In an article titled "Saudi Arabia and Israel – Normalization or No Normalization?," published July 20, 2023 on the Saudi website Elpah, Emirati political analyst Salem Al-Ketbi reviewed Saudi Arabia's considerations in advancing towards normalization with Israel, as he perceives them. Saudi Arabia, he wrote, which sees itself as a regional superpower, is interested in relations with Israel, since it realizes that such relations can benefit it and serve its interests. However, it is proceeding very cautiously in order to avoid any harm to its special religious standing in the Islamic world, and in order to keep countries and organizations that exploit the Palestinian cause from using the issue of normalization as fuel for incitement against Saudi Arabia.
Salem Al-Ketbi (Image: Twitter.com/drsalemalketbi)
The following are translated excerpts from Al-Ketbi's article:
"Discussing the issue of official diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, namely normalization, requires a deep understanding of Saudi Arabia's position and its overall strategic considerations in this context, which is very sensitive as far as it is concerned. Saudi Arabia's approach to Israel is not the same as that of its fellow Arab and Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia has special religious standing and prestige, since [Mecca and Medina, which are] the spiritual and religious center for some two billion Muslims [worldwide], are in its territory. It is vital to consider all the implications and consequences [of this special standing], especially since there are some who will use any issue to harm Saudi Arabia, and one of the sensitive issues [that can be used this way] is that of the relations with Israel and everything they entail: all the sentiments, the historical sediments, and the political exploitation of the issue by various elements, both countries and organizations, that use it to realize their interests and goals.
SUPPORT OUR WORK
"The current Saudi leadership has a different strategic approach to the present and the future, and has an ambitious plan to catapult Saudi Arabia forward and give it the position it deserves on the world map in the 21st century. Therefore, [this leadership] does not readily limit the debate on any idea or proposal. This explains the significant shift that has occurred in the Saudi attitude towards Israel in the recent period. Suffice it to mention that Israeli planes have been given permission to fly through Saudi airspace… If we also consider the historic and famous statement made by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in 2022 – that Suadi Arabia does not regard Israel as an enemy – we realize the magnitude of the change in Saudi Arabia's general strategic approach and position.
Saudi-Israeli normalization is a crucial factor in the considerations of the administration of [U.S.] President [Joe] Biden and in his bid to realign the elements in the Middle East. But Saudi Arabia has a different approach, based on its own interests as an active regional power. Accordingly, its outlook on normalization depends on [its ability] to ensure the realization of its geostrategic approach, which does not regard Saudi Arabia as part of any coalition or axis, and does not limit its options in forming partnerships with all the international powers active in the global arena – [an arena] that is in a process of [re]forming itself, based on the balance in the Ukraine war. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia's most pressing strategic need in the near future is to cement its security and stability and guarantee a regional environment conducive to promoting the goals of [its] Vision 2030 [plan]. The upshot of all this is that the ball is currently in the court of Washington, which apparently has not yet realized the magnitude of the change that has occurred in the rules of play vis-à-vis its Saudi ally… and that a new approach is needed in light of this change.
"Saudi diplomacy evidently continues to take safe and calculated measures on all issues. Two years ago, or perhaps a bit more, even the greatest of optimists would not have predicted that a positive and important breakthrough like the one that occurred in Saudi Arabia's relations with Iran could occur. This is a significant breakthrough, as you know, given the considerable damage that Saudi Arabia has suffered in the recent years because of Iran's actions and positions in the region, especially in the context of [Iran's] intervention in Yemen and everything it entailed, [namely] a direct threat to the national security of the Saudi kingdom.
"From this we can infer Saudi Arabia's significant realism in handling all other issue, including normalization with Israel. Saudi Arabia has terms that it has openly declared, and it probably [also] has other terms that have not been [publicly] stated, perhaps connected to its strategic interests and its relations with the U.S., which has undertaken to directly mediate between its two allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel…
"There is no disagreement between the experts that normalization with Israel is likely to cause Saudi Arabia some headaches in the region. Treating the causes of these headaches will not be as easy as some people think, because [the causes] are likely to be neither justified nor reasonable, but rather part of exploiting the Palestinian issue and the suffering of our brothers, the Palestinian people. The growing tension in the occupied Palestinian territories makes it [even] harder for any Arab or Islamic country – let alone Saudi Arabia, a leading country in the Islamic world – to openly normalize relations with Israel. Furthermore, extremist organizations and terror organizations feed on issues of this sort and use them to play on the emotions of simple Muslims throughout the Islamic world.
'As an observer, I feel that Saudi Arabia will continue to handle the various regional issues by taking calculated steps, with all the necessary and reasonable caution. Nobody denies the existence of various elements that lie in wait for the Saudi kingdom, at least as part of the traditional and well-known competition for the leadership of the Arab and Islamic world. Hence, issues like normalization with Israel will obviously advance slowly and gradually, even if Saudi Arabia makes serious strategic achievements that will incentivize it and convince it that it must accelerate its steps in this context, especially in light of the strategic and important regional and global results these steps can yield.