Israeli tourism minister becomes first to make public visit to Saudi Arabia

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  September 26, 2023

Haim Katz arrives in Riyadh for UN summit amid normalization efforts between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Israel’s tourism minister, Haim Katz, arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to attend the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) conference, marking the first time an Israeli minister has visited Saudi Arabia.

Katz will be in Riyadh for two days, with his office reporting him as saying that “tourism is a bridge between nations”.

“I will work to advance cooperation, tourism and the foreign relations of Israel,” he said. 

He also issued a statement saying that this marks the beginning of future collaborations. 

“I will work to create collaborations to promote tourism and Israel’s foreign relations,” the statement read. 

The minister is set to take part in a number of events and discussions at the conference, and meet with other ministers coming from different countries across the Middle East.

Katz has been working to strengthen Israel’s position within the WTO after the state was elected to an official position in the UN organization for the first time. 

Saudi delegation arrives in occupied West Bank

The visit comes as a Saudi delegation arrived in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday in a visit aimed at easing potential Palestinian objections to any normalization deal between Riyadh and Israel. 

Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Jordan, Nayef al-Sudairi, who also serves Palestine, said the kingdom is “working towards establishing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital”. 

Al-Sudairi met with Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, according to the foreign ministry in Ramallah. He will also be meeting with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

Last year, Saudi Arabia also announced that it had opened its airspace to all civilian overflights just hours before Joe Biden became the first US president to directly fly from Israel to the kingdom.

At the time, Biden hailed the Saudi move as a “historic decision” and credited his administration with helping to bring the deal about. 

Before the announcement, Saudi Arabia had barred overflights from both Israeli and non-Israeli companies that were travelling to or from Israel.

The move was one amidst a flurry of overtures between the two states. Leaders of both have made public comments expressing their optimism that a deal is within reach.


Israeli minister arrives in Saudi Arabia in first public visit

Al-Jazeera  /  September 26, 2023

Tourism Minister Haim Katz is attending a UN conference, and is the first Israeli cabinet member to visit Saudi Arabia as normalization talks continue.

The Israeli tourism minister has travelled to Saudi Arabia for a United Nations conference, his office said, describing the visit as the first public trip to the country by an Israeli cabinet member.

Haim Katz’s two-day visit to Riyadh comes as Saudi Arabia is pursuing a possible United States-brokered deal that would forge formal bilateral relations with Israel. Katz is leading a delegation as part of a UN World Tourism Organization event.

“Tourism is a bridge between nations,” Katz said, according to a statement from his office. “Cooperation in the field of tourism has the potential to bring hearts together, and economic progress.”

“I will work to advance cooperation, tourism and the foreign relations of Israel,” he added.

The Saudi government did not immediately confirm the visit.

Washington has urged its Middle East allies Israel and Saudi Arabia to normalize diplomatic relations following similar deals involving the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

The Palestinians have labelled those United States-brokered agreements a betrayal of their plight and quest for statehood.

On Tuesday, Katz reached Riyadh leading a delegation to attend the UN event, the minister’s office said.

“I will act to create cooperation to advance tourism and Israel’s foreign relations,” Katz said in a statement.

Reporting from the occupied East Jerusalem, Al-Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds said that Katz’s visit to Saudi Arabia was “extremely important” because it was “extremely unprecedented”.

“Relations between the two countries have been frozen for many years, but now.. they are moving much closer, much faster,” said Reynolds, adding that Israeli media reported the country’s communications minister is expected to visit Saudi Arabia next week.

The Saudi crown prince and country’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, last week told US network Fox that the kingdom was getting “closer” to a deal with Israel but insisted that the Palestinian cause remains “very important” for Riyadh.

In recent months, Israel has already sent delegations to Saudi Arabia to participate in sports and other events, including a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Saudi envoy in Palestine

Also on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia sent its first delegation in three decades to the occupied West Bank to reassure Palestinians that it will defend their cause even as it forges closer ties with Israel.

“The Palestinian matter is a fundamental pillar,” Naif bin Bandar al-Sudairi, who headed the Saudi delegation and is the new ambassador to the Palestinians, said after meeting top Palestinian diplomat Riyad al-Maliki in Ramallah for talks and to present his credentials.

“And it’s certain that the Arab [Peace] Initiative, which was presented by the kingdom in 2002, is a cornerstone of any upcoming deal.”

Al-Jazeera’s Reynolds said that the Saudi position has always been to normalize relations but only after Israel agrees to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders and as East Jerusalem as its capital.

“Saudi officials are talking about that but it appears to be no longer the precondition that they had set before,” he added, explaining that this makes many Palestinians fearful of what is yet to come.

The 2002 initiative proposed Arab relations with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights, and a just resolution for the Palestinians.

Al-Sudairi’s delegation, which crossed overland from Jordan, was the first from Saudi Arabia to visit the West Bank since the 1993 Oslo Accords. The Accords were meant to lead to an independent Palestinian state, but years of stalled negotiations and deadly violence have left any peaceful resolution a distant dream.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, 87, last week again stressed strong reservations about Arab countries building ties with Israel.

“Those who think that peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full, legitimate national rights would be mistaken,” Abbas told the UN General Assembly in New York.

When asked whether there will be a Saudi embassy in Jerusalem, Al-Sudairi recalled that there used to be one in the occupied East Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah, and said that “hopefully there will be an embassy there” again.

Meanwhile, at a ceremony to mark the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “many states in the Middle East want peace with Israel”.

Netanyahu’s hard-right government has been expanding illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

More than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the start of this year, according to the health ministry. At least 35 Israelis have also been killed in Palestinian attacks during the same period.



 UN conference sees ‘first public trip to Saudi Arabia by Israel minister’

Middle East Monitor  /  September 26, 2023

Israel’s Tourism Minister, on Tuesday, made what his office called the first public trip to Saudi Arabia by an Israeli cabinet member, to attend a UN tourism conference, Reuters reports.

Haim Katz’s two-day visit to Riyadh comes as Saudi Arabia pursues a possible US-brokered deal that would forge formal relations with Israel, whose sovereignty it has never officially recognized.

“I will work to create collaborations to promote tourism and Israel’s foreign relations,” Katz said in a statement.

The Saudi government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Saudi Arabia’s non-resident Ambassador to the Palestinians – a role announced last month – made a first visit to their seat of government in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Tuesday, presenting credentials also designating him “Consul-General in Jerusalem”.

Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s two holiest shrines, has long insisted on the Palestinians’ right to statehood as a condition for recognizing Israel – something that many members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist religious coalition have long resisted.

The Ambassador, Nayef al-Sudairi, told reporters in Ramallah that his visit “reaffirms that the Palestinian cause and Palestine and the people of Palestine are of high and important status, and that in the coming days there will be a chance for a bigger cooperation between Saudi Arabia and the state of Palestine”.