Quarterly Updates for (16 Feb 2018 — 15 May 2018)

The Saudi role in Middle East affairs was evolving this quarter, particularly around Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s campaign to consolidate his own power and further intensify Saudi Arabia’s antagonistic foreign policy toward Iran and to enhance the kingdom’s unofficial but warming relationship with Israel.

Rumored last quarter, the Saudi government ended its seventy-year ban on Israeli aircraft flying in its airspace, as well as aircraft flying to or from Israel. On 3/22, Air India flew a Boeing 767 from New Delhi to Tel Aviv along a new, shorter route across Saudi Arabia. The flight marked the first tangible sign of a warming of ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia and prompted Netanyahu to comment (3/25) on the “huge” potential it held for Israel’s future role in the region. Following an Israeli report about secret Egypt-mediated Saudi-Israeli negotiations leading up to the flight, a PA official also remarked on the significance of the development (Channel 10 [Israel], 3/9). “The warm relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia are damaging the PA,” he said. “It seems that Israel is no longer the greatest enemy in the region anymore.”

Meanwhile, Crown Prince Mohammed embarked on a twenty-day visit to the United States in 3–4/2018. He met with Trump (3/20) and other U.S. officials to discuss a wide range of issues. According to some press reports, Trump administration officials briefed him on the contents of their long-awaited peace plan (see “The Trump Initiative” above). Bin Salman also gave (4/2) an extensive interview to The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, covering topics from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the JCPOA. In response to a question about the Jewish people’s right to a nation-state, the Saudi crown prince said, “I believe that each people, anywhere, has a right to live in their peaceful nation. I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.” Goldberg followed up with a question about Saudi Arabia’s shared interests with Israel, to which the crown prince responded, “Of course there are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and countries like Egypt and Jordan.” His comments prompted Goldberg to speculate that “the Saudis, like many Arab leaders, have tired of the Palestinians.”

While the Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership neglected to respond directly to the interview, Hamas, PIJ, and PFLP leaders all condemned the crown prince’s comments. The Saudi monarch and father of the crown prince then clarified (4/3) that Riyadh remained “steadfast” in its dedication to “the Palestinian issue and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.”

Nevertheless, the crown prince’s statements concerning the Palestinians remained a source of tension. On 4/29, Israel’s Channel 10 reported that Crown Prince Mohammed told a group of U.S. Jewish leaders in New York on 3/27 that the Palestinian leadership needed to accept the Trump administration’s peace plan or “shut up and stop complaining.” He also reportedly said that the Palestinians were not a top priority for Saudi Arabia because he had “much more urgent and important issues to deal with,” such as Iran.