With all the talk and excitement surrounding the Abraham Accords, Saudi Arabia, the most important Sunni player in the region has yet to make peace with Israel.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have had unofficial contact for years, with most visitors being the head of the Mossad. This is because both Saudi Arabia and Israel face a common enemy – Iran. The strategy of those working on peace between the two countries always assumed that the Iranian issue would eventually pull them together, however cooperation on this mutual threat has been accomplished without an overall deal.
The warming ties between the countries are happening because Saudi Arabia has learned from watching Bahrain and the UAE that the “palestinian” issue is no issue at all. In fact, many in the Arab world, who for years detested the “palestinian” narrative are finally seeing their views take root in the mainstream of the Sunni Arab world.
Saudi Arabia knows it must make peace with Israel. After all, the world is a very different world than it was even 10 years ago. The question for the House of Saud is what can they get in return.
Under negotiation as a first step is the return of the Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia handed them over to Egypt in 1950. Israel then took them after the 1967 war only to return them under the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt. In 2016 Egypt agreed to return them to Saudi Arabia, but needs Israel’s consent to do so.
The islands have become an important symbol of a first potential public agreement between the two countries. If the agreement goes forward it could open up doors to other agreements.
The real issue for the Saudis is public opinion in their country. They have spent a few generations conditioning the public to believe that the royal family is the bulwark against Western culture and the defender of “palestinian” rights. Peace or normalization with Israel undermines one of the foundations their rule is based on.
This is why in recent years the House of Saud has gone out of its way to drip positive editorials in government controlled newspapers. This has started to work. Saudis have started to have a positive view of Israel.
Does this mean peace or normalization is happening now? No, but the moves are positive and the Iranian threat may just be the trigger that pushes all of these other components together.