How to understand Israel and Saudi Arabia’s secretive relationship

Flags of Saudi Arabia and Israel stand together in a kitchen staging area as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken holds meetings at the State Department in Washington, U.S., October 14, 2021. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/Pool

Saudi Arabia has taken a complex approach to the recognition of Israel by several Arab countries in the Abraham Accords. It has a long history of clandestine cooperation with Israel against mutual enemies. Recently, it has said public recognition of Israel will come only if there is movement to resolve the Palestinian conflict and create a two-state solution. But the kingdom has tolerated and even abetted the development of diplomatic and military ties between some of its closest allies and Israel.

Israel values its covert contacts with the Saudis but craves public recognition as the path to ending its isolation in the Islamic world. Yet it overestimates Riyadh’s clout. Several Muslim countries would not follow the Saudis’ lead on normalization of relations with Israel: Algeria (the largest Arab and African country), Iraq (which just recently criminalized any contact with Israel), and Pakistan (the only Muslim state with nuclear weapons). But the Israelis still chase the Saudis.

Clandestine cooperation between the Saudis and Israelis dates to the early 1960s, when both supported the Royalists in Yemen against the Egyptian and Soviet-backed Republican government in Sana’a. Their intelligence services coordinated the delivery of weapons and expertise to the Royalists, who were based in Saudi Arabia. The chiefs of the Mossad and Saudi intelligence met at the Dorchester Hotel in London on one occasion. The 1993 Oslo agreement facilitated more behind-the-scenes contacts.

Iran and its allies like Hezbollah and the Houthis now form the common foe. Saudi Arabia’s Gulf allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognized Israel in 2020, largely to get the Saudis’ support against Iran. The Saudis have allowed direct flights from Tel Aviv to Manama, Abu Dhabi and Dubai crossing over their territory.

Bahrain is a particularly important country for Saudi Arabia. The two countries are connected by the 15-mile-long King Fahd causeway, Bahrain’s only access to the mainland. In 2011, Saudi troops crossed the causeway to help the Sunni ruling family crush protests by the majority Shia community on the island. The Bahraini government routinely accuses Iran of supporting Shia unrest. Bahraini Shia oppose the recognition of Israel. The Saudis’ own minority Shia community are located in the Eastern Province across the causeway from Bahrain.

If the Saudis did not want Bahrain to recognize Israel and exchange ambassadors, they could have easily done so. Manama will not cross Riyadh. So the Saudis have supported the Bahraini decision to make peace with Israel.

Saudi Arabia has a large Palestinian expatriate worker population. It also is the home of Mecca and Medina, the holy cities of Islam. The Wahhabi clerical establishment is a strong proponent of Palestinian rights and the demand for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. So there are significant constraints on King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman against following Bahrain’s lead.

U.S. President Joe Biden understands the limitations facing his Saudi hosts later this month. No major breakthrough is likely during his visit to Jeddah. He will meet with nine Arab leaders: the six Gulf monarchs plus Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. The Saudis are going to take more control of Tiran Island in the Gulf of Aqaba from Egypt, according to some accounts. It is home to an American military outpost that monitors the 1978 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Uninhabited Tiran is a popular snorkeling and scuba diving destination.

The Saudis have not defined what progress on the Palestinian issue means in concrete terms. This gives them some room to maneuver. Unfortunately, there is no sign that Washington is going to make the Palestinian issue a priority, so the Saudis will have nothing to point to in order to justify going further toward recognition.