16.05.2024 Author: Madi Khalis Maalouf

What is behind the talks on the sidelines of the WEF in Riyadh?

the talks on the sidelines of the WEF in Riyadh

The capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, hosted a special session of the World Economic Forum on April 28 and 29. The theme of this year’s event was “Global Cooperation, Growth and Energy for Development”. However, it was not the economic component of the event that attracted the attention of observers. Negotiations on the situation in the Gaza Strip were held on the sidelines of the forum.

The talks were attended by the head of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, British Foreign Secretary David Cameron, as well as the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait. In addition, senior representatives from several EU countries, Jordan and Oman attended the meeting. Later, the arrival of an Israeli delegation was also announced.

Despite these new efforts, there is another deadlock in the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the lack of any meaningful progress in these negotiations suggests that this meeting had other objectives.

Thus, information about a possible settlement of the crisis in Gaza through the normalization of Israel’s relations with Saudi Arabia has been increasingly surfacing in the media. It is reported that Tel Aviv is ready to end the conflict if it is provided with security guarantees, which will be achieved through international control over the Palestinian territories with the participation of the Arab partners of the US.

Everyone understands that Netanyahu and his far-right government will most likely reject the concept of regional integration of Israel at first in order to ensure the country’s defense capability independent of the United States. However, for Washington, given the weakening of its position in the Middle East, this scenario seems to be the most optimal.

According to several media reports, the trilateral deal would require the United States to sign a defense treaty with Saudi Arabia that would include commitments to the kingdom’s security, agree to a KSA civilian nuclear program and the sale of advanced weapons. In return, the Saudis would agree to normalize relations with Israel, lower their profile with China, and become more aligned with US interests in the region. For Israel, accepting as yet “undefined concessions” to the Palestinians could be a major gain from broader political and economic gains by normalizing relations with a key Arab and Muslim country.

For Biden, the agreement to normalize Saudi-Israeli relations represents a potential landmark achievement in his foreign policy program, which has made very modest progress during his term. This goes some way toward explaining the American leader’s unwavering support for Israel during the Gaza war, as well as his ideological and political commitment to Israel. Biden sees the conflict as a means to stymie the formation of a regional axis of American allies in the Middle East.

Despite the fact that the United States declares the development of economic and security cooperation as the main tasks for the future Arab-Israeli alliance, normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations is a strategically important maneuver for the White House. It is not only about ensuring Israel’s security, but also Washington’s desire to consolidate its presence and influence in the Middle East in the long term, even given the current decline in its own position in the region. This integration also fulfills American interests in containing Chinese expansion and countering Iran.

At present, such a prospect does not seem so unrealistic. A new round of escalation in Iranian-Israeli recriminations, followed by military action taken each against the other, has established new rules of the game in the Middle East. The old red lines have been crossed and it appears that the acute phase of the conflict is just around the corner. The recent exchange of attacks between Tehran and Tel Aviv is only a modest model of the war to come.

Washington has previously advocated the creation of an integrated air defense alliance between the Gulf states and Israel. The first stage was through the Abraham Accords in 2020, through which Bahrain and the UAE normalized relations with the Jewish state. The second phase occurred in September 2021 with Israel’s transition from US EUCOM to US CENTCOM, the US combat command in the Middle East, which includes the Arab states.

This move changed the strategic landscape. Under the auspices of CENTCOM, the Israel Defense Forces began conducting exercises with Arab forces, long-range air operations capabilities emerged, effective missile defenses were established, and Tel Aviv’s former adversaries turned to it for military technology. The transition also created a more adapted military environment for the IDF in the region. However, after the events of October 7, 2023, the delicate balance of power in the Middle East was upset, and the security system the Americans had been refining for years failed.

Scaling up the conflict to subregional and regional dimensions is disadvantageous to no one. A number of Arab states have already openly stood up to defend the Jewish state from Iranian drones. For example, Amman has actively shot down Iranian aircraft, destroying three of its own planes, Kuwait has provided its airspace to US aircraft, and Saudi Arabia has coordinated control and intelligence sharing. However, most of the Gulf states, including the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman, refused to participate in Israel’s defense, fearing a negative reaction from their own populations.

At the same time, some Arab states had to transform and shift investment and logistics megaprojects that were originally (until October 7, 2023) designed to utilize Israel’s resources or territory. For example, Qatar and the UAE were forced to postpone a project to develop a trade route along the India-Europe corridor, which according to the preliminary plan was to pass through Israel. Doha and Abu Dhabi decided to abandon this idea in favor of a route through Iraq after the escalation of the conflict in Gaza.

In addition, Qatar has also suffered reputational and financial losses due to the inability of Hamas’ political wing to have any meaningful impact on the military wing of the Palestinian radical movement. Doha is currently trying to rid itself of this toxic and costly asset.

As paradoxical as it may sound, the Biden administration is now actually trying to resuscitate the Middle East Strategic Alliance proposed by Trump, wrapping it in the cover of a momentous diplomatic victory to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; this would bean obvious move in the run-up to the US presidential election. The Gulf States, in turn, are also sending the current White House administration clear signals, primarily in economic terms, about the need for an early end to the Gaza conflict and their fatigue with it.

However, with the understanding that the Americans, by their ill-considered and shortsighted actions, have by now tightly clamped their loyal partners from among the Arabian monarchies in the vise between Iran and Israel, the leadership of these states should carefully weigh the financial and reputational consequences Washington’s next adventure will inflict on them.


Madi Khalis Maalouf, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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