really no leader to talk to, right now, who actually speaks for all of the Palestinians.
He is also shrewd and has a long memory. The Prince cannot forget the stinging words President Biden had spoken while campaigning for the White House “I would make it very clear we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them We were going to in fact make them pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.” Biden also said there is “very little social redeeming value in the present government in Saudi Arabia,” and, in reference to Yemen, said he would end “end the sale of material to the Saudis where they’re going in and murdering children.”
He also remembers the almost two years of obsequious negotiations the Biden team had conducted with the Saudi arch-rival, Iran. Perhaps the Kingdom cares passionately about the Palestinian cause. I would suspect that there is more to it than that, however. I suspect MBS does not want to hand a foreign policy victory to President Biden, along with triumphant photo ops on the White House lawn.
Yes, there will probably be a peace accord between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but I suspect it might have to wait until President Biden is out of office. The question remains will the Iranians have their nuclear bomb developed before that?
Sarah Stern is Founder and President of EMET, a pro-American and pro-Israeli think tank and policy shop in Washington, D.C.
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