US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Saudi Prime Minister and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan as well as the Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval on May 7.
This was a meeting that was described as backing “regional integration.” It comes amid several recent suggestions that Saudi Arabia and Israel could still be on the path toward relations.
The US meeting with the Saudis, UAE and India is important.
The US has been talking to the Saudis about Yemen and Sudan. The US has said it wants to see a secure Middle East that is interconnected with India. Towards that end, the US is part of the I2U2 framework of Israel, India, the UAE and US.
Reports in Israel late last week said that Israel was hopeful about potential ties with Saudi Arabia.
Sullivan spoke at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and discussed Israel’s integration in the region. He mentioned the Negev Forum and other developments. He was asked about Israel-Saudi normalization.
“We have the interest and bandwidth to promote normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And in fact, it’s this administration that has produced the first tangible step of these two countries coming close together with the opening of the airspace over Saudi Arabia for civilian flights from Israel. But ultimately getting to full normalization is a declared national security interest of the United States, we have been clear about that.”
Riyadh is keeping its cards close to its chest on the Israel issue. It’s entirely plausible that a major change may be in the works, or that this could take months or years. On the other side of the coin, Saudi Arabia is moving much faster on issues such as bringing the Syrian regime back to the Arab League and reconciling with Iran. Iran and Saudi Arabia reconciled in March in a deal brokered by China. Both countries want to move quickly to reopen embassies and start normal business again.
In addition, Saudi is helping in the Sudan crisis, trying to help broker a deal and helping people flee. Riyadh is therefore pursuing a number of important policies simultaneously. This kind of flexibility and speed is interesting because it means Riyadh may be open to new ideas and be willing to take risks regarding Israel. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia has policy goals and things it would like to see happen.
The overall issue of regional integration is of long-term importance. India recently conducted training with Greece as part of the Iniochos drill. Indian pilots took part in the important exercise. In addition, Israel’s defense minister was in Greece recently. He also went to Cyprus. These relationships are key for Israel. They are also increasingly important to the Gulf and India.
Iran is also focused on regional integration. It has sent key officials to Oman and Lebanon recently; and its president to Syria. It is pleased to see Syria back in the Arab League. Some may think that Syria moving back to the Arab League may mean that it is moving away from Iran. This is unlikely.
At the same time, Iran watches closely Israel’s ties with the Arab states. Iran’s Mehr News noted on May 8; “since 2020, Israel has been on the move to break its historical isolation with top-down normalization deals with Arab states such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morrocco, etc. In recent months, it was on the cusp of another deal with Saudi Arabia, an Arab heavyweight with which normalization would impact the whole region.”
There is a new era of diplomacy in the region
Iran, therefore, understands what is at stake.
There is a new era of diplomacy in the region. Israel is part of this new era. It has been sending key ministers to places like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Cyprus and Greece. The US is also focused on regional integration and so is Iran.
This could be viewed as a kind of Great Game for diplomats. A unique golden age of diplomacy in the Middle East. This is a time when the region is dominated by a return to peace and a move away from some of the extremism and wars that impacted the region since the 1980s.
It is not entirely clear if this trend will continue, or if it is temporary; but the overall sense in Washington, Riyadh, Tehran, Jerusalem and other capitals, is that this does appear to be a trend worth investing in. In that sense, the concept of regional integration is very important.
However, there are big players and differing views. China wants to play a role in the region and was key to the Iran-Saudi deal. Gulf states are joining the SCO, which is dominated by Russia and China. The US doesn’t want to see China make inroads among traditional allies. The US is also skeptical of Syria’s regime returning to the Arab League, especially since the US has forces in Syria and it is not clear where that mission is heading.
It’s worth noting that the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) put out a recent report titled "Build It and They Will Come: A US Strategy for Integrating Middle East Air and Missile Defenses."
They noted that in January 2022 they had “urged the US government to seize the opportunity to start building a new Middle East defense architecture premised on bringing America’s regional partners together in common cause to counter the growing menace from Iran. Among its top recommendations, the report called on Congress to pass legislation prioritizing the need for a region-wide air defense network to help deter and defeat the escalating missile and drone threat posed by Iran and its terrorist proxies.”
Now they are elaborating, asserting that “US partners capable of contributing to the broader effort, CENTCOM should be prepared to move forward even if only a smaller subset of Arab states initially agrees to join the effort alongside Israel. Its aim should be to prove out the significant benefits of greater air defense integration over time to all its partners and remain open to adding the resources and capabilities of other prospective participants as their comfort and confidence in the system grows.”
Integrated air defense may have a long way to go but regional integration is part of this story. Israel’s work with Central Command is important and there are implications for the air and maritime security realms.