How Saudi Arabia’s Rulers Became Best Friends With Israel

Both junior US allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia have nurtured ever warmer relations in recent years. But Saudi Arabia’s closeness to Israel is also a source of criticism at home, setting it at odds with broad public support for Palestine.

Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman at a summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 16, 2022. (Royal Court of Saudi Arabia / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Coziness between the Israeli state and Saudi Arabia is as long-standing as it is undeclared. Judging by recent talks, it is apt, too, that one of the first formalizations of this relationship could be the introduction of flights between the two countries, particularly so that Palestinian-Muslim citizens of Israel can more easily undertake hajj.

The possible utility of Mecca in bringing the Israelis and Saudis closer is illustrative. Each state claims that it represents an ancient religion, indeed ones that are often simplistically depicted as in conflict. But claims that they might one day achieve a hard-won coexistence mask the reality that they have a lot in common — an authoritarian comfort with state violence, a common role as junior US allies, and indeed an overemphasized veneer of religion as deflection and distraction from state crimes.

Religion as an institution can offer dignity in life or strengthen belief in causes that are just: but its use in this instance is squarely aimed at defending the power of states where any trace of spirituality is hard to find. Indeed, making the home of Mecca synonymous with public execution and reckless war, or the purported home of Judaism a sinister military apartheid that makes a mockery of international law and undermines Western democracies, are prominent drivers of racism against Jews and Muslims everywhere.

Similarities, of course, go beyond only religious claims. Saudi Arabia recently received some rebuke for a mass execution of eighty-one men, while the Israeli authorities are going about a similar acceleration in their killing of Palestinians. The year 2022 saw some five times more Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israelis than the year before, and 2023 has started with even more murders. The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh is only the best-known Israeli murder among many other that resemble straight-up executions.

We should be under no illusions, too, that Saudi executions, in endeavoring to keep down Arab democracy, are also to the good of the Israelis. This, after all, is why the Israeli state in West Jerusalem licensed both the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to use the spyware that helped track and kill Jamal Khashoggi and so many other Arab dissidents. This clear-sightedness about how regional power systems really operate is likewise why Yemen’s Houthis have offered Saudi Arabia prisoner swaps for Palestinians kept in Saudi jails.

If the Israeli-Saudi bonhomie is to be formalized anytime soon, then so too will Western mainstream opinion need an update. All the cute propaganda attached to Israeli policy — the cultural projects, arts sponsorship, the colonization of cuisine, the polite dinnertime chatter, the supposedly liberal Tel Aviv nightclub — will be masking not only violence in Palestine, but also in alliance with the kingdom and sword of Saudi Arabia. Where the Israelis have been mostly successful in depicting their apartheid as liberal and democratic, for those who wanted to believe in such obvious falsities, Saudi Arabia has largely failed to buy its way to this acceptance. Any completion in the friendship will ensure that more of the Saudis’ well-earned reputation for viciousness rubs off on their Israeli partners.

Black Boxes

Despite this, it is because of the similarity in violence and methods that depicting Saudi Arabia as only an object of disdain to damage the already-falling Israeli facade is in a sense unfair on the Saudis. An equal charge is that Saudi Arabia, eager to curry favor with Western publics, is harming its own chances of acceptance by warming to an Israeli regime long-regarded as brutal and now formally understood as an apartheid state.

For all the inevitable liberal-Zionist handwringing if Saudi Arabia and the Israelis mount a full embrace, Saudi Arabia must be asked the same set of questions. Indeed, there is a racism to not doing so; an assumption that Israeli murder and apartheid are somehow in keeping with what it means to be Saudi, where Saudi murder and despotism are somehow out of keeping with what it means to be Israeli. This is to disregard the history of Israeli violence, but also to release states from certain basic standards based on whether they label themselves using a fiction of democracy or using the openly fictional logic of hereditary monarchy.

On the net balance of harms done as part of its day-to-day functions, and despite a vile repression of dissidents and its Shia minority, there is a strong case that the upkeep of the Israeli state relies on an even more constant violence, and much more racism, than the Saudi one. This leaves an equal or even greater moral case to be put to Saudi Arabia, asking why it would affiliate itself with the Israeli project.

At work, clearly, is a bigotry of low expectations, and while Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly a brutal hereditary monarchy, it is not, like any country, homogeneous. In Riyadh, there are different political currents and, so too, social tensions, some of which would be stoked by Israeli normalization. The palace coup of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — against his elder cousin Mohammed bin Nayef — in 2017 brought with it a more right-wing, warmongering approach to power. Born of a different era, the aging King Salman is known to value the Palestinian cause in a way his frat-boy-reminiscent son seems not to. While Western media and leaders center the brash son, Turkish politicians have consistently demonstrated a preference for talking to the king and not the prince on the matter of Palestine.

Saudi Arabia, too, though it has traditionally consented to its own client-status in return for US sponsorship, could be starting to realize that it has greater scope for autonomy than previously assumed, a logic that can be extended to Palestine. In their recent meeting, the implicitly untrustworthy Joe Biden erased his campaign promise to make Saudi Arabia “a pariah”and gave bin Salman a fist bump instead. In response to Biden’s half-hearted mutterings about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the crown prince reportedly asked what Biden would be doing about Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder.

Abu Ghraib, the US base in Iraq that has been peerless in the use and implantation of the most depraved and sadistic Western violence in the Arab world, was also raised. As Arab leaderships shrug at the newfangled Western concern for international law and the demands to help ostracize Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, it is evident that a divergence is setting in. Gulf states — although counterrevolutionary monarchies by design — may nevertheless be ready to adjust their levels of acquiescence to US and Israeli diktats.

Quite apart from the double standard in criticizing the Israeli and not Saudi state for normalization — the assumed Arab brute as compared with the merely errant Israeli or Westerner — there is also a political miscalculation in disregarding a presumption of support for Palestine in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region.

This error is especially acute as Saudi Arabians — like the Sudanese, Emiratis, and Bahrainis whose monarchs and juntas already forced populations into coerced recognition of Israeli statehood — have no guarantee of representation in their governance and face grave risks for demanding it. There may be Saudis who are content with an oil-subsidized life under bin Salman and his offer of a thuggish new nationalism, but beneath a police state surface, many are not. Palestine, too, is often a gateway issue to political consciousness in the Gulf and wider Arab youth (indeed, this fact also hints at why hereditary monarchies might well support Zionist autocracy over Palestinian liberty).

This idea of a silent majority runs contrary to the Israeli context, where the democratic allowances of Zionism toward the Jewish population in Palestine allow the assumption that terrorizing Palestinians, and allying with despotic monarchs, are things to which the Israel-Jewish electorate consent. It is also wrong to release Arab leadership from higher expectations of representing their largely voiceless populations. However unjust their origin, structure, and upkeep might be, to write-off Gulf leadership is to misunderstand their clear aim to secure greater global integration and acceptance.

To this valid goal, the response of the Western public must be to center internal reforms and support for Palestine. Emiratis can buy Manchester City and Saudis Newcastle United; both can have as many corporate, hollowed-out football clubs as they like, host Formula 1 races, bicycle races, and sponsor their cycling teams. They can sign Neymar and the world’s most expensive footballers as they come and go, but the road to approval of Gulf monarchies in Western publics will run not through pop and sporting culture, but genuine rights in their own countries and support for Palestine.

While Arabs around the region and world have never flinched and even grow bolder in demanding Palestinian liberation, the treatment of Palestinians and betrayal of their cause offers embarrassing evidence that Gulf leaders provide leadership in name only. Although Western politicians might (at least publicly) bow to Gulf and Israeli lobbying, Western populations — the actual groups being courted by football club takeovers or paid Instagram influencers — grow ever more opposed to what Gulf monarchs are enabling in Palestine.

The message to these elites (Jacobin readers as they surely are), must be that there is no real seat at the table for them, at least no equal seat, while Palestine is left to its current fate. Without Palestine, they will continue to be viewed as only the colonial projects as which they were first envisaged upon being successfully peeled away from the Ottomans by the British. Palestine’s fate is inseparable from a broader Western effort at legitimizing second-class status for all Arabs and, to a lesser extent, all Muslims.

Foreign Friends

There is further cause for the embarrassment of Arab governments in that whatever the periodic support of Kuwait over time, or backing from Qatar or Oman of the most consistent state support for the Palestinian cause, little emanates from the Arab world, and still less the Gulf. Iranian, Turkish, Nordic, and Irish governments all show closer attention to the Palestinian rights than their counterparts in Arab nations, with Egypt a particularly and increasingly guilty party. The Arab state currently doing most to support Palestine is probably that of Algeria, despite being over two thousand miles away and hosting a far smaller Palestinian refugee population.

For what a pro-Palestinian policy in Riyadh might be, moreover, it need not look to Algiers, Oslo, Pretoria, Dublin, Ankara, Kuala Lumpur, or Tehran. The outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war saw Saudi, along with the rest of those belonging to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the Gulf, slap oil boycotts on all Israeli allies. The policy introduced the West to the concept of an oil crisis and convinced the United States that it needed to pursue that strategy of grooming Saudi and Gulf leaderships it has followed ever since.

For Westerners, the key thing to grasp, however, might be that inside Gulf capitals, it is already understood that the contemporary letting down of Palestinians is deeply wrong. While Westerners all too easily assume ourselves to be the center of the world’s motivations, and many say knowingly that a Saudi-Israeli normalization would be making public what is already known, it is imperative to remember that these relations are concealed because of a far more vital constituency: Saudi Arabians.

Just as Moroccans were banned from protesting Moroccan-Israeli normalization, given in return for US blessing of the Moroccan monarchy’s annexation of Western Sahara (another in the litany of hypocrisies making mockery of any moral authority in the US position on Ukraine), Saudi Arabians — as Arabs, Muslims, and Arabic-speakers — quite naturally and even in their information-poor society, overwhelmingly support Palestinians. Normalization with the Israeli project is resoundingly unpopular.

Underpinning any certainty I have in the depth of actual rather than stated pro-Palestinian sentiment in Saudi Arabia, perhaps as is often so, is a brief but real-life encounter. A few years ago, I gave a talk in an international school, in which I showed a photo taken in occupied Palestine. On my politically correct best — and hoping to be invited back — I referred to the location of the photo as “Palestine/Israel.” From the front row I — just barely — heard a gravelly Arab-British accent and the clipped ending of what had obviously been the word “Palestine.”

A little taken-aback, and curious, I turned to the voice and asked the teenager behind it, “What was that?”

He repeated what he’d said, soft and slow, “It is all Palestine.”

I smiled, asked, “Where you from?”

He replied, “Saudi Arabia.”