Since the ascension of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Riyadh has been witnessing dramatic transitions in its political, social and cultural arenas. The conservative kingdom has been in need of some of these transitions for decades, such as those to fight corruption that has spread among the high ranks of the Saudi officials and, particularly, among the already wealthy princes. The unneeded social constraints the religious authority were putting on Saudi women saw progress as well; hence, they now have the right to drive cars freely after a decades-long taboo. On political and regional levels, the Saudi moves were not promising as Riyadh became engaged in many pointless conflicts that would cost the country a lot in the short and long term.
One of the biggest shifts Saudi Arabia experienced recently was its zeal toward having normalized ties with Israel, obvious in the writings and interviews of many Saudi intellectuals and the elite close to the prince and even by the crown prince himself. In May 2017, days before Trump's visit to Riyadh, the Wall Street Journal leaked that Saudi Arabia had voiced to the U.S. administration its willingness to establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel without conditions and its readiness to withdraw from the initiative it submitted to the Arab summit in 2002 that demanded a Palestinian state be established on the 1967 territories, the return of the refugees and the withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for recognition of Israel and full normalized ties with it.
A week after, Saudi activists launched the hashtag "#Saudis back normalized ties with Israel," which was highly criticized in the region as it coincided with an Israeli attack against Gaza. It is noteworthy that a Saudi teenage girl was arrested at the time by Saudi authorities for only criticizing the hashtag in a video she published on her Twitter account.
Rather, Saudi media outlets have become an information platform for Israeli leaders on the Arab world. This trend was most recently seen in the interview the Saudi news website Elaph did with extremist Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has been calling for years to wipe the blockaded Gaza Strip from the map. In the interview, Lieberman held the unarmed demonstrators in Gaza's return march responsible for their own deaths. Yes, he blamed Hamas for the losses inflicted on Palestinians in a peaceful march, where no Israeli citizen was reportedly injured.
In late April, Israeli media published that the Saudi prince reportedly said to a group of American Jews that "Palestinians should accept a peace deal with Israel or shut up."
Three dynamics, as far as I understand, explain the Saudi eagerness to normalize ties with Israel: The search for international legitimacy; identical interest to counter the Arab Spring; and facing supposed Iranian danger.
The country's international role has mattered to the Saudi kingdom since the Treaty of Darin was signed in 1915 between Great Britain and King Abdul Aziz Al Saud, which paved the way for founding the Saudi state. Since then, the Saudi family's consecutive leaders have developed their own political equations to attain internal consensus over the hopeful king and to ally with the existing world's hegemon — namely Great Britain at that time and the U.S. nowadays — with strategies to protect the newly formed kingdom. This, according to them, would enable their rule to last as long as possible and allow the kingdom to avoid potential conflicts from both internal and neighboring circles. Salman understands this equation well and seeks to neutralize any probable complications that may arise from inside the Saudi family that could hinder his ambition to succeed his father. To do this, the prince has to satisfy Washington or at least not oppose it. It seems that Salman has been advised that only the Israel issue will further his relations with Washington.
Second, Saudi Arabia has almost an identical interest with Israel in countering the Arab Spring and its impact. Many Israeli officials and intellectuals had said on different occasions that the Arab Spring had represented one of the greatest challenges to Israel since it was created in 1948. Israel, to counter this threat, had extended a helping hand to the first moves of the Arab counter-revolution bloc — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt — embodied in the Egyptian coup that took place in the summer of 2013 against Egypt's first ever democratically elected President Mohammed Morsi. At the time Israel was promoting the Egyptian putschist leaders in the West and among the U.S. lobbies. Saudi Arabia had been funding Cairo's military junta with billions of dollars to help their rule survive the sharp economic crisis.
Third, and most importantly, the supposed Iranian threat Israeli and Saudi policymakers have been highlighting recently. The latest international security conference held in Munich saw almost analogous Saudi and Israeli speeches against Iran, both asserting the necessity of international action against Iran and its policies in the Middle East. The Saudi drive to normalized ties in this regard was well-received by Israel's army chief Gen. Gadi Eisenkot who said in an interview with Saudi news website Elaph that his country was ready to cooperate with Saudi Arabia to reduce Iran's influence in the Middle East, adding that, "Israel is ready to share intelligence information with Saudi Arabia in this regard." As Saudi Arabia has no military capacity to be engaged in a dramatic confrontation with Iran, Riyadh's princes kept up good relations with the U.S. administration in hope that it would take part in the confrontation and searched, at the same time, to improve ties with the U.S.' ally in the region, Israel, which also has a similar interest.
* Researcher in Middle East affairs