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US, Israel, Saudi Arabia

“This is not a breakthrough, but another stage in the tightening relationship between the two countries,” said Michal Yaari, an expert on the Arab Gulf states.

By Israel Kasnett, JNS.org

U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to the Middle East in July, when he is expected to visit Saudi Arabia and Israel with a stop likely in Bethlehem, where he will meet with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, is sure to be full of expectations.

The trip will likely be fully prepared and scripted beforehand with agreements and understandings in place before Air Force One touches down in Riyadh.

The question is what are the expectations from the United States concerning Israel and what change will the Israel-Saudi relationship undergo if at all?

Michal Yaari, an expert on the Arab Gulf states at Ben Gurion-University of the Negev and the Open University in the United Kingdom, told JNS that while there have been increasing reports of a close rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, “this is not a breakthrough, but another stage in the tightening relationship between the two countries.”

“Similar to the Jordanian and Egyptian cases, the decision to cooperate between Israel and Saudi Arabia rests first and foremost on security-strategic footing,” she said.

“Israel and Saudi Arabia share a common concern about the intensification of the Iranian threat [conventional and unconventional] and the spread of Iranian influence in the regional space,” Yaari stated. “Now that the nuclear agreement with Iran is receding and the ability to oversee the development of nuclear weapons is diminishing, the importance of cooperation is growing and emphasized.”

Yaari added that alongside the Iranian threat, “there are other threats that concern the two countries, such as the strengthening of jihadist terrorist organizations, the instability of the Jordanian regime and more.”

Yaari said that Jerusalem and Riyadh are “well-aware that the tightening of relations will allow for a better and more effective ability to cope with the changing reality, hence the growing importance of the emerging alliance between the two countries.”

She added that beyond the security aspect, “the economic aspect is also a significant factor in changing the status of the relationship.”

According to Yaari, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon (MBS) is “marching his country towards a new era in which the Saudi economy will be less dependent on oil profits. To this end, he is leading dramatic labor-market reforms aimed at diversifying sources of income, integrating young people into the private sector and introducing advanced science and technology.”

Yaari noted that Israeli expertise can greatly benefit Saudi Arabia and MBS knows it.

“In this sense,” she said, “Israel is a role model due to its branding as a high-tech nation, where creativity and unconventional thinking are of great importance.”

Biden is ‘looking to climb down from that tree’

What makes Biden’s trip unique is that it comes after a period of strained ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the president’s visit is meant as a way to smooth things over with the Saudis as he seeks reprieve for his domestic problems, specifically, rising fuel prices.

During his election campaign for the White House, Biden pledged to treat Saudis as a “pariah” for the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of MBS. U.S. intelligence officials concluded that the crown prince likely approved Khashoggi’s murder.

Laying the groundwork for better relations, the White House recently praised Saudi Arabia for its role in securing an OPEC+ pledge to produce more barrels of oil per day. Biden also lauded the Saudis for demonstrating “courageous leadership” by agreeing to a 60-day ceasefire extension in its war with Yemen.

Joshua Teitelbaum of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan told JNS Biden’s visit is intended to improve relations between America and Saudi Arabia.

Teitelbaum added that Biden is “looking to climb down from that tree of boycotting Saudi Arabia” after having called it a “pariah.”

The “political cover” for the trip, he said, could be provided by “an Israeli-Saudi advancement of relations that he could preside over.”

‘Bring peace, if I can’

Earlier this month, in an effort to quell questions over his rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, Biden said he is still a human-rights activist, but he is also for peace.

“Look, I’m not going to change my view on human rights,” he told reporters on June 3, when asked about the tentative trip to Saudi Arabia. “But as president of the United States, my job is to bring peace if I can. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.”

As part of the talks surrounding the trip, two Red Sea islands—Tiran and Sanafir—will officially be returned to Saudi Arabia from Egyptian control. Egypt previously signed an agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2016 for the transfer of the islands to Riyadh’s control.

The islands are in a sensitive location as they control the Straits of Tiran, the main sea route to the Eilat Port and Jordan’s Aqaba Port. Israel agreed to the deal in principle in 2017 on the condition that Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed to the continued activity of peacekeepers on the islands.

Now, Israel has agreed to new security arrangements that will allow Egypt to transfer control of two strategic islands to Saudi Arabia. In return, Saudi Arabia will allow Israeli airlines to fly through its airspace, significantly reducing flight times to countries in the east.

According to Teitelbaum, these agreements are all part of the “little steps that could be done and that will give Biden and the Saudis a cover.”

“Above all,” said Yaari, “the breakthrough was made possible because of MBS’s appreciation of Israel and his disappointment with the Palestinian leadership.”

“Unlike other leaders in the region, the Saudis do not see Israel as an enemy, but as an important and significant ally,” she added. “Even if a normalization agreement is not signed in the coming months, there is no doubt that the rapprochement between the two countries will deepen.”