Secret diplomacy in the Middle East

Secret diplomacy in the Middle East: Negotiations for Saudi Arabia’s normalization of relations with Israel


29 | 02 | 2024


The process responds to the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East, and it represents a response to the growing assertiveness of Iran and Turkey

En la imagen

The first Israeli passenger plane arriving in the Emirates after flying through Saudi Arabian airspace, in August 2020 [Pool]


“No to peace with Israel, no to recognition of the State of Israel, no to negotiations with Israel.” These are the three famous noes that were written in the Khartoum resolution of September 1, 1967[1]. After its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel was subjected to various boycotts and armed conflicts, mainly carried out by the Arab states to isolate the Israeli State diplomatically. Despite that, currently Israel has diplomatic relations with 168 countries of the 192 member states of the United Nations[2].

The Abraham Accords, signed on September 15, 2020, have marked a turning point in the geopolitics of the Middle East by achieving the normalization of relations between Israel and four Arab states (Sudan, Morocco, UAE, Bahrein)[3]. This assumes the victory of geopolitical realism over transnational symbolism. The ‘ease’ with which the population of the region has bought into the principle of ‘Arab-Israeli peace without Israeli-Palestinian peace’ could push other leaders to take the step[4].

Recently, the possibility was rumored that the United States was mediating so that Saudi Arabia, one of the Arab states with the greatest symbolic weight, secretly negotiated a normalization of relations with Israel. These rumors turned out to be true after Netanyahu exposed the proximity of a possible agreement in his speech of September 2023 at the United Nations General Assembly which, if materialized, would completely change the geopolitics of the Middle East.

These negotiations must be understood as one of the causes behind the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, with one of the objectives of this terrorist group being to frustrate any relations normalization. Indeed, the Israeli response has resulted in a sharp cooling of relations with Saudi Arabia. However, even if normalization is not possible in the short term, it is likely that the common interests between Israel and Saudi Arabia will allow a reopening of negotiations in the future.

This essay aims to carry out an analysis of how these negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia respond to the geopolitical dynamics of the Middle East and especially how they represent a response to the growing assertiveness of Iran and Turkey.

Secret diplomacy between Israel and Saudi Arabia with mediation of the US

Following the lead of the other four Arab states who signed the Abraham Accords in 2020, Saudi Arabia may be the next Member State of the Arab League to establish diplomatic ties with Israel[5]. Due to the Kingdom’s prominence in the Arab-Muslim world, however, the depth and influence that normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel would have would be more impactful. Millions of Muslims throughout the world see Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz as the Guardian of the Holy Sites (Mecca and Medina in the Hejaz region)[6]. Also, Saudi Arabia presents itself as one of the most influential Arab and Muslim states in the world, something that can be seen in the fact that in January 1, 2024, it became part of the BRICS (with Egypt and UAE);[7] and is the biggest oil exporter, exporting 14.5% of the world’s oil in 2021[8].         

It is known that since the beginning of 2023 the first secret negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Israel began to achieve official normalization between both states, with the United States acting as a mediator.[9]Until now, Saudi Arabia had shied away from recognition mainly for two reasons. The first is due to the transition that occurred in the electoral cycle between the Biden and Trump administrations. Mohammed bin Salman was hesitant to take the action at the time because he thought he might utilize the deal later to further solidify relations with the new incoming government of President-elect Joe Biden, with whom MBS was eager to forge relationships[10]. The other main reason is that Salman bin Abdelaziz has been reluctant to publicly engage with Israel due to the Palestinian cause. The Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, of which Salman bin Abdelaziz is one of the biggest supporters, states that normalization can only occur when Israel leaves the lands it occupied during the Six-Day War, letting the establishment of a Palestinian state (as stipulated in the Oslo Accords)[11].

King Salman reaffirmed during the signature of the Abraham Accords by other countries “the kingdom’s steadfast position toward the Palestinian issue.”[12] Despite that, it is thought that MBS follows his own advice and could convince his father to reconsider his position. MBS knows that, because of the relevant Saudi Arabia’s position, he can ask for biggest demands than the rest of the states who ratified the Abraham Accords. During his mandate, MBS had had the primary goals of diversifying the economy of Saudi Arabia, moving it away from oil dependency, and establishing a security policy with the primary focus on the defense from Iran[13]. Israel could become an important partner for the achievement of these goals.

Relating to economic diversification, despite the non-recognition, there already exists private Israeli investment on Saudi Arabia’s energy market. For example, Herzliya-based S&P 500 company Solar Edge is forming a joint venture with Riyadh-based Ajlan & Bros Holding to develop renewable energy. The joint venture, according to a statement from the two corporations, is being established to support smart renewable energy in Saudi Arabia in line with the ‘Vision 2030’ project of the Kingdom, which intends to wean the nation off its reliance on oil through diversifying revenue sources[14].

Apart from that, at the G20 summit in September 2023, President Joe Biden announced that India, Saudi Arabia and Emirates, Israel, France, Germany, Italy and the US are on negotiations for the creation of an ‘India-Middle East-Europe Corridor’ (IMEC). This corridor would include fiber optics, green hydrogen pipelines and the connection of different exclusive economic zones (EEZ)[15]. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated this was “a cooperation project that is the greatest in our history (…). Our country Israel will be a central junction in this economic corridor, our railways and our ports will open a new gateway from India through the Middle East to Europe, and back.”[16] Such a project may be the best push for the recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia, mostly considering that this would entail that Saudi Arabia would have access to easily purchase from the natural gas deposits that have been found in the Eastern Mediterranean[17]. At the same time the creation of this corridor makes the US more interested in this normalization to become a reality considering that Narendra Modi views it as an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative that weakens China’s influence over the Middle East[18].

In September 2023, Netanyahu delivered a speech at the United Nations General Assembly in which he addressed the cusps of a historic Saudi-Israel peace. In such speech he claimed to search for the peace with the Palestinians, but that this should not be a veto for not starting other negotiation processes.[19] MBS has pronounced himself over this matter in a way that suggested that the possibility of making some concession to the Palestinian Authorities (proposal declined by Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir) has been explored.

At the same time, it is interesting to observe that Saudi Arabia has demanded cooperation in the development of its own nuclear program as another condition to negotiate. On this matter, Netanyahu has stated that “Dozens of countries operate projects with civilian nuclear cores and with nuclear endeavors for energy. This is not something that endangers them nor their neighbors.”[20]  This may help Saudi Arabia at long term by diversifying its energy production from oil[21]. Even though, the possibility of this program morphing into a military one is a risk that should be taken into account.

Despite the relevance that the economic diversification plays on the negotiations challenge, the most relevant issues are still those concerning the balance of power in the region, which pushes up cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Egypt with Israel[22]. Iran represents the biggest threat both for Saudi Arabia and Israel; however, despite it being left unmentioned by any of the international agents involved in the mediated negotiations, also Turkey plays a key role on this geopolitical dynamic.

The common competitor of Israel and Saudi Arabia: Iran

Both regional actors, Iran and Saudi Arabia, compete to generate spheres of influence in their shared vital space by taking advantage of unstable situations. There is no scarcity of such situations in the Middle East; the Arab Spring provided both actors with additional possibilities, igniting military confrontations in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for regional leadership, influence, and power quotas, as well as the hierarchy of neighborhood ties. Their foreign policy has therefore changed to be more assertive. The concept of ‘Schiitischer Halbmond’ (Shiite Crescent) helps to understand this competition[23]. This concept refers to a geographical space in the Middle East in which there is a significant presence of Shiite minorities that can be used by Iran to extend its influence. This space of influence that Iran wants to cover goes from the Mediterranean Sea (Lebanon and Syria, but also Palestine, thus also involving Israel) to Khorasan (Afghanistan and Pakistan), including Yemen as a dagger in the back of Saudi Arabia. Suleimani[24] himself would explain the strategic relevance of this growth:

“The revival of Shia under the leadership of Iran creates a polarity and power for Iran, which has a political dimension and also a security dimension and also an economic dimension... We know that three countries Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq contain the most oil in the world. [Saudi] Arabia is first, Iran and Iraq are second and third, and that approximately 70 percent of the world’s oil is located where the Shia live or about 80 percent is where the Shia live. Iraq’s oil is in this corridor between Basra and Baghdad; Kuwait, and [Saudi] Arabia, which 80 percent of its oil is located in the Shia-populated places like Damam [and] Qatif, and it is also clear for Iran. The political leadership of Shiism exponentially adds to Iran's ethnic power.”[25]

China facilitated an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reestablish diplomatic ties at the start of March 2023. Normalization between the two Middle Eastern rivals had been planned for some time, but the fact that Beijing mediated the ‘détente’ shocked the Middle East. Despite that these negotiations are not more than a simple good beginning; the question of how smoothly Saudi Arabia and Iran can normalize their relations is more important. What assurances will China offer in the event that one of the parties violates the contract? Sincerity be damned, the differences between the two nations are still readily apparent[26].

Likewise, bilateral relations between Israel and Iran, already frayed since the Iranian revolution, have taken on much more hostile overtones, based on assumptions, speculation and mutual threats of attacks and destruction[27]. On 9 September 2015, Khamenei said in his speech during the discussion about the JCPOA: “I’d say to Israel that they will not see the end of these 25 years.”[28] It is also known that Hamas receives political, financial, and armed assistance from Iran[29] (promoting the destruction of Israel trough Jihad[30] ). This is proven by the fact that even Mahmoud Abbas said “Hamas is funded by Iran. It claims it is financed by donations, but the donations are nothing like what it receives from Iran.”[31]Along with finance, training, weapons, explosives, political, diplomatic, and organizational assistance, Iran has also given Hezbollah, another adversary of Israel, support in order to induce the group to act against Israel[32]. In its 1985 manifesto, Hezbollah said that one of its four key objectives was “Israel's final withdrawal from Lebanon as a prelude to its ultimate obliteration.”[33] Hezbollah reportedly got $400 million from Iran, according to allegations made public in February 2010.[34]

Due to this, Israel and Saudi Arabia have started an unofficial coordination initiative by exchanging intelligence despite not having established diplomatic relations. Anwar Eshki, a former Saudi Israeli ambassador to Israel who was close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and a retired major general in the Saudi military, met at the Council on Foreign Relations office in Washington to talk about “their common interests in opposing Iran.”[35] Opposition to Iran-backed military regimes in the Middle East, such as Bashar al-Assad’s in Syria, is among some of these shared interests. Great importance has also been given to preventing Ira’s influence sphere from expanding. Additionally, Israel has been endorsing Saudi Arabia’s actions against Iran since 2017. In a diplomatic cable sent from Israel’s Foreign Ministry to its embassies abroad, diplomats were instructed to support Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and Saudi Arabia in the Iran-Saudi Arabia proxy war in order to put pressure on Iran and Hezbollah, considering them rivals of both Saudi Arabia and Israel[36].

It should also be noted that a normalization agreement with Israel would grant Saudi Arabia multiple advantages in its confrontation with Iran. The first of them is that it could demand that the United States lift restrictions on the Saudi purchase of weapons from Washington. Furthermore, just as Morocco did in 2020, Saudi Arabia could also gain access to high-tech Israel military products[37], which would allow it a much more credible deterrence against Iran. Finally, an agreement could eventually, so the Saudis hope, open the way to a nuclear program that could bring Saudi Arabia closer to having an A-bomb; in this sense, Mohammed bin Salman described negotiations over normalization with Israel as serious and getting closer to a deal every day, while stipulating that his country would seek a nuclear weapon if Iran obtained one. “If they get one, we have to get one,” he said in an interview[38].

Turkey’s strategy, catalyst for a Saudi Arabia-Israel Agreement

Due to ongoing conflicts or post conflict situations in which Turkey is involved (Syria, Iraq, Sudan, and Libya) Saudi expert Saud al-Sarhan considers that the expansion of Turkish influence in the Middle East under Recep Tayyip Erdogan represents a “neo-otomanist” approach and as such a threat towards the region[39]. Yossi Cohen, Mossad’s chief, agreed with this affirmation in 2020[40].

Turkey recognized the State of Israel in 1949, being the first Muslim-majority state to do so. They have even hold military, strategic, and diplomatic cooperation. Despite that, during the last decade, the relations between Israel and Turkey have been marked by simultaneous competition and cooperation. The diplomatic conflicts between Israel and Turkey started on May 14, 2018, when President Donald Trump declared Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel. At that moment Erdogan accused Israel of the crime of genocide against Palestinians and considered that the recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel was an act of state terrorism[41]. This led to a reciprocal ambassadors withdrawal that lasted for four years[42].

From there on, tensions between Israel and Turkey continued to grow. One of the main issues of tensions has been the relations between Turkey and Hamas, as Israel accused Turkey of cooperation with this group, and of hosting Saleh al-Arouri (a top Hamas leader), letting Hamas operate attacks from Turkish territory[43] or giving fake Turkish passports to Hamas members[44]. Netanyahu even called Erdogan “Hamas biggest supporter.”[45]

Apart from the tensions derived of the Hamas matter, the Mediterranean Sea has been another point of friction between Israel and Turkey; and that, for several reasons. The first one derives from the Libya (GNA)–Turkey maritime deal, through which both countries delimitated their respective Economic Exclusive Zones, carving in this way a maritime corridor in the Eastern Mediterranean. This deal is part of the conflict for the disputed waters and territories between Turkey and both Greece and Cyprus. Israel condemned it because, in its view, it would go against International Law, taking into consideration that UNCLOS must be interpreted as customary law[46]. Netanyahu’s aim was to support Greece and Cyprus, not just because both countries are Israel’s allies, but also because Turkish maritime expansionism could entail a threat to Israel, considering that 99% of its exports must transit require pass through the Eastern Mediterranean[47].

Another point of friction in the Mediterranean is related to the East Med pipeline, which is thought to be able to connect the gas deposits of Egypt and Israel with Cyprus and Greece. This entails a possible exclusion of Turkey from the Green Gas Med Club[48]. At the same time, this pipeline is said to be able to provide 10% of European Union’s natural gas demand (specially the demand in the Balkans), which makes it enter in direct competition with the Southern Gas Corridor that tries to connect the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline with the Balkans[49]

The Abraham accords had a negative impact on Turkish foreign policy, mostly due to the normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Both as tourist destination and as transportation hub on the way to the Far East, the UAE offer travelers an alternative to Istanbul (reducing its geographical privileges). Similarly, Turkey may suffer if energy connections between Israel and the UAE are developed. These industries are all regarded as essential to the Turkish economy[50]. It is also important to mention that the UAE has rivalries with Qatar, which is the most important Turkish ally in the region[51].

Despite all of this, on August 17, 2022, relations between Israel and Turkey where restored. These moves respond in a certain way to Turkey’s economic crisis, which has led it to try to restore relations with Egypt, UAE and Israel to attract important foreign investment. Despite that, frictions, especially over Palestine, Syria (where Israel and Turkey had disagreements over how to deal with the Kurdistan), and the Mediterranean Sea remain[52].

At the same time, it also exists a competitive approach between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for the control of major influence over the Middle East. One of the first areas of divergence has been Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is opposed to Saudi Arabia. The main reason for this is because the Saudi monarchy sees the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat to its throne[53].

It must be also considered that the 2017 diplomatic crisis in Qatar caused issues in the relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with Turkey siding with Qatar in the on-going diplomatic conflict against Saudi Arabia. According to M. Nicolas J. Firzli, a geoeconomics expert, the Turkish government has attempted to take advantage of the crisis for its own ends by promoting an expansionist Neo-Ottoman agenda at the expense of the Gulf Cooperation Council[54]. At the same time, Saudi Arabia has had significant worries about Turkey's involvement in Sudan because it believes that Turkey is aiming to sever Sudan from Saudi influence, thus endangering Saudi Arabia's security[55].

The normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel could suppose a diminishing of Turkey in the region, mostly because, as Netanyahu explained in his September’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly, this could lead to the creation of an unofficial block in the region between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. All four of them are interested in the collaboration on the Green Corridor, a project which would let Egypt and Israel to export their natural gas to Saudi Arabia, and that would make it easier for Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates to export to Europe, as all of them are at the center of a route between Europe and India. At the same time, all of them share their antagonism with the Muslim Brotherhood, although Saudi Arabia has done some approaches with Hamas to facilitate the deal with Israel[56]. Another sharing aspect is the consideration of Erdogan’s supposedly neo-Otomanism as a threat. Finally, both Israel and Saudi Arabia have recently shared concerns on Turkish implications in Nagarno-Karabaj and its alliance with Azerbaijan[57].

Despite this geopolitical scenario, Erdogan has raised support to the normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia[58]. How is this possible? Probably, the best answer is found on the idiom “if you can’t beat them, join them”. According to Rina Bassist, the new Erdogan’s approach is understood as Turkey trying to establish again cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Israel considering that it can’t fall into isolationism and that they all share the same threat from Iran. For example, one area they have in common in this matter is their declared opposition towards the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad[59]. At the same time, Turkey does not want to be shunned the Green Corridor project. As stated by Erdogan, “During the meeting, international and regional issues, political and economic relations between the two countries as well as the latest developments regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were discussed.”[60] So, it is interesting to observe how Turkey has been an agent that has been at the same a catalyst for the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel due to the competition it offered, but now it also normalizes its relations with these two states because there is an opportunity for improving regional cooperation and stability.

Israel’s war against Hamas: Implications for the negotiations

On October 7, Hamas launched an unprecedented incursion from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel, which was followed by a declaration of war by Netanyahu against this terrorist group.[61] The Israeli response has been forceful through the use of bombings and ground operations, after a warning to the civilian population to leave the north of the strip.[62]

No event in the international field happens by chance, and some experts consider that the Hamas attack could be a reaction by this group to the acceleration in negotiations between Israel and Saudi Arabia for the normalization of relations. Hamas feels that through this agreement its cause would be pushed to the background and forgotten due to the lack of Arab support. As Ismail Haniya, one of the main Hamas’ leaders, indicated, “All the normalization agreements that you have formed with that entity (Israel) cannot resolve this (Palestinian) conflict.”[63] Hezbollah has also spoken out on the matter, indicating that “the Palestinian problem is a living issue that will not die until victory and liberation.”[64] As indicated by Ahmed Abu Douh, an associate member of the British Royal Institute of International Relations (Chatham House) and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, the objective of Hamas “is to frustrate the Israeli government's attempts to separate regional peace, represented by the normalization agreements, and the resolution of the Palestinian question”[65]. Similarly, Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director of the International Crisis Group, indicated that Hamas may have acted in part out of fear of an “imminent further marginalization of the Palestinian cause.”[66] United States Senator Lindsey Graham added the Iranian factor to the equation, claiming that “A peace agreement between those two nations would be a nightmare for Iran and Hamas.”[67]

The position established for the moment between the United States and Israel has been to “agree to undertake broader diplomatic efforts to maintain stability throughout the region and prevent the conflict from expanding.”[68] It is important to emphasize that the conflict has caused a setback in the negotiations, mainly due to the support of Arab public opinion for the Palestinian cause. Furious protesters have taken to the streets across the Middle East to express solidarity with the Palestinians, condemning Israel and the United States[69].While condemning Israel’s blockade and demanding a cease-fire, Saudi authorities made an effort to maintain the national narrative of the country centered on the prince’s ambitions to make Saudi Arabia a major international financial center[70]. However, Saudi officials have sent a far more direct message in private meetings and phone calls with US officials. When addressing a US Senate delegation which visited Riyadh in October 2023, the prince and other Saudi dignitaries set a menacing tone against the US government[71]. Similarly, Prince Faisal bin Farhan stated that “If we are not willing to overcome all of the difficulties, all of the challenges, all of the history that is involved in this issue, then we will never have a real peace and security in the region.”[72]

This is why, according to Dana El Kurd, an expert on the Middle East and Palestine at the University of Richmond, violence “may temper enthusiasm” for a Saudi-Israeli agreement in the short term, but in the medium term it “could be turned into a weapon by both parties to justify it even further, such as framing it in terms of the fight against terrorism.”[73] This same expert has also considered that the biggest loser in the Hamas attack has been the Palestinian authorities, because they have “once again proven to be irrelevant both to the Palestinians and to the international community.”

Finally, it is important to mention the reactions of Iran and Turkey. In the case of Iran, the Ayatollah Jamenei has verbally supported the Hamas attack against Israel despite having assured that Iran did not motivate it. Likewise, he has also accused Saudi Arabia of having betrayed the Palestinians through negotiations with Israel. At the end of the day, Iran benefits from the deterioration of negotiations[74]. On the other hand, Turkey has condemned the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip as a “criminal act.”[75] Nevertheless, Erdogan has also alleged that “Hamas is not a terrorist organization, it is a liberation group, ‘mujahideen’ waging a battle to protect its lands and people.”[76] This statement distances its position from that of the majority of NATO members. Something interesting to note is that Turkey has offered to act as a mediator between Hamas and Israel[77].  Such an attempt of mediation can be considered as part of Turkey’s strategy to be an influential agent in the Middle East, but it will hardly be achieved if it has demonstrated to be biased. On the other hand, states do not negotiate with groups recognized as terrorists, so it is most likely that with or without mediation, Israel would refuse.


In conclusion, it could be stated that the secret diplomacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, mediated by the United States, is an example of putting Realpolitik before an ideological position, thus making a virtue of necessity. The Palestinian issue continues to be a point of friction that is difficult to resolve between both parties, but Prince Mohammed bin Salman has shown to have a different vision regarding its resolution than his predecessors. The escalation of the conflict between Hamas and Israel, with Palestine as a negatively affected third party, and above all Israel’s controversial response, has affected a possible resolution. However, it is early to say whether it has prevented it, and it is possible that it simply prevents it in the short term, but not in the long term, thus maintaining the inertia of the Abraham Accords. Rather, it is important to highlight that the Hamas attack can be interpreted as an attempt to avoid this normalization of relations, since it would leave the terrorist organization in a position of weakness, especially taking into account that its objectives are not peace with Israel and the sovereign independence of Palestine within the borders established in Oslo, but on the contrary to gain control of the entire territory. On that, it differs from Saudi Arabia, which seeks peace and stability in Palestine, something necessary, in the eyes of the Saudis, for a prosperous Middle East.

It is also necessary to mention that the main reason why Saudi Arabia seeks normalization with Israel is because they both have common threats, especially the one stemming from Iran, whose area of ​​influence has grown over the last few decades, and which benefits from a divided Middle East. That is why defense against this threat shared by Israel and Saudi Arabia weighs more than other issues. That has led the prince to consider normalizing ties with Israel, even before the conflict with Palestine is resolved.


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