MBS’s HOT Status in the Saudi-Israeli Negotiations

  • Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) would benefit from normalization with Israel, by bolstering his domestic and regional standing and improving his global reputation. 
  • He is driven by his Vision2030 strategy, with normalization offering crucial economic benefits.
  • Despite Saudi Arabia’s commitment to the Palestinian cause, it has moved down the list of priorities for the Crown Prince. 
Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud MBS
Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud

Why is MBS’s temperature hot?

Answer: MBS stands to gain from Saudi-Israeli normalization as negotiations intensify, improving the Crown Prince’s domestic and regional standing via economic and security benefits.

Despite the lack of official diplomatic ties, recent years have seen a warming trend in Saudi-Israeli relations. This reflects the Saudi attitude toward Israel, under the lead of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS). Ongoing negotiations between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States signal a new chapter in Saudi-Israeli relations. 

Crown Prince MBS, viewed as a reform-minded leader by the Saudi public, has adopted an unconventional approach towards Israel. In 2016, he acknowledged Israel’s right to exist. In 2022, he further signaled a shift in Saudi policy by declaring that the Kingdom does not perceive Israel as an enemy but rather as a potential ally.

These changes in rhetoric were paralleled by a broader shift in Saudi sentiment, which is observable through the royal family-controlled Saudi press. After the signing of the Abraham Accords by the UAE and Bahrain in 2020, Saudi media (Arab News, Saudi Gazette) reported on it accordingly, passively accepting and encouraging the normalization of relations between Sunni-Arab nations and Israel, instead of condemning them. Later that year, the Crown Prince allegedly hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in NEOM, the first known highest-level meeting between the countries. The trend towards normalization continued in 2023, as Israeli officials participated in the 45th UNESCO meeting held in Riyadh, marking Israel’s first announced visit to the Kingdom. 

The states have also explored limited forms of cooperation, including the permission for Israeli commercial flights to use Saudi airspace on their way to Asia in 2022, and accordingly granting approval for Israeli emergency landing on Saudi soil in August 2023. Notably, discussions are ongoing to facilitate direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims participating in the Hadj, further increasing the potential for deeper ties between these nations.

What is changing MBS’s heat level?

Answer: MBS is shedding his international ‘pariah’ status by adopting a more dovish foreign policy.

After the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the Kingdom felt it could no longer trust the United States as a security guarantor in the region. As a result, Saudi Arabia pursued a more assertive foreign policy to establish regional dominance, attempting to fill the void left by the US. This involved intervening in the civil war in Yemen, the Arab Spring protests in Bahrain, the civil war in Syria, starting the Qatar blockade, forcing Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri to resign, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

From 2015 onwards, Saudi Arabia’s assertive foreign policy choices became closely associated with MBS as he was appointed defence minister at the time and started to play a central role in the Kingdom. Therefore, this firm approach, with the aim to establish dominance, was driven by Saudi Arabia’s struggle for regional hegemony, along with MBS’s personal aspirations for the throne.   

Although he was promoted to Crown Prince in 2017, these hawkish policies damaged his international image. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 marked the peak of Saudi assertiveness. It “reduced investors’ confidence levels internationally” and reduced the foreign direct investment (FDI) flowing in the country.

For MBS, this posed a pressing concern, as maintaining the influence of both himself and the dynasty greatly depends on the country’s financial capabilities, previously tied to oil and by design planned to depend on the success of Vision2030. The loss of President Trump, who had a close relationship with MBS,  further reinforced the need for strategic adjustment, as Biden vowed to take a tougher stance on the crown prince and the Kingdom.

Starting in 2021, the country adopted a more conciliatory foreign policy as it ended the Qatar blockade with the Al-Ula declaration, restored relations with Iran and Syria, and is currently engaging in peace talks regarding the war in Yemen.

This change of approach also includes the Kingdom’s gradual shift in attitude towards Israel and the limited cooperation with the state. Full normalization fits into this dovish foreign policy trend, and making peace with the US’s closest ally in the Middle East is expected to improve the image of MBS in Western eyes. This improvement in public image stands to make MBS’s temperature hotter with new supporters diplomatically for the Kingdom and financially for the crown prince’s vision. 

However, full normalisation with Israel would include Saudi Arabia’s recognition of Israel as a sovereign state, which does not align with the Saudi identity.  As the proclaimed  heart of the Muslim world and the initiator of the Arab Peace Initiative, Saudi Arabia is constrained by its title as a defender of the Palestinian cause. This ideological component poses an obstacle for MBS to make a deal on his own terms.

What is driving MBS?

Answer: MBS is eager to legitimize his power by translating his ambitious Vision2030 into reality, normalization with Israel could serve as a crucial catalyst.

Vision2030, an ambitious project initiated by Crown Prince MBS, aims to transform Saudi Arabia from a country dependent on oil exports into a diversified economy, serving a dual purpose. One is the consolidation of regional influence through the maintenance of strong financial capabilities for alliances with Sunni-Arab nations despite a foreseeable reduction in demand for oil in the long term future.

The other purpose is bolstering MBS’s domestic legitimacy and his future position as king by successfully implementing his plan, which has become synonymous with his leadership and influence in the country. Given his youth and unconventional rise to power, MBS is determined to prove his capabilities, with Vision2030 serving as his top priority and a key driver of his foreign policy decisions, as it underpins both his regional influence and domestic standing.

Given that negotiations are three-fold (Saudi Arabia–Israel-US), MBS can receive benefits in exchange for normalisation from two fronts. If agreed on current terms, the US could guarantee several significant demands. These are far-reaching diplomatic requests, including reaching a NATO-like mutual defense agreement and assistance with building a nuclear program, acceptance of uranium enrichment on Saudi soil, and gaining access to high-quality American weapons. As for Israel, the country could provide Saudi Arabia with advanced Israeli technology and lucrative trade opportunities. This is particularly important for the Crown Prince, as Saudi Arabia faces escalating economic competition with the UAE. The latter has already capitalized on trade with Israel, placing Saudi Arabia at a competitive disadvantage.

Normalization with Israel offers notable economic benefits, especially as MBS faces pressing financial needs to fund Vision2030, given slowed economic growth slowed due to reduced oil output and declining prices. Therefore, the Crown Prince must rely on foreign investment to fund his project. That poses difficulties, as the Kingdom’s economic regulations, taxes, operational costs, and labour shortages have deterred international investors in previous years. In light of these challenges, Saudi Arabia needs a boost of public image; normalization as a policy would offer a great opportunity to enhance MBS’s, and therefore the Kingdom’s, appeal among foreign investors. That is because international investors, particularly Western ones view normalisation as a regional stabilizing factor. 

On the security front, a deal would provide MBS an ally in addressing common regional security threats. Even though Saudi Arabia and Israel have been increasingly becoming de-facto strategic partners by maintaining intelligence relations (although undeclared), official diplomatic ties would deepen these security cooperations and help MBS in combating jihadist groups and keeping an eye on the shared enemy: Iran. Utilizing these advantages, he can effectively execute Vision2030 and solidify his Sunni-Arab alliances, subsequently upholding his reputation both domestically and in the region.

The only significant obstacle for MBS to make a deal is of an ideological nature. The fight for the Palestinian cause is deeply embedded in the Saudi identity, given that the Arab Peace Initiative (API) was set up by Saudi Arabia. In addition, MBS’s father, King Salman, has a strong commitment to the Palestinian cause.

This increases the need for MBS to include some form of concession to Palestinians when making any deal with Israel.  Excluding the Palestinians poses risks for MBS, both domestically and internationally. If the crown prince were to sign a deal without including the Palestinians, other Muslim nations would likely be enraged. Countries in the region might start looking more toward Iran, providing an opportunity for Iran to exploit, thereby placing the Kingdom at risk.

As a result of these ideological constraints, MBS does not have a full free hand regarding demands for normalization. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Despite Saudi commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative, ongoing concerns surrounding Palestinian demands will stay

Any Saudi-Israeli deal will include some form of agreement regarding the Palestinian question. This is expected given Saudi Arabia’s historical ties to the cause and the domestic and regional pressures for the Kingdom to achieve concessions in exchange for recognition of Israel.  Despite the Palestinians standing to be affected by the deal, negotiations are between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US, leaving no seat for Palestine.

Although the Kingdom is the alleged protector of Palestinian interests, the exclusion of Palestinian officials from negotiations leaves their concerns vulnerable, dependent on the power dynamics between the Kingdom and Israel. If the concessions brokered for Palestinians turn out to be symbolic, Palestinian demands such as the freezing of settlements in the occupied West Bank could go unaddressed. In this scenario, a Saudi-Israeli alliance could materialize without significant compromises from either side, however, conflict between Israel and Palestine would persist, leading to continuing tensions in the region.