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The Incredibly Complex History Between Israel, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia
And what it means for the current prospects of normalization between the two Middle Eastern countries.
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Heightened rumors of impending normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, brokered by the United States, are making headlines, with Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Eli Cohen recently saying:
“Israel is the closest it has ever been to peace agreement with Saudi Arabia.”1
Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a $27-billion plan to connect the northern-most and southern-most parts of Israel, adding that the rail line will be able “to link Israel to Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Peninsula” in the future.2
Another report of late claimed that Saudi Arabia started removing “practically all antisemitism” and “material that presents conspiracies demonizing Israel” from textbooks.3
But Israeli-Saudi normalization is convoluted, not just because of the current landscape, but because of the incredibly complex history between Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.
This history could, on one hand, position this potential partnership to dominate the Middle East — and it could also blow up the prospect altogether, and cause the Saudis to become even more extremist.
Let’s take a look:
A Brief History Lesson
The emergence of the Saudi royal family, known as the House of Saud, began in 1744 in Nejd — the geographic center of present-day Saudi Arabia — where Muhammad bin Saud, founder of the dynasty, joined forces with the religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi movement, an ultra-orthodox form of Sunni Islam.
The first “Saudi state,” established in 1744, rapidly expanded and controlled most of the present-day territory of Saudi Arabia, but was destroyed in 1818 by an Ottoman viceroy of Egypt.
A much smaller second “Saudi state,” located mainly in Nejd, was established in 1824 by the House of Saud, but another ruling family, Al Rashid, toppled them. In 1891, the Saud’s were driven into exile in Kuwait.
Less than a decade later, one of the Saud’s sons, Abdulaziz, took on the task of restoring Saudi rule in Riyadh, today the country’s capital. Supported by a few dozen followers and accompanied by some of his brothers and relatives, Abdulaziz successfully captured Riyadh’s Masmak fort and killed the governor.
Abdulaziz, reported to have been barely 20 at the time, was immediately proclaimed ruler in Riyadh, and spent the next three decades trying to reestablish his family’s rule over central Arabia.
By 1932, Abdulaziz disposed of all his main rivals and consolidated his rule over much of the Arabian Peninsula, ultimately uniting his dominions into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The alliance from 1744 between the House of Saud and the clan of Wahhabi remained in tact: The former would run the kingdom’s politics and day-to-day governance, while the latter would operate the country’s religious affairs based upon their own extreme interpretations of Sunni Islam.
In 1933, sensing that it was sitting on massive oil fields, Saudi Arabia granted a U.S. company, California Standard, an exclusive contract to search for oil across the country, finally discovering it in 1938.
Initially, California Standard created a solely owned subsidiary, called the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company, and then it was renamed the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO). Full diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. were formalized in 1951, despite the stark differences between the two countries: an Islamic absolute monarchy, and a secular constitutional republic.
Oil provided a previously impoverished Saudi Arabia with economic prosperity and substantial political leverage internationally, cultural life rapidly developed, and a large influx of foreign workers arrived to work in the oil industry.
Yet, the government became increasingly extravagant and wasteful, leading to large deficits and excessive foreign borrowing.
A Turning Point for Saudi Arabia: The Yom Kippur War
In 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack against Israel on the Jewish holy day of Yom Kippur. Israel wanted to preemptively attack, but U.S. leadership warned Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir against initiating a war in the Middle East.
According to U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, had Israel struck first, it would not have received “so much as a nail.” The Israelis didn’t want to jeopardize U.S. military resupply, and got off to a terrible start in the war, which came as a surprise following their extraordinary victory in the Six-Day War just six years earlier.
Three days into the war, it became painstakingly clear that no quick reversal in Israel’s favor would occur, and that military losses were unexpectedly high. An alarmed Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, told Meir that “this is the end of the third temple” — a reference to the two previous Jewish sovereign periods which ended poorly for the Jews.
Sure, Dayan was warning Meir of the potential for a total defeat, but “Temple” was also the code word for Israel’s nuclear weapons. After discussing the nuclear topic in a cabinet meeting, Meir authorized the assembly of 13 tactical nukes to be used if absolutely necessary.
However, it was done in an easily detectable way, likely a signal to U.S. leadership. Kissinger quickly learned of the nuclear alert and, on the same day, U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered the commencement of Operation Nickel Grass, an American airlift to replace all of Israel’s material losses.
“While the American airlift of supplies did not immediately replace Israel’s losses in equipment, it did allow Israel to expend what it did have more freely,” according to historian and journalist, Abraham Rabinovich.4
As a result, Israel ended up defeating both Egypt and Syria, which completely upended the Middle East, but in a totally unforeseen way.
Following Israel’s victory in the Yom Kippur War, the OPEC oil cartel — led by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia — decided to embargo many of Israel’s supporters, including the U.S. for resupplying the Israelis (and to gain leverage in post-war negotiations). Mind you, this was the same U.S. which helped the Saudis discover their tremendous oil reserves in the first place.
The embargo caused the global price of oil to quadruple from $3 to nearly $12 per barrel. Over the following decade, the deluge of money that flowed into Saudi Arabia made it one of world’s wealthiest countries, and the House of Saud one of the world’s wealthiest families.
With their newfound wealth, the Saudi royal family made its great bargain with the Saudi people, especially with the state’s minority groups which didn’t exactly appreciate the Sunni Muslim laws.
The unworldly revenues that the state was earning from its oil enabled the kingdom to basically bribe its citizens, especially the country’s Shi’ite Muslims, who were a minority compared to the Sunni Muslims, but who lived in areas where the vast majority of oil fields were found.
In other words, Saudi Arabia became a massive welfare state: Zero taxes were levied on anything or anyone. Oil paid for all of the government’s budget, including healthcare, education, food, water, fuel, and electricity.
In exchange, the kingdom expected that citizens would accept some of the strictest and most totalitarian religious laws across the world. And, more importantly, that citizens would accept the House of Saud’s absolute legitimacy to rule a medieval kingdom in a 20th-century world.
Naturally, this created domestic stability — for the first time in a long time — and dramatically reduced the chance of outsiders successfully overthrowing the kingdom.
But the more oil Saudi Arabia exported, the more Western it became, and the more the country’s ultra-orthodox Sunni Wahhabi establishment — which oversaw all Saudi clerical institutions — became agitated.
In 1979, hundreds of armed religious militants stormed the Grand Mosque in Mecca and seized control over it, denouncing the Saudi king as a blasphemer for increasingly westernizing the country.
The Saudi monarchy responded to this siege by further embracing Sunni Wahhabi leadership and increasing the severity of the country’s religious laws. All previous social reforms were reversed, namely:
Movie theaters were banned.
Women were removed from appearing in newspapers and other forms of media.
Dress codes were much more strictly enforced in public.
Homosexuality was increasingly punished by the death penalty.
Greater state-sanctioned patrol reinforced these religious laws.
For the next 40 years, Saudi Arabia became one of the most theocratic and totalitarian regimes on the planet.
Tides starting to turn?
After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, relations deteriorated considerably between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the former accusing the latter of being a “U.S. agent” in the Persian Gulf region, representing American interests rather than Islam.
In 1981, Israel commenced Operation Opera, a preemptive strike on a nuclear reactor that Iraq purchased from France, which allegedly took place with Saudi Arabia’s cooperation, since the flight path was over Saudi territory.
In 1987, during a religious pilgrimage to Mecca (located in Saudi Arabia), a clash between Shi’ite Muslim demonstrators and Saudi Arabian security forces resulted in the death of more than 400 people. After this incident, Iran’s supreme leader declared in a public address that “these vile and ungodly Wahhabis, are like daggers which have always pierced the heart of the Muslims from the back,” and announced that Mecca was in the hands of “a band of heretics.”
Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman has called the supreme leader of Iran the “new Hitler.”
For clarification, Saudi Arabia is a predominantly Sunni Muslim society, while Iran is mainly Shi’ite Muslim. Leading Sunni and Shi’ite clerics in both countries deemed each other’s religious beliefs as incorrect for decades. An attempt was made by the Sunnis to take the Tomb of Imam Hussein, one of the important religious leaders of Shi’ite theology and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, whose life is considered the main difference between Sunni and Shi’ite sects.
In 1990, when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq appeared likely to invade Saudi Arabia, putting the Saudi kingdom and royal family at risk, King Fahd agreed to a U.S. offer of military assistance.
Saudi-born Osama Bin Laden then met with King Fahd and the Saudi defense minister, telling them not to depend on non-Muslim assistance, and offered to help defend Saudi Arabia with his Arab legion, who were battle-tested from a recent war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
When asked how Bin Laden would defend the fighters if the Iraqis used chemical and biological weapons against them, Bin Laden replied: We will fight them “with faith.”
Unsurprisingly, the Saudi monarchy rebuffed Bin Laden’s proposal, and thousands of U.S. troops were deployed in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden publicly denounced Saudi dependence on U.S. forces, arguing that the Quran prohibits non-Muslims from setting foot in the Arabian Peninsula, and that two holiest shrines of Islam, Mecca and Medina, should be defended exclusively by Muslims.
Bin Laden tried to convince Saudi religious scholars to issue a fatwa (religious ruling) condemning the U.S. military deployment, but senior clerics refused out of fear of repression. Bin Laden’s continued criticism of the Saudi monarchy led them to put him under house arrest, until he was exiled in 1991.
Three years later, Saudi Arabia revoked Bin Laden’s citizenship and froze all his assets, turning him into a fugitive, but the Al-Qaeda leader sought refuge under the Taliban government in Afghanistan, where he declared that the Saudi king was a heretic.
Since then, a war between the Saudi kingdom and Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda has raged on, with Al-Qaeda continuously attempting to overthrow the monarchy and replace it with its own version of fundamentalist Sunni theocratic rule.
Now, with the United States negotiating a game-changing peace agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Saudis are in a precarious position. On one hand, they share a common enemy with Israel in Iran, but how will Saudi Arabia’s religious fanatics react to such an agreement?
Such is the perplexing tug-of-war that is Middle Eastern geopolitics, and once again the United States is smack-dab in the middle of it.
“FM Cohen: ‘Israel is the closest it has ever been to peace agreement with Saudi Arabia.’” i24NEWS. July 31, 2023. https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/middle-east/the-gulf/1690828403-fm-cohen-israel-is-the-closest-it-has-ever-been-to-peace-agreement-with-saudi-arabia.
Surkes, Sue. “PM unveils planned Kiryat Shmona-Eilat fast rail, says could link to Saudi Arabia too.” The Times of Israel. July 30, 2023. https://www.timesofisrael.com/pm-unveils-planned-kiryat-shmona-eilat-fast-rail-says-could-link-to-saudi-arabia-too.
Confino, Jotam. “Saudi Arabia removes ‘practically all antisemitism’ from textbooks, report reveals.” UK Jewish News. May 24, 2023. https://www.jewishnews.co.uk/saudi-arabia-removes-practically-all-antisemitism-from-textbooks-report-reveals.
Rabinovich, Abraham. “The Yom Kippur War.” Schocken Books. p. 498. 2004.