Inside the U.S.-brokered Red Sea island deal with Saudi Arabia
In an exclusive excerpt from the English version of his book 'Trump’s Peace,' Barak Ravid goes behind the scenes of the deal between Saudi Arabia and Egypt
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Concordia Summit
The following is an exclusive excerpt from the English version of Axios reporter Barak Ravid’s Trump’s Peace: The Abraham Accords and the Reshaping of the Middle East, published in Hebrew in December 2021 and out this week in English.
When I published the story about the secret negotiations around the Red Sea islands on May 23, it received a lot of attention both in the US and in the Middle East. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan was asked about the story during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He didn’t deny it. “We have always seen normalization as the end result of a path,” he said. “Normalization between the region and Israel will bring benefits but we won’t be able to reap those benefits unless we are able to address the issue of Palestine.” I published the story as Biden’s aides, McGurk and Hochstein, were about to travel to Saudi Arabia to continue discussions about Biden’s possible visit, oil production and the Red Sea deal. Biden’s aides consulted with Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata on how to mitigate the fallout from the story. This was no easy feat, as the Saudis were deeply unimpressed. When McGurk and Hochstein arrived in Riyadh, the Saudis protested that the secret negotiations were now out in the open. “The publication of the story was very painful for them and as a result the negotiations got stuck for quite some time,” a senior Israeli official told me. But the fact that the story was out also created an opportunity for the White House. Biden was trying to push back on criticism from within the Democratic Party about his possible trip to Saudi Arabia. The president needed Saudi Arabia to increase oil production in order to try to bring gas prices down ahead of the midterm elections. He also needed it to be able to push for a wide range of sanctions on Russian oil amid the ongoing war in Ukraine. The president’s critics argued that while Biden might achieve an oil deal with the Saudis, he would also give international legitimacy to MBS and break his campaign promises about holding the crown prince accountable.
During their visit to Saudi Arabia in late May, McGurk and Hochstein reached a deal with MBS and his close aides on increasing oil production. According to The New York Times, in the first phase of this deal the Saudis would get the OPEC+ group of oil-producing countries to increase production by 400 thousand barrels a day in July and August, instead of in September as was planned. The US hoped that would be sufficient to stop oil prices from going up. On June 2, the Saudis delivered. The move paved the way for Biden’s visit to the kingdom, but the White House didn’t acknowledge it straight away. A day later, when he was asked about the possible trip to Saudi Arabia, the president claimed the goal of the trip was not oil, but an attempt to push for peace between Israel and the Arab world. From that moment, the White House tried to change the framing of the trip from oil to Arab–Israeli peace, making the prospect of progress in relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel the sweetener for the president’s controversial move. “Biden needed to cross the Rubicon with the Saudis and to justify his trip domestically. Saudi normalization steps with Israel were the deliverable he needed,” a senior Israeli official said. “The Saudis wanted to get something because they felt they were paying a price for Biden’s visit. The Red Sea islands were also a deliverable for them. This also worked great for us because we wouldn’t have been able to make progress with the Saudis without US involvement.”
For several weeks, the White House refused to confirm the trip to Saudi Arabia; when it finally did, Biden and his aides were non-committal when asked in public whether the president would meet with MBS. The will-he-won’t-he speculation underscored the tension for Biden between realpolitik at a time of tensions with Iran and sky-high oil prices, and his desire to put human rights at the forefront of US foreign policy. For his part, the Saudi crown prince heard the statements from the White House and felt the president wasn’t treating him with the respect he was due. On June 14, a month before the trip, the White House finally acknowledged that Biden was expected to meet with MBS in Saudi Arabia. The plan was for the president to also visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In an attempt to shift focus away from the meeting with MBS, White House officials emphasized another angle: “The president will fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia for the first time,” they said, presenting it as progress toward Israeli–Saudi normalization.
Biden hoped that the Red Sea islands deal he was working on would be the first step in what White House officials described as “a road map for normalization” between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Biden’s aides envisioned it as a long-term process that would materialize step by step. A key part of that road map had to do with security cooperation and the vision of a Middle East air and missile defense alliance that Bennett and other Israeli officials were pushing for. In January 2021, four months after the Abraham Accords were signed, the US Department of Defense announced a major policy change: it moved Israel from the responsibility of the European command area to that of the central command (CENTCOM), which included the Middle East. The combination between this move and the normalization agreements opened the door to unprecedented security cooperation between Israel and Arab countries in the region. “The move to CENTCOM was like a home run,” a senior Israeli official told me. “Militaries have their own dynamics—exercises, meetings, visits. Once it started rolling it just grew more and more.”
On September 30, 2021, then-Foreign Minister Lapid visited Bahrain to cut the ribbon on the Israeli embassy in Manama. The visit took an interesting twist when, in addition to his meetings with the king and crown prince, Lapid received a last-minute invite to the nearby headquarters of the United States Fifth Fleet in Manama. The Fifth Fleet is part of CENTCOM, responsible for naval activity in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, especially regarding Iran. At the end of his visit, Lapid stood in front of the cameras alongside his Bahraini counterpart, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, commander of the Fifth Fleet, Admiral Brad Cooper, and US Chargé d’Affaires ad interim Maggie Nardi, with an imposing US warship in the backdrop. It was a clear message to the regime in Iran and the realization of one of the great promises of the Abraham Accords: to build security cooperation between the United States, Israel and the Gulf states. The Iranians were furious and passed on threatening messages to the Bahrainis, which only caused the Bahrainis to double down. In February 2022, an Israeli Air Force jet landed in Manama carrying then-Minister of Defense Benny Gantz. It was an unprecedented flight, an unprecedented visit and another clear message to Iran. “The Bahrainis wanted it to be as public as possible,” a senior Israeli defense official told me. After meeting with the king and the crown prince, Gantz signed an official defense cooperation agreement with Bahrain. It was the second such agreement Gantz signed with an Arab country, following a November 2021 agreement with Morocco. “Since June 2021, there have been more than 200 meetings between Israeli military officers and defense officials and their counterparts in Arab countries—some of which had diplomatic relations with Israel and some of which did not,” Gantz told me.
One such meeting took place in March 2022 in Sharm El-Sheikh. CENTCOM’s outgoing commander, General Frank McKenzie, invited the Israeli military chief of staff, General Aviv Kochavi, for a secret meeting with his Saudi counterpart, Air Chief Marshal Fayyadh Al-Ruwaili, and the commanders of the militaries of Egypt, Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar. According to the Wall Street Journal, they discussed expanding cooperation on early warnings against threats from drones operated by Iran and its proxies in the region. “The move to CENTCOM was a big deal,” said Gantz. “It allowed us to gradually build a regional architecture that differentiated between Iran, Syria and Lebanon, who are hostile toward Israel, and all the rest who have some kind of open or clandestine security relationship with Israel.” One element of these security relations was arms deals with Israel. According to Gantz, in the first two years since the Abraham Accords were signed, Israel’s defense exports to the Arab world (including to countries that didn’t normalize relations) totaled more than three billion dollars, from air defense systems to the UAE to attack drones and cyber systems to Morocco.
Israeli officials hoped that Biden’s upcoming visit would lead to a breakthrough in the Middle East Air Defense alliance. White House officials also spoke about plans for the president to discuss a vision for “integrated missile defense and naval defense” among the US, Israel and several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. Both envisioned a regional network of radars, sensors and air defense systems in Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan connected through CENTCOM that would be able to provide early warning and intercept attacks. It was a creative and bold idea; however, as Biden’s trip to the Middle East got closer, it became clear that the political conditions were not yet ripe to move it forward.
Two weeks before Biden arrived in the region, there was still no deal on the Red Sea islands. Diplomats and lawyers from the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt worked on a complex choreography of agreements, understandings and letters that would allow the agreement to be inked ahead of the president’s visit. It wasn’t easy. Because Saudi Arabia and Israel don’t have diplomatic relations and can’t sign bilateral agreements officially, the countries involved tried to use creative legal and diplomatic solutions to indirectly finalize a deal. The idea was that Saudi Arabia would sign an agreement with Egypt and send a letter to the US, outlining the latter’s commitments as the guarantor. The US would then give Israel a letter with guarantees, mainly on the issue of freedom of navigation. “The trick here was for Saudi Arabia to sign an agreement with Israel without signing an agreement with Israel,” said a senior Israeli official. Ten days before Biden was due to arrive, a crisis erupted in the sensitive negotiations. The Saudis got cold feet and refused to provide commitments in writing. “They claimed they couldn’t do it because Israel leaks everything,” another senior Israeli official told me. “The Saudis said, ‘We’ll give a secret commitment and then find it in the press.’” The US made a last-minute effort to resolve the crisis. McGurk and Hochstein traveled to Saudi Arabia a few days before the president’s trip to finalize the understandings and agreements behind it. Following talks with MBS and his brother Khalid bin Salman, they managed to convince the Saudis to give a written commitment. “The Americans did the heavy lifting, got the Saudis on board and solved the crisis,” a senior Israeli official noted.