On March 10, the Chinese government brokered a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume full diplomatic relations. The two countries agreed to reopen their borders for visits, and will cooperate to reboot security arrangements. The Saudis agreed to allow in more Iranians to celebrate the Hajj, and both countries agreed to reopen their respective embassies.
In addition to providing a perceived diplomatic coup for China, what are the implications and impact for the region? And most importantly – how will this deal this affect Israel?
Will Saudi Arabia continue to look at Tehran suspiciously, both as a regional threat, and a burgeoning nuclear power? Or, has Israel lost a sympathetic ear inside the Saudi kingdom?
The Backstory to the Deal
Often, diplomatic gestures that seem absurd on the surface have good justification beneath the surface. And this is one example, according to Rafael Castro, a Middle East political analyst. In a recent Honest Reporting podcast he noted, “Saudi Arabia wants to secure China as an ally, to restrain Iran, realizing that the United States possibly won’t intervene to stop a nuclear program.” This was a subtle jab at U.S. president Joe Biden, who many feel has been careless on the Iran file.
This chess move from the Saudis comes in preparation of a foreseeable peace deal with Israel.
There have already been small steps of reconciliation. Last summer, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to Israel, meaning less fly-time to and from certain destinations. Moreover, an Israeli delegation participated at a Riyadh-hosted video-gaming tournament in July. Furthermore, in early 2024, the Saudis will be reopening the city of Khaybar (also called Hibura) for tourists. This is where the area’s last remaining Jewish settlement was, before the Islamic prophet Mohammed’s armies invaded and razed the Jewish communities, nearly 1,400 years ago. Currently, there is an estimated 3,000-strong Jewish community in the kingdom.
A July 9 Reuters report by Steve Holland and Doina Chiacu noted that president Biden is working with the Saudis on better relations with Israel. “So, we’re making progress in the region. And it depends upon the conduct, and what is asked of us for them to recognize Israel,” Biden said in an interview. “Quite frankly, I don’t think they [the Saudis] have much of a problem with Israel.”
In a June 13 Le Monde article called “Normalization with Israel: Saudi Arabia shows signs of openness,” the author wrote: “Normalization … was at the heart of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Riyadh from June 6 to 8.”
“It’s quite clear that we believe that normalization [with Israel] is in the interest of the region, that it would bring significant benefits to all,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan. The creation of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders would no longer be a prerequisite for Saudi normalization with Israel, the report added.
One Israeli representative said lately that it is inevitable that the Saudis and the Jewish State will have rapprochement.
“Ultimately, we want to reach a state of full relations – meaning cooperation on economic matters, intelligence, tourism, flights, et cetera – and I reckon this will happen sooner or later,” Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told Israel’s Army Radio in June.
However, when peace is sealed between the two nations, Saudi Arabia knows it will become Iran’s new target – as the kingdom becomes a friend to Iran’s enemy, Israel. Thus, the new Saudi-Iran memorandum serves as a pre-emptive insurance policy against Iran targeting Saudi Arabia, Castro said in an article for the Besa Center in April 2023 called “How Saudi-Iranian Reconciliation Aids Israel”:
“[…an Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia would] demonstrate to the international community that it is [not only] a treacherous enemy, but that it is a treacherous ally – indeed, that no nation, friend or foe, is shielded from its wanton aggression.”
A Sign of the Times
A Saudi diplomat, who wished to be quoted anonymously, asserted that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has liberalized in the past few years, and will continue to liberalize. This, he says, is driven mostly by the young royals who reject fundamentalism, and who see the benefits of modernization. Many well-known American franchises have opened in Saudi Arabia, which is a sign of Saudi’s Westernization. Today authorities are cracking down on extremism, women are permitted to drive, and locals are taking an interest in American culture and style. The kingdom in the past few years has begun to open itself up for global tourism.
If all goes well, Saudi Arabia, with its new openness to reach a deal with Israel, could be a signatory in 2024 to the Abraham Accords, joining Morocco, UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan.