Saudi silent over Israel deal but covert ties under focus

By: AFP      Published: 01:51 AM, 18 Aug, 2020
Saudi silent over Israel deal but covert ties under focus
–File photo

The UAE's decision to normalise ties with Israel could propel Saudi Arabia to deepen its furtive relations with the Jewish state as Riyadh seeks to entice investment to fund an ambitious economic transformation, analysts say.

The United Arab Emirates on Thursday became the first Gulf state to normalise relations with Israel, in a historic US-brokered accord that raised the prospect of similar deals with other Arab states.

Saudi Arabia, the Arab world's biggest economy, has maintained a conspicuous silence over the deal, but local officials have hinted that Riyadh is unlikely to immediately follow in the footsteps of its principle regional ally despite US pressure.

President Donald Trump's son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner insisted on Monday that it would be in Riyadh's interest to formally establish ties with Israel.

"It would be very good for Saudi business, it would very good for Saudi's defence, and, quite frankly, I think it would also help the Palestinian people," Kushner said.

Further putting the kingdom in the spotlight, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said Israel was working on opening a corridor over Saudi Arabia for flights to the UAE.

There was no immediate public response from Saudi Arabia, which is home to Islam's holiest sites and faces more sensitive political calculations than the UAE.

Not only would a formal recognition of Israel be seen by Palestinians and their supporters as a betrayal of their cause, it would also hurt the kingdom's image as the leader of the Islamic world.

Saudi Arabia, however, has already cultivated covert ties with Israel in recent years, a shift spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman even as his father King Salman has voiced steadfast support for an independent Palestinian state.

"The UAE-Israeli normalisation lends itself to expanding the realm of indirect Saudi-Israeli relations," said Aziz Alghashian, a lecturer at Essex University specialising in the kingdom's policy towards Israel.

"I think Saudi-Israeli interactions will increase via the UAE."

 'Integral part'

A shared animosity towards Iran, along with Saudi attempts to attract foreign investment to fund Prince Mohammed's ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification plan, appear to be pushing the kingdom closer to Israel than ever.

A centrepiece of Vision 2030 is NEOM, a $500 billion planned megacity on the kingdom's west coast, for which observers say the kingdom requires Israeli expertise in areas including manufacturing, biotechnology and cyber security.

The creation of NEOM "requires peace and coordination with Israel, especially if the city is to have a chance of becoming a tourist attraction," said Mohammad Yaghi, a research fellow at Germany's Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

NEOM is set to be built close to the Israeli resort town of Eilat, along the geopolitically sensitive waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba.

Gulf states have also increasingly sought Israeli technology for the surveillance of their own citizens and tried to purchase precision missiles that Western countries are unwilling to sell, Yaghi wrote in a research paper in April.

Saudi Arabia has tried to keep its outreach to Israel out of the public eye, but it has not been easy.

In June, a verified Twitter account linked to the kingdom's embassy in Washington said the Saudi council of ministers had agreed to recruit Israeli cyber security firm Check Point Software in NEOM.

The embassy later denied the claim and distanced itself from the account.

Marc Schneier, an American rabbi with close ties to the  Gulf, quoted Saudi Arabia's deputy defence minister Prince Khalid bin Salman as once telling him that Israel was an "integral part" of achieving Vision 2030.

Schneier made the comment to AFP in May, and Saudi authorities did not dispute that the prince made the remark.

'Conflicting views' 

Despite the official silence, the pro-government Saudi media has repeatedly tested public reaction by publishing reports advocating closer ties with Israel.

"I forecast a future that entails the creation of a joint high-tech ecosystem among [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries, known as the 'Silicon Wadi'," Israeli consultant Nave Shachar wrote last week for the English website of Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned broadcaster.

Shachar, who according to his LinkedIn profile was previously employed by the Israeli defence ministry, was referring to a regional equivalent of Silicon Valley.

"Now, more than ever, it is in the best interest of Israel and the GCC to increase business cooperation," he said.

Observers say US President Donald Trump, who backed Prince Mohammed following global uproar over the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, holds enormous leverage to get the kingdom to formally recognise Israel.

But Saudi Arabia appears to be resisting Washington's pressure as it has more at stake than the UAE.

Schneier said the kingdom's leadership held "conflicting views along generational lines."

"This bold initiative by the Emirates will strengthen the generational forces that would like to see this happen now," he told AFP this week.

"This announcement from the UAE will transform the current indirect relations between the Saudis and Israel to formal direct relations."