For nearly a half-century, American Jews understood the Middle East as a product of the Cold War, in which two external powers—the U.S. and the Soviets—tried to flip individual states in the region to one side or the other. After 1967, Israel proved its worth to Washington by demonstrating that it could defeat Soviet proxies in the Arab world, and also help bring countries like Egypt into the U.S. camp by ceding land as part of peace deals. In the wake of that success, Israel became a linchpin of American foreign policy, playing two roles: that of the U.S.-dependent military power, and of the U.S.-dependent peace partner.
That world ended with the dissolution of the Soviet empire, though we understand it that way only in hindsight. The period between 1990 and 2010 was merely an interregnum, in which U.S. hegemony ensured a semblance of continuity in the lives of its allies, while former Soviet clients seemed to lose their great power patron.
But a new era—the current era—was about to begin.
As president, Barack Obama not only withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq but overturned the old Cold War alliance structure by sidelining traditional status quo allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel and moving closer to the regime in Iran. The decision to demote U.S. alliances in the Gulf in particular was supported by the illusion that fossil fuels would soon be phased out of world energy markets, to be replaced by renewable energy technologies primarily manufactured in China.
Obama largely succeeded in creating a new geopolitical reality in the Middle East, which is largely the one we see today. In it, there are only three major powers: Israel, with the region’s only technological and military capacity to combat all security threats; Iran, too militarily weak to remake the region in its image, but strong enough to break formerly sovereign countries through mass violence; and Saudi Arabia, with the natural resource capacity to swing global energy markets and the cash to pay for social stability at home.
Each of the more populous Arab states that was seen during the Cold War as potentially more stable and influential than Saudi Arabia—Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Lebanon—is now a shattered wreck. Only the Saudis have emerged from the bloody 20th century with a young population and young political leadership unscathed by the experience of either communism or fascism; Pan Arabism or Islamist fanaticism; civil or sectarian war. It also retains the Sunni world’s greatest claim to religious legitimacy, with the House of Saud seen as the most responsible available stewards of the holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
The future of the Middle East will therefore largely be determined by the technological and military capabilities of Israel on the one hand, and the economic resources of Saudi Arabia on the other—and the extent to which they can cooperate together against their common existential enemy in Iran. Although Israel’s military power and Saudi Arabia’s economic power dwarf all regional competitors, they can do very little independently—Saudi Arabia because it cannot defend itself, and Israel because it lacks the legitimacy to operate in an explicit leadership role within the Arab Muslim world. The future of the Middle East, in other words, will be determined by how much Israel and Saudi Arabia are able to work together to pursue their own interests. Failure to cooperate will leave the region vulnerable to even more chaos and violence than it’s experienced to date.
The future of the Middle East will also continue to be shaped by external great powers, but it remains unclear which one will predominate. The United States is now in its third consecutive administration that has publicly vowed to reduce U.S. interests and engagement in the Middle East. China is a very eager suitor, not least because its economy will clearly continue to depend on fossil fuels for the next 50 or 100 years. India and Russia are wild cards. Regardless, to the extent that Saudis and Israelis will succeed in cooperating with each other, their entente will likely require some external guarantor. It is not a foregone conclusion that Washington is the right choice, as the dominant cultural and political ideology in the contemporary United States has cast both Zionism and the House of Saud as enemies.
So the world’s only Jewish state wants—needs—an alliance with Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia. The question is: Who are these people? Are the far-reaching reforms initiated by MBS—which include an end to the religious police and compulsory hijab, the repudiation of the fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology the state once exported around the world, and the legalization of women driving—merely scaffolding for a larger repressive project that’s destined for catastrophic failure? Or are they real changes that will actually make Saudi Arabia a freer and more normal country?
As with every big, unanswerable question about any foreign society, the only way to begin to find the answer is to go there, which is what Tablet did—the first time a delegation from a Jewish, Zionist publication was given permission to report freely (and entirely on its own dime) from the kingdom.
As we learned while the magazine decamped for a week to Riyadh and Jeddah, we weren’t exactly alone. Hardly a week goes by these days without leading Jewish communal figures, pro-Israel professionals, and hawkish think-tankers visiting Saudi Arabia’s two biggest cities. “Everyone here has their Jews now,” explained a well-connected Saudi whose Jews we probably were.
Perhaps an inflated perception of Jewish power has led Saudi elites to accessorize with members of the tribe. Perhaps entrepreneurially minded Jews believe they have their own vital part to play in some future Saudi sequel to the Abraham Accords. Perhaps the dreams and egos of Jews and Saudis are especially compatible at this specific moment in history, and no deeper affinity is at work. All of this is more speculative, and inevitably less important, than the fact that a wealthy, populous, and internally stable Arab country that rules over the birthplace of Islam and whose government used to be a global exporter of anti-Jewish poison has discovered a certain philo-Semitism.
It turns out that in 2023, Saudi Arabia is a place where you can be at the same party as Will Smith and where no amount of money will buy you a beer, at least not in public. It is a country of young Snapchat and anime addicts where the taxis have digital kiblahs in the dashboard, pointing toward Mecca, and the airplanes and coffee shops often have prayer rooms in the back. There is a traditional public dress code—white robes for the men, black abayas for the women—that is still widely observed, but isn’t mandatory.
Under MBS, Saudi Arabia has experienced what one Riyadh-based artist described to us as a “harsh enlightenment,” a managed revolution in the social and economic spheres that leaves the state’s powers and privileges intact. It is possible to hear criticism of the government in Riyadh, but this only happens behind closed doors, in the untouchable domain of a private home.
Saudi Arabia is a tribal desert society moving toward a more open future, which means it is also hurtling toward developments that no one, including MBS, can predict at the moment. Could one of them be peace with Israel? Diplomatic recognition from the most stable large country in the Middle East would be an era-defining boon to both the Jewish state and U.S. strategic planners. Saudi Arabia is the only populous Arab country that hasn’t been destroyed by an ethnic or religious bloodletting, self-immolating ideological project, or foreign intervention sometime in living memory. It has a young and educated population and a quarter-trillion barrels of oil. Peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel, arguably the two most powerful and highest-functioning countries in the Middle East, would backstop a chaotic region.
Alas, a Saudi-Israeli breakthrough looks unlikely in the near term. The Saudi leadership believes it has little to gain from making peace with Israel absent a major concession on the Palestinian front. On the other hand, Saudi officials hint that they are willing to recognize Israel even before a Palestinian state is established if the right commitments and formulations can be agreed to. There is frequent talk that if Riyadh is going to be a global center of finance, technology, air travel, and a dozen other sectors in which the city may or may not achieve worldwide significance, no one can be kept out—including enemies like Iran and problematic partners like Israel.
Saudi Arabia’s leaders believe they are riding a hot streak of national success and are in no mood to bend to anyone else’s agenda. They see Washington as hectoring and ungrateful, Ankara as unserious, Tehran as annoying, and Jerusalem as an issue for another day. Still, the era of national assertion kicked off under MBS has frequently brought about the unthinkable, including a total reversal in the former relationship between Saudi Arabia and the world’s Jews. History is happening quickly here, and more surprises are in store.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Reporting from the front lines of Mohammed bin Salman’s stupefyingly ambitious mass experiment in modernization, reform, and control
BY ARMIN ROSEN
As the kingdom goes digital, the best information is not where you might think
BY KATHERINE DEE
A portrait of life in the heart of America’s military empire, where the work of perpeutating the ‘liberal world order’ can be seen up close
BY JEREMY STERN
A China-brokered agreement with Iran shocked and dismayed Washington, whose mercurial policy gyrations are getting harder for the Saudis to understand
BY LEE SMITH
American ambivalence and flawed thinking hurt Zionism and helped the Saudis in 1945. In 2023, a similar combination may be preventing Saudi-Israeli peace.
BY MICHAEL MAKOVSKY
Far from being uncooperative, Saudi Arabia under MBS is playing precisely the regional role that Obama and Biden have long demanded—only more so
BY TONY BADRAN
From the editors of Tablet Magazine.