Saudi Arabia is seeking binding US security guarantees, primarily against Iran, before it agrees to establish relations with Israel, sources have confirmed to Reuters.
Three unnamed regional sources said that the Palestinian issue is not paramount for the Saudis, who are determined to secure a military pact with the United States to defend the kingdom.
Although a pact might fall short of the cast-iron, NATO-style defense guarantees the kingdom initially sought when the issue was first discussed between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Joe Biden during his visit to Saudi Arabia in July 2022.
Instead, a US source told Reuters it could look like a US agreement with Bahrain, where the US Navy Fifth Fleet is based. Such an agreement would not need congressional backing, which can be implemented before Biden’s first presidential term ends next year.
Washington could also sweeten any deal by designating Saudi Arabia a Major Non-NATO Ally, a status already given to Israel, the US source said.
Although Iran re-established diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia earlier this year, top Iranian officials have been criticizing Riyadh’s plans for establishing relations with Israel as a step detrimental for the Palestinians. Tehran supports militant Palestinian groups who have intensified their attacks against Israel and its civilian population this year.
Palestinian groups such as Hamas and the Islamic Jihad are parts of Iran’s militant network of proxy forces from Iraq to Lebanon and in Yemen. They receive financial and military assistance that Tehran is not reluctant to boast about.
Riyadh is well aware of Tehran’s ability to foment unrest across the region or even directly harm Saudi Arabia. Prince Mohammed bin Salman is said to have been “traumatized” by a devastating attack on Saudi oil installations in September 2019, and follow-up missile and drone attacks by Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen.
Despite close Saudi ties with former President Donald Trump’s administration, the US failed to immediately take any action against Iran for its brazen missile and drone attack, which posed a major risk to global energy supplies. As a result, Reuters’ sources said Saudi Arabia would not settle for less than binding assurances of US protection if it faced attack.
Agreements giving the world's biggest oil exporter US protection in return for normalization with Israel would reshape the Middle East and binding Riyadh to Washington after China's inroads in the region. For Biden, it would be a diplomatic victory to vaunt before the 2024 US election.
In reviving relations with Iran, Riyadh hoped to pacify the Houthis in Yemen and perhaps reach a lasting peace to focus on its grand development plans at home. However, so far there are no major positive developments.
Another Saudi goal could have been to reduce the chances of a harsh reaction by the militant regime in Iran to any agreement with Israel. Riyadh tried to balance its regional policies by improving ties with Tehran before normalizing relations with Israel.
While the Biden administration is insisting on securing some Israeli guarantees regarding concessions to Palestinians, Saudi Arabia seems less interested in tying its goals to their fortunes.
"The normalization will be between Israel and Saudi Arabia. If the Palestinians oppose it the kingdom will continue in its path," said one of the regional sources. "Saudi Arabia supports a peace plan for the Palestinians, but this time it wanted something for Saudi Arabia, not just for the Palestinians."