US-Saudi Meeting: Infrastructure Project

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Policy Briefs Program

May 9, 2023

On Sunday, May 7, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. During the visit, the parties addressed opportunities and challenges within the U.S.-Saudi relationship, as well as the Kingdom’s relationship with Israel. Sunday’s engagement also detailed potential collaboration on a rail and port infrastructure project. While the infrastructure collaboration emerged from meetings of the I2U2 forum, which includes Israel, India, the US, and UAE… Israel was not part of Sunday’s discussion.” 

This meeting comes at a critical point in U.S.-Saudi relations, which have been complicated during the Biden administration. Emphasizing the significance of this bilateral engagement, Al Arabiya writes:President Joe Biden’s national security adviser and his top diplomat are planning separate trips to Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks…The consecutive trips by high-level US officials highlight that the administration is determined to get past the frostiness that has defined relations between Washington and Riyadh. As a candidate, Biden had said he would treat Saudi Arabia as a ‘pariah,’ and the two sides traded barbs last year when Saudi Arabia agreed to cut OPEC+ crude output in defiance of US wishes.”

The Biden administration’s participation in the project is motivated by a desire for a “more integrated, interconnected Middle East.” Prior to the meeting, the Indian Express outlined the “ambitious proposal being pushed by the White House to link West Asian countries through rail — using Indian expertise — and connect the region to South Asia via sea lanes. The participants are expected to discuss the broad contours of the massive joint project to build railway, maritime and road connectivity in the larger region, linking the Indian subcontinent in South Asia with West Asia — which the US calls the Middle East.” 

As China increases its economic and diplomatic influence in the Middle East — particularly through its recent facilitation of Iranian-Saudi normalization and continued implementation of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — the U.S. has been forced to adapt its regional policy. The Times of Israel outlines the strategy behind the rail and port project:China has been developing major infrastructure projects across the region as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. The I2U2 forum, and the potential rail project, are part of a US response. The Chinese project also poses a major challenge to India, as its Chinese rival seeks to capture a far greater share of trade flows from Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe.”

The infrastructure discussions included the American, Saudi, Emirati, and Indian National Security Advisors, excluding Israel from the conversation despite its previous engagement on the matter. According to Al Mayadeen, “the concept for the new project arose through discussions held over the previous 18 months in another group dubbed I2U2, founded in late 2021 to debate key infrastructure projects in the Middle East, which comprises the US, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and India… During the I2U2 talks over the last year, Israel proposed the concept of linking the area via trains. According to the former Israeli official, ‘part of the idea was to use India’s expertise on such large infrastructure projects.’” 

Despite Israel’s absence, Sullivan spoke to MBS regarding avenues toward normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel via the Abraham Accords. Highlighted in Haaretz, “Sullivan recently stated that achieving such an agreement is in the national security interest of the United States. However, there are several obstacles that stand in the way of progress, including the strained relationship between Netanyahu and Biden, criticism of the Israeli government’s policies, tensions in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and racist statements made by some senior Israeli government officials.” 

Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi advocated in support of normalization with Saudi Arabia amid Sullivan’s visit to the Kingdom. Quoted in Israel National News, he urged: “what is important is that the US will lead a move to add Saudi Arabia to the Abraham Accords. If this happens, it would be a historic, dramatic turning point, it would change the entire map of the Middle East, isolate Iran, and create legitimacy for any Arab country with ties to the West to connect with Israel. What the Saudis want is not from Israel – they want benefits from the US, as the rest of the countries that signed the Abraham Accords wanted – and their requests were fulfilled.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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