Israeli delegation makes first open visit to Saudi Arabia

Published September 11, 2023
The delegation from Israel attends the Unesco Extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee at the al-Murabba Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on September 11. — AFP
The delegation from Israel attends the Unesco Extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee at the al-Murabba Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on September 11. — AFP

An Israeli delegation attended a Unesco meeting in Riyadh on Monday, marking the country’s first publicly announced visit to Saudi Arabia as speculation grows about a potential normalisation of ties.

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,” said the official, who did not want to be named given the sensitivities of the visit, 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, and arrived on Sunday.

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

The delegation, including a security official, joined the Unesco meeting on Monday, sitting behind a sign that said “Israel” on the front of their 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, which contains two of Islam’s holiest sites, does not recognise Israel and did not join the 2020 US-brokered Abraham Accords where Israel established ties with Gulf countries the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Saudi Arabia, which is trying to reshape and revitalise its oil-reliant economy, has made a number of landmark diplomatic moves in recent months including a surprise rapprochement with Iran, years after the two heavyweights severed ties.

The fact that the visit was coordinated by Unesco suggests “obstacles” remain to Saudi-Israeli normalisation, said 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,” Alghashian said.

Saudi officials have realised 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, 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.

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