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Haykel: Saudi enrichment demands ‘secondary’ to ‘regime security and survival’

Bernard Haykel and Yitz Applbaum join the podcast for a discussion on the arc of U.S.-Saudi relations and the prospects of normalization between Riyadh and Jerusalem

Secretary of State Tony Blinken visited Saudi Arabia this week, where he stressed the Biden administration’s  commitment to facilitating positive relations between the Gulf nation and Israel. On this week’s episode of Jewish Insider’s podcast, co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein are joined by Bernard Haykel, professor of Near East studies and director of the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia at Princeton University, and venture capitalist and JI wine columnist Yitz Applbaum, co-founder and partner at MizMaa Ventures, who has 30 years of experience in entrepreneurship, venture capital and philanthropy across the Middle East and the United States, for a discussion of the arc of U.S.-Saudi relations and the prospects of normalization between Riyadh and Jerusalem.

Below are excerpts of the conversation. The selected portions have been condensed and edited for clarity

Rich Goldberg: Do we start with the premise that many people have in Washington that the U.S.-Saudi relationship today is in trouble? And what does it mean if that’s true?

Bernard Haykel: So the relationship has had ups and downs but, yes, I mean, if you’d asked me this question in October of last year, I would say it’s in dire trouble, because the Saudis didn’t want to have any official communication between their administration and the Biden administration…I think it’s gotten a little bit better now, largely, because it seems to me that the Biden administration has sort of matured a bit about the nature of certainly global politics when it comes to energy, the importance of Saudi Arabia for the stability and the core interests of the United States in the region, so I think…clearly now the U.S. is trying to backtrack and to make good. Whether enough will happen, I’m not sure, because, as you know, in the U.S., the Congress also has a say over arms sales, for example, and other matters, so it’s not entirely in [President Joe] Biden’s hands. And the Saudis would prefer to have a superb relationship with the United States, and we’re kind of pushing them away towards China and other countries, including the Europeans, by the way, and this will have effects where, if we really make it difficult, they will start buying more weapons from the British and the French, and not just the Chinese.

Goldberg: Does the Crown Prince [Mohammed bin Salman] understand that there could be red lines within that approach for the United States when dealing with China? That just because something may, in the short term, be in the interests of Saudi Arabia to do something with the Chinese, it may open up a strategic line of effort that becomes too sensitive for Washington and inhibits closer relations with Washington?

Yitz Applbaum: I absolutely believe that is the case, but I know what we all know, I know that the Saudis know this, because they are under more of a threat from Iran than almost anyone else in the world, if not more than anywhere else in the world. They know that the deal that came down with the United States didn’t solve the problem. That’s obvious. They know that the Chinese are dependent on them for oil, right? Lots of it. And in order to try and bring stability, I believe that what the Saudis did here, is that, OK, it didn’t work with the United States, the Chinese have common interests with us, let them take a shot at it. And so, I think that what they’re doing here is actually quite logical, and yes, it’s driving towards their goal of 2030, but they’re trying to do it, not just from the Saudi-first perspective, what’s good for Saudi, but if there’s peace with Iran, between Saudi and the rest of the region and they bring other groups in, then everybody wins, and I believe that that’s how they’re looking at this.

Goldberg: In negotiating with the U.S., is that truly a proverbial hill to die on for the Saudi leadership — [uranium] enrichment? Is this truly a negotiation where, let’s put a package together and it doesn’t reach that top original demand? Or is that truly going to be a red line for the Saudis?

Haykel: I don’t think it is a red line for them. It’s kind of an opening gambit in the negotiation. I think what really matters to the Saudis more than anything else is regime security and survival. So basically, what you have are the Iranians who say, you know, ‘America is the great Satan, we want to destroy America,’ but essentially, they go about wanting to destroy America by attacking Saudi Arabia and Israel through proxies, right? So they told the Saudis that, ‘Should Israel and America attack us’ — the Iranians that is — said, ‘The first target of our counter attack will be Saudi Arabia. And so the Saudis are extremely vulnerable…And so the Saudis really care about their security more than anything else. I think enrichment is secondary, tertiary, frankly, and that’s what they seek from the United States, is that kind of protection.

Jarrod Bernstein: About the Palestinian issue, how much do you think that that weighs in on Saudi’s ability to normalize with Israel? Some people say it’s the red herring in normalization with Israel, that it actually doesn’t matter, that people just say it matters, but with Saudi Arabia, it seems to matter more than with other places. So how much does that matter in terms of normalization and what would need to happen in terms of the way Israel deals with the Palestinians in order to give MBS and the Saudi court what it needs to move normalization forward?

Applbaum: I believe that it does make a difference. I think it’s very important to the Saudis. There’s a bit of a bifurcation, I found, you have the older generation, most probably still very much part of the royal family that knows differently, thinks differently, and then you have the younger generation who might know less about it, or it might be less important to them, but His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince, is the custodian of the two holy sites, obviously, the two major holy sites, and these are very, very important things that I believe he and the government takes into consideration. And I believe it’ll just be part of an overall negotiation, but it’s something that has to be dealt with in one form or another and has to be considered before you can have complete normalization. Where it rates 1, 2, 3 or 4, I doubt it is number one or two, I don’t know, but I do know that there has to be some form of solution in the overall solution towards normalization. I’ve heard it many, many times over.

Goldberg: Yitz, talk a little bit about your travels in Saudi Arabia, your time at one historic city in particular, where the Jewish community had a legendary moment. Talk about your work there, about the history, and what it means that the Saudi kingdom is opening this up and wants to have something about its Jewish heritage on display.

Applbaum: So much of what I found in general in Saudi and I’ve been, as you know, many times, in general in Saudi, but really in particular, in the area of AlUla and Khaybar and Tayma, is that everything there is about how to meld the heritage, the culture, the religion, the passions, the history of not just the Jews and the Christians and the Muslims, the Nabataeans, but really the many, many generations of people who’ve come through that region. And there so happens to be particular interest in the Jewish heritage there, because they were very, very active in the fourth century, the fifth century, the sixth century, and Tayma, even you can read about Tayma in the time of the Talmud, and so many of the things that I see there really just exemplify everything else that I’m seeing in Riyadh and Jeddah and other places in Saudi is, how do we look forward? How do we become cultural leaders? How do we bring people together and make this world a better place, but using the unique cultural and heritage sites that Saudi has, in particular in the AlUla/Khaybarregion. So it’s been very, very motivating for me. I’m very passionate about it. And it really for me, it’s a piece of the most important part of the whole story of Saudi going forward.


Bonus lightning round: Favorite places to visit in Saudi Arabia? Applbaum: “For me, that’s easy, Khaybar. I’ve been to AlUla eight, nine times, I’ve been to Khaybar four times, and two weeks ago, my first trip to Tayma. That part of the world for me, and I travel extensively, is most probably one of my favorite places in the whole world, let alone in Saudi.” Haykel: “So, with me you’re gonna get a much more recondite answer, like much more specialist answers. So, I mean, I’ve been to every corner of Saudi Arabia, there’s a particular town called Al-Ghat, which is at the intersection of the great desert and the mountain. There’s a mountain that runs sort of across Central Arabia called Tuwaiq, and it’s this gorgeous place where I have friends. But the thing I want to say actually about Saudi Arabia, which is probably true for any country, it’s the people that makes it very special. I’ve made some truly wonderful and deep connections to people there — incredibly hospitable, incredibly kind people. And so I love being in Al-Ghat, I love Najran — Najran is a great place that’s on the border between Saudi and Yemen. Of course, AlUla is spectacular, I mean, it’s just a breathtaking sight, and the desert is just magical. I mean, there are places in the Saudi desert that are truly incredible to see, including the Empty Quarter of course, but I would strongly urge and recommend everyone to go and visit.” Favorite Israeli wine? Applbaum: “Probably my favorite Israeli wine is the Yaar Yatir. It’s made in the desert…it’s in the Yatir forest, and it’s a stunning wine there. Cabernet sauvignon, any vintage you can get is most probably all around my favorite wine in Israel.” Best wine in the Middle East? Haykel: “My knowledge of wines is confined mostly to Lebanon, where I think we have great wines and I plan to start a winery there soon because I have a farm in the mountains. So you know, I hope to learn a lot more about this. But Lebanese wines are not bad, some of them are excellent, actually.”

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