Do recent reports indicate that Israel and Saudi Arabia are inching closer to normalization?
Reports say that a senior Israeli official visited the kingdom over security cooperation, dozens of Israeli businessmen entered the country with an Israeli passport and visited Neom
A series of reports from recent days indicates that relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to be warming up and, while it is still too early to tell if the current progress can lead to a full normalization of ties, these developments are considered groundbreaking.
Channel 12 News reported that a senior Israeli official visited Saudi Arabia recently for talks of growing cooperation between the two countries, including in the field of security. The visit reportedly included meetings at the palace in Riyadh.
In another report, an unnamed Israeli official confirmed to Israel Hayom newspaper that there are indeed direct contacts with the Saudis.
“Except for the Iranians, we talk to almost everyone in the region, including Saudi Arabia,” he said. The official did not comment on specific reports.
Another Israeli outlet, Globes, quoted a source familiar with the matter.
“We have had indirect contacts with Saudi Arabia for more than 20 years, but I do not remember a boom like in recent months,” the source said.
Jerusalem and Riyadh do not have diplomatic relations, but the kingdom recently allowed certain Israeli flights to pass through its airspace.
Beyond that, ties between the two countries have remained secret and unofficial.
While Riyadh acknowledges the Abraham Accords normalization treaties between it neighboring Gulf states – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – with Israel, it has so far refrained from following suit.
However, back in March, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (commonly referred to as MBS) said: “We don’t look at Israel as an enemy, we look to them as a potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together.”
On Thursday, Globes reported of such interests at play. The Israeli website published that in recent months Saudi Arabia has allowed Israeli businessmen to enter the country using their Israeli passports after receiving special entry visas. Most of those businessmen are representatives and managers of Israeli technology companies, who were invited by the Saudis. The report mentioned that a big change is being felt not only in the removal of the entry ban for Israelis, but also in how easily their visas are approved.
The Israeli businessmen visited the capital Riyadh and Neom, the "City of the Future" that the Saudis are building on the coast of the Red Sea. It is considered a flagship project of the Saudi crown prince. The visits have already yielded quite a few deals worth millions of dollars, according to Globes. Two of them involve Israeli water technology necessary for the Saudi desert and agri-tech technologies.
In 2020, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also visited in Neom, when he attended a trilateral meeting with MBS and then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
These reports emerge as U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to travel to the Middle East next month. Biden’s upcoming trip will include a visit to Israel with a potential stop in East Jerusalem and a possible meeting with MBS in Saudi Arabia.
Last week, Israeli Journalist Barak Ravid reported on Axios that the U.S. is pushing for a deal between Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel that could act as a stepping stone for normalizing ties between Tel Aviv and Riyadh. To that end, two U.S. officials – White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and the State Department’s energy envoy Amos Hochstein – traveled to Saudi Arabia to discuss the terms.
The trilateral agreement in the works is also expected to involve the transfer of two strategic islands in the Red Sea – Tiran and Sanafir – from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty with Israeli consent, Axios reported.
The agreement is also intended to increase oil production and improve the bilateral relationship between Washington and Riyadh, according to the report. If fulfilled, Israel may prove to play a significant role in the U.S. dialogue with Saudi Arabia over oil and amending diplomatic ties.
The Biden administration has been making overtures toward the Saudis lately, in an attempt to pressure the Kingdom to increase oil production and ease global supply, amid the crisis with Russia. In early March, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Saudis refused to take a call from the White House to discuss rapprochement and the boosting of oil exports. They were reportedly disappointed from Washington’s laconic rhetoric and inaction after a series of attacks by Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen on Saudi territory.
Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia's Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid Bin Salman met with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Washington around the same time as Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The timing raised speculation that Israel is coordinating strategy with both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, as the current American administration is discussing a potential revival of the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
Meanwhile, Israel's national security adviser Eyal Hulata is expected to arrive in Washington this week for talks with Sullivan that will focus on Israel's ties with Saudi Arabia. Hulata will be part of a delegation of Israeli national security, foreign policy and intelligence officials, who will reportedly hold another round of discussions to coordinate strategy against Iran.
Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.