In 2021 Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman al-Saud made a generous offer to US National Security Advisory Jake Sullivan. MBS offered to normalize relations with Israel in return for a list of demands for so-called “incentives” (i.e. security guarantees and weapons sales). The Americans not only inexplicably turned down the generous offer but apparently rudely refused to negotiate the proposal and even severely embarrassed MBS by leaking the story to the media. Even I, who am specialized at understanding how governments reason and calculate, find myself perplexed at the American behavior and I am sure the Saudis are so as well.
Let’s break this down.
What are the intentions of the Biden administration in the Middle East? It is no secret that Biden’s Iran envoy Rob Malley wants not only to reconcile America and Iran but even wants to align America with Iran. The fact that this is wholly unrealistic does not strictly matter in regional politics because it nevertheless strikes existential fears in regional capitals, including in Riyadh. It is also no secret that Barack Obama shared Rob Malley’s ambitions vis-a-vis Iran but Joe Biden is no Obama and there are so far no indications that Biden shares Obama’s pro-Islamist inclinations. MBS however apparently interpreted the Americans inexplicably turning down his offer for normalization as revealing that Biden shared Obama’s and Malley’s ambition for realignment with Iran.
The Biden administration long resisted a new Israel-led regional security architecture as planned by the Trump administration. The idea was to disengage from the region to some degree and let Israel defend America’s interests in Islamdom while America would defend Israel’s interests outside Islamdom. Then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened the semi-hostile Obama administration that Israel might realign with China. This caused the Biden administration to be skeptical at devolving powers to Israel in Islamdom. Eventually diplomacy succeeded to convince the Americans that Israel is firmly in the pro-American camp and that Israel is merely keeping its options open with regard to Beijing and Moscow should a hostile American administration against all wisdom and contrary to the American national interest choose to abandon Israel.
Of course, the likelihood of American-Iranian reconciliation while the current regime is in power is astronomically low, yet for Arab governments even the suspicion that their American ally is planning to sell them out is unnerving as that would mean that the Biden administration is not trustworthy and is devoid of honor. This explains why MBZ and MBS refused to take the call of President Biden after the American president ended his year-long telephone embargo against the Saudi crown prince. Of course, the Saudi threat to realign with China is a bluff – MBS is waiting for his buddies (Trump and Kushner) to return to the White House in January 2025 – but we also need to understand this problem from the perspective of the Biden administration.
US intelligence had made a pseudo-psychiatric diagnosis of MBS as an ostensible psychopath. Such “diagnoses” on a distance are however inherently unreliable and problematic. MBS has also been accused of beating his wife. Evidence suggests to the contrary that MBS is a committed feminist and a liberal who is an extremely talented and shrewd navigator in domestic politics. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the ultra-traditional nature of Saudi society and its thoroughly Islamist sympathies must understand that liberalizing the country and enfranchising its women can only be done with an iron fist or else the KSA would end up like the Shah’s Iran. Biden hoped to persuade King Salman to replace MBS with another prince as crown prince. This bet proved severely mistaken as MBS is more powerful than ever and now there is a vendetta and an abyss of mistrust between Biden and MBS.
First Saudi and American diplomats must understand that this mistrust is mutual. Second, there is also the issue that both leaders have proven quite inept in foreign policy as they are both specialized in domestic politics. Third, the Biden administration does not trust MBS and is uncertain of his value as an ally now that America does not import much oil. Fourth, MBS has repeated Netanyahu’s mistake of threatening to align with China. Fifth, there is a misperception in Washington that MBS is somehow akin to Saddam Hussein, i.e. a ruthless and capricious Arab ally with a problematic personality who could easily turn into an adversary. Sixth, MBS made a mistake in not taking Biden’s phone call as this was an opportunity for reconciliation and confidence building with the American president.
It is essential to understand that Saudi normalization with Israel will take place in the context of the Saudi-Israeli-American triangular relationship and is certainly not merely a bilateral Saudi-Israeli matter. Saudi normalization with Israel is a vital American national interest and it is perfectly reasonable to expect the US government to invest in the Saudi-Israeli relationship by exporting advanced weaponry and providing security guarantees to Saudi Arabia. The new Israel-led security architecture in the region cannot be built without America’s active participation and the same is true for normalization between Israel and Muslim nations.
It is however also important to understand MBS’ perspective as MBS is someone who is somewhat desperate and is running out of options. From MBS’ perspective, alignment with Israel is of limited value without the American blessing. However, it is important to be cognizant that the new regional security architecture is just as much about protecting American interests as it is about promoting the interests of Israel and its Arab allies. MBS is keenly aware of how easily President Obama abandoned President Mubarak and MBS can therefore no doubt quite easily imagine the vociferously Anti-Saudi Biden abandoning the entire Saudi Arabia for empty Iranian promises. Therefore for MBS the threat to realign with China is not merely an empty threat, this is what MBS is preparing to do if Biden realigns with Khamenei. Of course there is zero likelihood of that happening considering official Iranian Anti-American, Anti-Semitic, Islamist political theology based on the notion that the American superpower is a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Islam. However, the Saudi perception is nevertheless that Biden is unreliable and cannot be trusted because he has dishonorable intentions. For decades there was the perception among pro-Western Arab leaders that Israelis were dishonorable and Americans honorable and now the perception has shifted to the exact reverse.
The Biden administration perceives normalization as a bilateral issue between Israel and concerned Muslim nations. This is distinctly not how those Muslim nations see things. America and Israel are intertwined in exercising influence over each other. They are not only connected by common interests and common values but are also highly interdependent. The situation is complex, America is the sole superpower in decline while Israel is a regional great power on the ascent. America is overstretched and cannot globally compete in the long term with China unless it significantly empowers its democratic allies, including Israel, Japan, India and the European Union. In addition to democratic allies are there non-democratic allies such as Arab nations that depend no less on America for their very existence. Therefore regional alliances must be built between America’s democratic and non-democratic allies.
Both the Saudis and the Americans need to understand that this issue is deeply personal for both leaders and so sensitive diplomatic engagement is essential to allay mutual suspicions. Both nations remain absolutely indispensable for each other and so it is essential to find a path towards personal reconciliation. Building a new regional security architecture in the Middle East is a vital American national security interest. America is overstretched and must empower its democratic allies to align with and strengthen America’s non-democratic allies. As Russia is preparing to arm apocalyptic Iran with fighter aircraft, it is essential that the new security architecture is quickly put in place to prepare for any kind of military scenario. America is the third party to any future Muslim normalization with Israel and so any Muslim nation considering normalizing relations with Israel expects American concessions.
Yet, Saudi Arabia is not just any nation in the Middle East and Islamdom. Saudi Arabia is absolutely strategically indispensable to the emerging new regional security architecture. The Biden administration may reason that the Saudis do not need American incentives to normalize relations with Israel. However, this is a mistake as the Saudis want to be part of the Israeli-American relationship and therefore want assurances that they will not be sold out by Malley. While Malley is actually detached from reality on Iran as was Obama in seriously endeavoring to realign with Iran, it must be understood that intentions are intrinsic to honor and these are things that still very much matter in the Middle East.
MBS’ calculation is simple. Either will Biden abandon Saudi Arabia and MBS will realign with China or else will MBS outlast Biden, and Trump will provide incentives to Saudi Arabia for Riyadh normalizing relations with Jerusalem. However, this is three years too late for joining the new regional security architecture and it is strongly an American, Saudi, and Israeli interest that KSA join as soon as possible. Surely, vital American and Saudi national interests cannot be held hostage for three years due to mutual distrust between the two leaders.