US bid to convince allies to normalize ties with Israel is floundering 

Despite repeated high-level visits, US officials have so far failed to convince the Saudis to normalize relations with Israel. The recent visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also confirms speculation that Gulf Cooperation Council countries are striving for more autonomy

June 09, 2023 by Abdul Rahman
Blinken's visit to Saudi Arabia
(Photo: via Saudi Press Agency)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded his three-day visit to Saudi Arabia on Thursday, June 8. He was the second top US official to visit the kingdom in less than a month, after National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. His visit was widely seen as a desperate attempt by the Joe Biden administration to hold on to its “closest ally” in the West Asian region.   

Before Blinken started his tour, he had stated that normalization of Saudi-Israel relations was one of the top priorities of his government. However, reports indicate that Blinken not only failed to get any assurance from the Saudis on that front, but had to concede some crucial ground on significant regional issues. 

During his tour, Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on June 6, attended a Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers’ meet in Riyadh on June 7, and a meeting of a so-called Global Coalition to defeat ISIS on June 8.  

Normalization with Israel is stuck?

Hours before he traveled to Saudi Arabia, Blinken addressed a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group in the US, claiming that the Biden administration “has a real national security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.” He also noted that there are no real prospects of a two-state solution in the near future and that his government will not push for it.  

On June 8, before leaving Saudi Arabia, Blinken addressed a press conference jointly with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Riyadh, where he reiterated his government’s resolve to work for Israel-Saudi normalization. However, Blinken was contradicted by Faisal bin Farhan who pointed out that “normalization of ties with Israel will have limited benefit without a pathway to peace for the Palestinians.”  

Earlier, Blinken ended up committing to work for the resolution of the conflict in Palestine and the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders in a joint statement issued a day after his meeting with the GCC foreign ministers.

The statement, without naming Israel, underlined “the need to refrain from all unilateral measures that undermine a two-state solution and escalate tensions, to preserve the historic status quo in Jerusalem’s holy sites.”

Two of the GCC members, Bahrain and the UAE, have already “normalized” their relations with Israel under the so-called Abraham accords mediated by the US.  

Autonomous foreign policy

The statement indicated that the US may have conceded crucial geopolitical ground on other issues as well. For example, while it raised the issue of “freedom of navigation and maritime security in the region,” hinting at alleged Iranian threats, it welcomed the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in a reversal of the US’ earlier cautious tone.

The statement also supported the ongoing peace efforts in Yemen and expressed the need for an inclusive intra-Yemeni political process. This is despite the fact that the Biden administration has maintained that the Houthis are Iranian allies and the war in Yemen is a proxy war. Successive US governments since Barack Obama have provided billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners to be used against the civilian population in Yemen.  

In another significant development, the US seems to have toned down its objections to Arab countries’ normalizing their relations with Syria. The joint statement expressed support for the Arab countries’ “efforts to resolve the [Syrian] crisis in a step-for-step manner.” The statement reiterated that peace in the country should be on the basis of the UN resolution 2254 (2015) and expressed commitments to Syria’s unity and sovereignty. 

This is despite some GCC countries, such as Qatar and Kuwait—close allies of the US — expressing their dissent at the normalization with Syria. The US had earlier stated that the US does not “support normalization with Damascus” or “others normalizing this.”  

The outcome of Blinken’s visit to Saudi Arabia is similar to the outcome of President Joe Biden’s visit to the Kingdom last year when he failed to convince MBS to increase oil production to ease global prices. It fits into growing speculations about the GCC becoming more autonomous and no longer toeing the US line.