On October 20, under the dramatic headline “Scoop”, on-line news provider Axios posted an exclusive story – details of a conversation held on September 27 between US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The information, it told its titillated readers, had reached it from no less than “three US and Arab sources”.
The nub of the story was that, during their discussion, Sullivan had raised the issue of Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel, and that MBS had not rejected the idea out of hand.
Their meeting took place in Neom, the futuristic planned city being constructed on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. Neom is an integral element in MBS’s Saudi Vision 2030 – his ambitious plan to reposition Saudi Arabia away from its current dependence on oil in good time to celebrate the kingdom’s centenary in September 2032. Sullivan may well have wondered whether MBS’s aspirations for Saudi’s future included signing up to the Abraham Accords.
This is an issue of some importance for the region. If or when Saudi Arabia decides on an open normalization with Israel – as opposed to the covert liaison they currently enjoy – it would be regarded as a major breakthrough in Arab-Israeli relations, and a step other Muslim nations would feel able to follow.
Some practical obstacles would need to be surmounted. The basic Muslim position regarding Israel is still the Arab Peace Plan, proposed to the Arab League in 2002 by MBS’s uncle, then Crown Prince Abdullah. It was adopted, and has subsequently been endorsed twice, by the League. Normalizing relations with Israel without reference to the Plan would require justification, which is why Saudi Arabia has so far insisted that movement on the Israel-Palestinian issue would be an essential prerequisite to any normalization deal.
Yet the step, if it were taken, could certainly be defended and explained.
Normalization under the Abraham Accords is concerned with the pragmatic issues of economic, security, trade and social cooperation for the benefit of the citizens of their respective countries. Signing up to them in no way implies an abandonment of Palestinian aspirations. Indeed all the current signatories have expressed their continuing support for Palestinian sovereignty within something akin to the pre-1967 boundaries. They see flourishing cooperation between Arab states and Israel as an important precursor to peace negotiations and an eventual Israel-Palestinian deal.
A highly pragmatic consideration may also push Saudi into normalization – the plans announced by MBS ahead of this year’s COP26 Climate Change conference, now being held in Glasgow, Scotland, during the first two weeks of November. On March 27 he unveiled his Saudi and Middle East Green Initiatives – an ambitious effort to lead a full-scale environmental process in the Middle East by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The initiative falls neatly within the compass of his Saudi 2030 Vision, which involves replacing oil-based energy generation with renewable energy sources.
In 2018 Saudi’s electricity supply from renewable sources amounted to some 0.05 percent of the whole. MBS has pledged that by 2030 no less than 50 percent of the kingdom’s energy consumption will be from renewable energy, and that it will reach “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by 2060. Those are exceedingly ambitious targets, and the nation will need all the help it can muster to reach them. Israel, an acknowledged world leader in high tech development across a wide range of energy and environmental issues, would be an invaluable partner in helping Saudi Arabia achieve its goals. Perhaps it was this consideration that led MBS not to reject the idea of normalization “out of hand”.
Israel’s commitment to tackling the climate change issue is deadly serious. On October 17 Israeli media reported that the government is preparing a national climate emergency declaration that would oblige all state bodies to coordinate their preparations for combating climate change. On October 20 President Isaac Herzog announced the establishment of the Israeli Climate Forum, which will lead deliberations about the climate crisis and Israel’s role in the fight against it. This development, said Herzog, will underscore Israel’s commitment to stand at the forefront of the global debate about the climate crisis and promote regional and international collaboration.
The Israel delegation currently at COP26 in Glasgow is second in size only to that of the US. Israel’s serious and focused approach may help persuade other less committed countries to take more urgent action. In the case of Saudi Arabia, and perhaps several other Gulf nations, it may provide the final push to enter into a working relationship with the partner best able to help them reach the targets they have set themselves in tackling the issues affecting the future of Planet Earth itself.