Members of the Arab Peace Initiative Committee met in New York September 21, on the margins of the 77th United Nations General Assembly. The meeting was convened at the initiative of Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan and Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit. It marked – slightly belatedly – the 20th anniversary of the 2002 Saudi-launched Arab Peace Initiative and, in addition to Palestinian, U.S., and European representatives, was attended by members of the initiative committee, including Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, and Morocco. With its proposal calling for peace and normalization for Arab countries with Israel in return for a complete Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian land captured during the 1967 war and for the creation of a Palestinian state, the Arab Peace Initiative is considered the classic and most prominent statement of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Avoiding Criticism of the Arab Peace Initiative, U.S. Tone Grows Harsher Over Oil Cuts
A relatively senior U.S. official, Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Barbara Leaf, attended the Arab Peace Initiative meeting in New York, and despite the strong support for the Abraham Accords, there is no indication that the slow pace of normalization has created tensions with the United States. A number of observers nonetheless decried what they viewed as the vulnerable state of U.S.-Saudi relations. Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt C. David Welch noted the United States will likely feel the administration’s outreach was unrequited, while the Saudis feel “taken for granted” by the United States and singled out for criticism, most recently regarding the Saudi position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, although Saudi Arabia is among more than a hundred countries striving to maintain a hands-off approach and protect their own interests. Welch assessed that the October 5 decision by the OPEC+ alliance of OPEC and non-OPEC countries to cut oil production would exacerbate this “singling out” of Saudi Arabia, as administration friends and foes unite to criticize OPEC+ and the Saudis, each from their own perspectives. Such efforts would not convince the Saudis, and oil industry experts, they were mistaken in their conviction that demand and hence oil prices were headed significantly further south, as central banks took action to rein in inflation (and economic growth), and that would have real implications for oil-centric economies. While real cuts were expected to amount to about half the announced cuts of 2 million barrels per day, given problems some countries were having meeting previous production quotas, that did not prevent the harsh U.S. criticism of the Saudi-led OPEC+ decision.
An Opportunity to Examine Saudi Foreign Policy Calculations
Saudi sponsorship of the meeting in New York, at a time when Gulf neighbors have already entered into normalization arrangements with Israel through the Abraham Accords, offers the opportunity to examine Saudi decision making on normalization with Israel and leadership calculations in foreign policy. A key motivation for Saudi Arabia, according to a number of former diplomats and analysts, was to stand by a position it has championed for decades, dating back past the Arab Peace Initiative to the plan proposed by then-Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz in the 1980s. According to former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel Daniel C. Kurtzer, the Saudis wanted to remind the international community, “We are here. We have a plan for resolving the conflict and have stood by it for decades.” Princeton University Professor of Near Eastern Studies Bernard Haykel made a similar point, insisting there had been too much sustained Saudi leadership on this point over the years for them “to just ignore all that effort.”
Doubts About Whether the Saudi Plan Has Relevance
There remains debate about whether the Arab Peace Initiative has continuing relevance. For Kurtzer, the Saudi initiative remains important for those who believe there can be a negotiated resolution to the conflict, “with the two-state solution” as the answer. But even with that caveat, there is skepticism about whether the initiative represents a meaningful way forward, given a long-stated Israeli lack of enthusiasm for the plan or even interest in a negotiated solution (and the requirements for withdrawal from the territories that would impose). And there is a sense, according to Welch, that despite the importance of the initiative, “the world has moved on.” A number of analysts made the point that the Israeli occupation does not capture headlines the way it used to, whether because Israelis manage the public relations and security challenges more effectively or because of a sense in public opinion that Palestinian leadership has missed opportunities for breakthroughs at times when Palestinian rights remained a galvanizing issue in the region and internationally. While acknowledging those realities, Kurtzer also expressed concern that the occupation was impacting “the moral fiber of Israel.” The two-state solution the Saudis put forth was a positive contribution, but political will had been lacking to support any prospect for making it a reality, according to Kurtzer.
But Saudis Likely to Stand by It Anyway
Despite dubious prospects for the initiative getting real traction, observers doubt the Saudis will walk away. The Saudi leadership probably senses that the Palestinian issue, for a significant segment of the Saudi population, remains, in Haykel’s words, “a hot-button issue.” At a time when the leadership is moving ahead with accelerated speed on a number of economic and political fronts, the Saudis calculate they don’t need this challenge to deal with.
They may also be calculating, observed Haykel, that Washington will be unable to reward such a move with the level of diplomatic or financial largesse with which it showered Abraham Accords signatories. Welch likewise saw the potential “for a backlash” if the Saudis moved too quickly in normalizing relations. He acknowledged recent Washington Institute polling in the Gulf showing over 70% of respondents in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia expressing disapproval of the accords as another data point that would likely reinforce the Saudi leadership’s current position. While caveating that the key in such polling is not necessarily the number but the intensity of feelings about the issue, Welch also made the point that it remains mainstream Arab opinion that the offer of Arab peace and relations with Israel is dependent on a solution of the Palestinian issue.
A number of other calculations are also shaping Saudi decision making. The Palestinian issue likely constitutes a third or fourth tier issue, well behind Yemen, Iran, and intra-GCC dynamics. In addition, because of the sensitivity regarding Jerusalem, given Saudi leadership in the Islamic world, the Saudis are “the most important country” on this issue of normalization with Israel, observed Haykel. The Saudis figure they have little interest in moving quickly on normalization, all the more so given they already have discreet ties that provide intelligence and security benefits. Sticking with the Arab Peace Initiative gives them a credible placeholder for standing pat.
Haykel also pointed to the nature of Saudi foreign policy decision making, which tends to focus on longer-term dynamics and historically has been comfortable with the virtues of prudence and “taking up the caboose” position, especially on any potentially controversial moves in the region. While Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s emergence may have had some impact on these Saudi decision-making dynamics, a certain caution on the normalization issue still remains.
Mohammed bin Salman’s Accession Unlikely to Change Saudi Calculations
There is a question about whether Mohammed bin Salman’s eventual accession to the throne will change the pacing or calculations on this issue. Some argue that once he is confidently exercising power as king, Mohammed bin Salman could be bold in moving forward with the Israelis. Welch expressed skepticism, noting that the young ruler “will be focused in such a period on consolidating his position” – he will ask himself whether such an issue serves that interest. Welch expressed doubt the Palestinian issue would rise to the top of Mohammed bin Salman’s agenda in such circumstances. He and others made clear, however, that Saudi pacing on normalization was not slowing the efforts of the neighboring UAE and Bahrain and should not be seen as implied criticism or as some sort of warning flag. There are differences in the speed of approach but not in the destination, Welch noted. In some ways the Saudis are putting down a marker that the Arab Peace Initiative can be understood as a reminder that countries in the region are pursuing their individual national interests, on this as on other interests. At the same time, with their initiative the Saudis are venturing to put forth a different model from Abraham Accords signatories on how best to approach Israel while the conflict with the Palestinians remains an open issue, noted Kurtzer.
U.S.-Saudi Relations in Light of Arab Peace Initiative Considerations
Haykel criticized the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., saying officials had “insulted the Saudis repeatedly.” He was convinced the United States was not interested in improving relations with the Saudis except to gain specific concessions, often based on short-term foreign policy calculations and driven by domestic concerns and a focus on the U.S. electoral calendar, factors that had further distorted relations with the Saudis. Despite the current chill in relations, there was some optimism for longer-term improvement, if U.S. anger over late-breaking OPEC+ production cuts could be worked through. Haykel noted no structural impediments to improved relations and underscored that much of what the Saudis want for the future – military weapons and training (driven by a long history of bilateral military cooperation), investment, and access to technology – they view as products of, and obtainable from, a good relationship with the United States.
For now, with their flourishing in New York of their long-ignored peace initiative, the Saudis are indicating they will move at their own pace in normalizing relations with Israel, taking out of play a key card that might have been played to also jumpstart relations with the United States. It is a signal on their side the Saudis will proceed cautiously in foreign policy, pursuing defined interests, whether with Israel or the United States. The accent is likely to be on strategic patience – and with perhaps one eye on the U.S. presidential electoral cycle – rather than on accelerated solutions to less-than-ideal current relationships.