For Saudi Arabia, Lynchpin of Trump's Middle East Strategy, Recognizing Israel Is Too Great a Risk

Thursday's historic normalization of ties between the United Arab Emirates and Israel—while far from unexpected—marks a new era in Arab-Israeli relations, cementing a long-term trend towards closer cooperation and the sidelining of the Palestinian issue in favor of economic progress and the containment of Iran.

The deal, facilitated by President Donald Trump's administration, has been a long time coming, and could be the first domino to fall in Gulf states normalizing ties with historic enemy Israel. A new generation of leaders in the Gulf could help redefine Israel's role in the region, though at the cost of any lingering hope of Palestinian statehood.

The UAE and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, were the first to take the Israel leap, though states like Bahrain and Oman could soon follow suit. The ultimate Israeli and American prize would be Saudi Arabia—one of the Middle East's two superpowers, a center of Islam with vast wealth, oil reserves and a well-equipped military.

But Saudi Arabia's unique characteristics also mean it will have to move slower than its Emirati neighbor, even if the young Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is keen to set aside the Palestinian issue and fortify the regional anti-Iran axis that the Trump administration has been so keen to build.

Tareq Baconi—a senior analyst for Israel-Palestine and economics of conflict at the Crisis Group, told Newsweek that the situation in Saudi Arabia is more sensitive than in the UAE. The UAE deal "pretty much concedes Israeli sovereignty over the Muslim holy places," Baconi said, though noted that many details of the agreement are yet to emerge.

But for the Saudis—the king of whom is known as the "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," a reference to the holy sites in Mecca and Medina—to accept Israeli dominion over Jerusalem would undermine the kingdom's claim to be the defender of all Muslims. "I just think it's a different ballgame," Baconi said.

MBS has his own political considerations. The young heir to the throne has been a source of controversy worldwide for successful and attempted assassinations of his critics, whether he directly ordered the operations or not.

His iron first rule at home—imprisoning human rights activists, feminists, relatives and rich business people—has made headlines abroad, while his brutal and largely futile intervention in Yemen to the south has created one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters.

Though MBS has accumulated fearsome power and is considered by many the country's de facto ruler, he is still only the crown prince, waiting for his elderly father King Salman to die and pass on the throne.

"It's a transition that's not complete yet," said William Wechsler of the Atlantic Council about MBS' rise to power. "And it's not going to be complete until MBS becomes the king."

"If you're MBS, if you're anyone around him, if you are a royal watcher in Saudi Arabia, the nature of a transition in a monarchical system is by definition an existential threat." MBS represents the third generation of the House of Saud—all his predecessors have been sons of national founder King Ibn Saud—and the heir's centralized system of control will be a marked change to those who came before.

MBS is also pushing a liberalized societal and economic vision of the country—though remains entirely intolerant of domestic opposition—which has concerned traditionalists inside Saudi Arabia. The prince already has enough balls in the air; normalizing relations with Israel would be an awkward additional burden to take on.

"It strikes me as unlikely that Saudi Arabia will be a leader on this subject amongst Gulf states," Wechsler said. "I think the best that one can hope for is that Saudi Arabia does not actively oppose the actions of smaller Gulf neighbors on this subject."

Assuming MBS survives the Saudi court intrigues to become king, he may then be more amenable to Israeli normalization. Yossi Mekelberg, of the British Chatham House think tank and Regent's University in London, told Newsweek the UAE is "testing the water" for other regional powers.

"I think they will wait and see what's the response," he said of the Saudis, noting that the kingdom was very clear in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that normalization with Israel would only come alongside progress for the Palestinians.

Still, Mekelberg said, "18 years is a very long time in politics. It's a different generation right now. Most people are tired of the Palestinian issue. They don't think it's important anymore."

The long-term trend for the Arab states is towards Israel and away from the Palestinians, or at least away from the historic prioritization of Palestinian statehood. "Their priority is about progress, is about innovation, is about this sense Israel can offer more than the Palestinians," Mekelberg said.

"And whether it's about healthcare, or high tech, intelligence cooperation, cyberspace security—you name it, it's more important than not normalizing relations with Israel for the sake of the Palestinians."

The regional standoff with Iran is an important aspect of closer Arab-Israeli ties. The Trump administration, with its efforts led by presidential advisor and the president's son-in-law Jared Kushner, has been pushing hard for an anti-Tehran axis, bringing together Israel and its regional Arab allies despite the historical enmity.

The looming threat of Iran, perhaps even a nuclear-powered Iran, has apparently been enough to sway Arab states towards co-existence with Israel; a wealthy, militarily fearsome and staunchly anti-Iranian U.S ally. "This perceived threat from Iran is reshaping local geopolitics," Baconi said.

If and when MBS does ascend the throne, the opportunity may then be ripe for the Saudis to follow in the Emirati footsteps.

"It's definitely something that he would consider," Mekelberg said of a future King MBS normalizing ties with Israel. "I think it might be even considered before he becomes the king, because his vision of the Middle East is very different...I think it's a real possibility."

Israel, UAE, Saudi Arabia, MBS, King Salman
Football fans stand beneath a large banner depicting Saudi King Salman and his son Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman during a World Cup 2022 qualifying match in the town of al-Ram in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on October 15, 2019. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images/Getty