The king’s official policy is that there should be no peace with Israel until it withdraws from occupied territories and accepts Palestinian statehood.
Biden’s visit will likely focus on convincing the world’s biggest crude exporter to boost its oil output.
Here are some questions and answers about the possibility of a normalisation deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel:
What are the signs?
Saudi’s de facto ruler crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has said Israel was a ‘potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together’, state media reported in March, attributing the statement to an interview with The Atlantic.
Additionally, the kingdom did not show any opposition when its regional ally, the United Arab Emirates, established diplomatic ties with Israel in 2020, followed by Bahrain and Morocco under the US-brokered Abraham Accords.
The king’s official policy is that there should be no peace with Israel until it withdraws from occupied territories and accepts Palestinian statehood
In January 2021, Sudan’s transitional government also agreed to do the same but the northeast African country has yet to finalise the deal.
Saudi Arabia also at the time allowed direct flights from the Emirates to Israel to travel through its airspace, in another implicit sign of approval.
Biden, who will arrive in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, is to travel directly from the Jewish state to Saudi Arabia, becoming the first US president to fly from there to an Arab nation that does not recognise Israel.
In 2017 his predecessor, Donald Trump, made the journey in reverse.
In an apparent gesture of openness to Israel ahead of Biden’s arrival Friday, Saudi Arabia announced it was lifting restrictions on ‘all carriers’ using its airspace -- effectively suspending overflight restrictions on aircraft travelling to and from Israel.
In recent months, some Saudis have taken to social media -- which is tightly controlled in the kingdom -- to express their support for normalisation, which would be a shift from the kingdom’s long-standing pan-Arab policy to isolate Israel until the conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.
Esawi Frej, Israel’s minister of regional cooperation, told Saudi newspaper Arab News in June that Riyadh would be ‘central’ to any solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Axios news website reported in June that the United States was working on a ‘road map’ for normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, while The Wall Street Journal said the region’s two most influential nations were engaging in secret economic and security talks.
In both countries’ interests?
Yasmine Farouk of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said a relationship with Israel would contribute to greater acceptance of Saudi Arabia.
‘It will open doors for the crown prince, with Western people and parliaments accepting the kingdom, and granting Saudi Arabia a greater role,’ she said.
This would bolster prince Mohammed’s vision of his country as ‘a global power, not just an Arab and Islamic one’.
Israel, for its part, wants normalisation ‘because not only will it open the door to Saudi Arabia, but to other (Arab and Muslim) countries that may already engage in secret discussions with Israel but don’t dare normalise yet’, Farouk said.
The two countries share a common enemy in Iran, said a Riyadh-based diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
‘They are looking at it in the sense of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’,’ he said.
Saudi officials contacted by AFP refused to comment due to the ‘sensitivity’ of the issue.
Is it the right time?
Dan Shapiro, who served as former US president Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, told AFP he expects Biden’s trip to produce ‘some important steps’ towards Saudi diplomatic recognition of Israel, ‘probably not full normalisation, but a road map that leads in that direction’.
Actually executing that road map is ‘difficult as long as King Salman is alive’, Farouk said.
‘The word ‘normalisation’ should be used more cautiously... There might be some forms of relations but going as far as the Emirates and Bahrain, I’m still a bit sceptical.’
Kristian Ulrichsen of Rice University’s Baker Institute said full diplomatic ties are likely only when Prince Mohammed becomes king.
‘In the meantime, we are likely to see a continuation of the current approach of normalising the idea that Saudi Arabia and Israel are not enemies but share certain regional and geopolitical interests,’ he told AFP.