Friday, June 21, 2024
Homemiddle eastIsraeli delegation makes first open visit to Saudi Arabia

Israeli delegation makes first open visit to Saudi Arabia

RIYADH – An Israeli delegation attended a Unesco meeting in Riyadh on Monday, marking the country’s first publicly announced visit to Saudi Arabia.

It coincides with speculation about a potential normalisation of ties between the two countries in future.

The five-member delegation arrived on Sunday, an Israeli official told AFP, for the meeting to update Unesco’s world heritage list of cultural and historic sites.

“We are happy to be here – it’s a good first step,” an Israeli official who did not want to be named, given the sensitivities of the visit, told AFP during the meeting.

“We thank Unesco and the Saudi authorities.”

The team travelled through Dubai, the official said, as there are no direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The Israelis received their visas via Unesco, the United Nations’ educational, scientific and cultural organisation.

The delegation, which included a security official, joined the Unesco meeting on Monday, sitting behind a sign that said “Israel” on the front of its desk.

The visit has been “very good – they treat us very well”, the official said.

The “Israel” sign drew stares from Saudis working at the meeting, where more than 50 sites are contenders to join the coveted world heritage list.

“That is God’s command. The issue is bigger than us and we can’t object to it,” said a young Saudi man working among the support services, when asked about the Israeli delegation.

‘Obstacles’ remain

A Unesco diplomat said the agency’s director-general Audrey Azoulay had been instrumental in securing Israel’s participation in Riyadh.

“It’s the result of several years of work by Audrey Azoulay to create, in the heart of Unesco, the conditions for a dialogue between all the states of the region,” said the diplomat, who did not want to be named.

While the visit does not have any overt political significance, it comes at a time of growing rumours of moves to bring the two countries closer.

According to reports, a Palestinian delegation visited Riyadh last week to discuss the way forward if Saudi Arabia and Israel were to formalise relations.

Saudi Arabia does not recognise Israel.

But both sides have had covert contacts which were forged partly through shared fears of Iran.

Saudi Arabia is trying to reshape and revitalise its oil-reliant economy.

It has made a number of landmark diplomatic moves in recent months including a surprise rapprochement with Iran, years after the two heavyweights severed ties.

Washington has been pressing its traditional ally Riyadh to sign a normalisation deal with Israel.

It would be the US’ biggest diplomatic win in the region and following similar agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, known as the Abraham Accords.

However, Riyadh has so far resisted US pressure.

It has linked the move to the creation of a Palestinian state as part of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, along with other demands.

The fact that the visit was coordinated by Unesco suggests “obstacles” remain to Saudi-Israeli normalisation, said Mr Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi analyst and expert on the bilateral relationship.

“This is most likely a result of Saudi Arabia being more open to the world, which will include Israelis, not a result of bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel,” he added.

Saudi officials have realised that they cannot ban anyone if they want to transform the kingdom into a global business and tourism hub under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform agenda, Mr Alghashian said.

“The Israelis will definitely milk this as the first step, when actually it was facilitated by Unesco. It’s not really because of their diplomatic skill or diplomatic victories.”

He compared the Israeli delegation’s visit to a visit this summer by Israeli eSports players for the Gamers8 festival, which also required “third-party coordination” by global tournament organisers. AFP, REUTERS

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