The Saudi Surprise


Last Thursday came reports of a three-pronged Saudi proposal to the U.S. of its “terms” for normalizing relations with Israel: a security agreement of some kind with the United States, endorsement of a civilian nuclear program in Saudi Arabia and decreased restrictions on U.S. arms sales to the Saudis. The Saudi demands are not realistic. But the proposal was seen as an opening for further discussion. As a result, Thursday’s chatter was all about the cost versus the benefit of the proposed “terms” and the impact of the Saudis joining fellow Gulf states and other Arab countries in making peace with Israel — thereby creating a more united front against expansionist Iran, and assuring a continuation of Israel’s integration into the region. For Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, normalization with the Saudis and further tipping the balance of power against Iran would be a crowning foreign policy achievement.

That was Thursday. Then on Friday, in a head-spinning development, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced they will reestablish diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by China. The two Mideast rivals have been fighting proxy wars for years in Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. But they are now declaring a truce, and plan to reopen embassies in Tehran and Riyadh in two months. Both countries have pledged “respect for the sovereignty of states and noninterference in their internal affairs.”

The Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement is a potential game changer. It left pundits and diplomats struggling to determine the biggest takeaway. The consensus seems to be the emergence of China as the lead broker in the detente agreement, with the Xi government moving to the role of power player in the region, having successfully taken advantage of the diplomatic vacuum created by current U.S. policy in the Gulf. While the U.S. is evaluating the diplomatic consequences of the deal, it leaves Israel wondering where it fits in, and how it is supposed to navigate an alliance between its most vaunted adversary and its most coveted potential partner.

Initial public reactions in Washington and Jerusalem were predictable. The Biden administration welcomed the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran and had little to say about Beijing’s role in bringing the two back together. But below the surface fingers are being pointed at failed U.S. leadership in the region and concern about China’s enhanced diplomatic stature and mounting influence. In Jerusalem, the disappointment over the joining of Iran and the Saudis on any level was palpable, even as Israel anticipates continued behind-the-scenes diplomatic and economic discussions with the Saudis.

No one is sure what comes next. After decades of competition and confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, there are real questions regarding the viability of the planned rapprochement. The Sunnis of Riyadh and the Shiites of Tehran still have deep and visceral differences, and the historic animosities could be kindled by the slightest misstep on either side.

While a cautious wait-and-see approach makes sense across the board, there is no escaping the fact that there has been a shift in the balance of the political reality of the Middle East. That’s a big deal. ■

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