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trip by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia
on Sunday showcased the importance of Israel-Saudi Arabia ties in the last months of the Trump administration. This is important for numerous reasons, including regional alliances and security and economic ties that are flowering between Israel the Gulf states after the Abraham Accords.
Israeli prime minister adviser Topaz Luk tweeted about Netanyahu “doing peace.” KAN correspondent Amichai Stein tweeted Monday morning that the prime minister traveled to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo tweeted yesterday about his “Constructive visit with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in NEOM today. The United States and Saudi Arabia have come a long way since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz Al Saud first laid the foundation for our ties 75 years ago.”
reported the secret flight. Avi Scharf reported about the unusual business jet flight that left Israel and flew to Saudi Arabia and back.
The meeting came as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels fired ballistic missiles at an Aramco installation in Jeddah, which is far south of Neom, where the apparent meeting took place. Boris Johnson had noted during the recent G20, hosted by Saudi Arabia, that he wished he could have visited.
In this sense the center of the story is also about Saudi Arabia’s future. Riyadh has been talking more about climate change and trying to showcase the city of the future, the planned city of Neom which will cost hundreds of billions to build but will show what Saudi Arabia’s future can be.
WHILE RIYADH has suffered diplomatic setbacks on the world stage in recent years, it has been trying to shore up support. Working with the current US administration and supporting peaceful outreach from Bahrain and the UAE to Israel have been part of that. Saudi Arabia was the main engine behind the Arab peace initiative of 2002 and supported the concept of peace and normalization with Israel, with a Palestinian state being created. It doesn’t want to go back on that promise.
The UAE, however, has posited that peace has helped stop Israeli annexation. Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US and Hend al-Otaiba, the spokesperson at the Foreign Ministry who recently penned an op-ed in
, have stressed this point.
The Emirates and Bahrain are deeply investing in coexistence and interfaith initiatives, and Israelis are running to embrace them. Saudi Arabia, the larger of the countries and a global power in the Muslim world, has been more cautious, but has the same overall agenda as it speaks about reform and change.
However, Saudi Arabia has challenges abroad. It has been critiqued for human rights abuses in recent years, especially in the wake of breaking relations with Qatar in 2017. Qatar and Turkey have mobilized state media and allies in Western governments, academia and media to portray Saudi Arabia as a human rights violator. The truth is more complex. Riyadh has been a monarchy for the last century and has had the same human rights issues in the 1990s as it has today.
The sudden daylight in relations that Riyadh feels from Western powers is about more than just an objective view of the situation in the kingdom, it is about some agendas being pushed by those in the West who seek a redress to decades of the West being close to Middle East Gulf countries. There are also claims that those who are more close to Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood have driven this narrative, trying to portray Riyadh more negatively than Qatar and Turkey.
THE RESULT has been much closer visible work between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as between the UAE, Bahrain, India, Jordan, Greece and Egypt and Israel. This system of countries is juxtaposed with the Iranian alliance that includes its proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and the Turkey-Qatar alliance that includes Hamas.
These countries work on opposite sides in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. Riyadh is a supporter of Sunnis in Lebanon and Iraq, for instance, but must seek to fight for their hearts and minds against Turkey. This is a global struggle that also involves Pakistan and Malaysia. And it also involves Israel.
That is why the Pompeo visit, fresh from meeting the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Saudi hosting of the G20, the Houthi missile fire and reports of Netanyahu’s trip are all part of the same story. Saudi Arabia appeared to be moving toward peace with Israel. That would open many doors. But there are questions in Riyadh about what will change next year under President-elect Joe Biden.
Biden has been critical of Saudi Arabia and also of Turkey. US commentators critique the Riyadh-led war against the Houthis in Yemen. Major think tanks, some of which are warmer toward Iran or Qatar, seek to tarnish Saudi Arabia’s image. But at the G20 meeting Riyadh and Ankara appeared to be getting along better.
Many wonder what comes next. Closer Saudi-Israeli ties could be on the list. Riyadh has been flexible about flights and more openly supportive of the Abraham Accords. There is a role that Israel could play in the Saudi economy and cities like Neom if there were normalization. It could also mean a re-alignment of other issues from Iraq to Lebanon.
These are essential and important talks and Pompeo’s presence was key. Whether there will be a new groundbreaking announcement will be seen in the coming weeks.
Clearly the willingness to be more open about these types of meetings is part and parcel of a movement in a direction that has been paved by Abu Dhabi and its innovative approach to rapidly expanding ties. Flights begin on November 26 to Dubai, for instance. That is symbolic, as symbolic as the business jet that left Israel at five in the afternoon yesterday and appeared headed to Neom.
Trump helped to create a safe space for these kinds of meetings. But as he leaves office, the countries must work together closely and create their own future – that they will then present to the world.