Saudi Arabia obstructed visit by Israeli foreign minister, says report

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  March 13, 2023

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was set to visit the kingdom for UN conference, but Riyadh wouldn’t ‘seriously discuss’ his security detail according to Axios.

Saudi Arabia has effectively obstructed a plan to allow Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to attend a UN conference in the kingdom, after Riyadh would not “seriously discuss” Cohen’s security detail, according to an Axios report on Monday citing three Israeli officials.

Cohen was set to attend a UN World Tourism Organization conference in the kingdom this week, a trip that would have marked the first public visit by an Israeli minister to Saudi Arabia.

The Israeli officials told Axios that Saudi Arabia had told the UN agency that Cohen could attend the conference. But when it was time to arrange his security detail, the newspaper reported that it “became clear that the Saudis weren’t going to have a serious discussion”, and Cohen took the trip off his agenda.

The report underlines the uphill battle Israel faces as it pushes Saudi Arabia to normalize ties.

Middle East Eye reached out to the Saudi embassy in Washington and the UN World Tourism Organization for comment on this report but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Israel has used cultural events as a first step to deepen ties with its Arab neighbours in the past. Israel’s culture minister visited Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in 2018 and Israel’s men’s basketball team competed in Abu Dhabi a year before the UAE established official relations with Israel.

The UN event is taking place in the Saudi village of Al-Ula, which Riyadh is working to promote as a tourism hub.

Kfar Kama, a Circassian village in Israel, was among those chosen by the UN as a top tourism village in 2022. Members of Israel’s Muslim Circassian community were also slated to attend the event, but Saudi Arabia didn’t respond in time to their visa requests, according to the Israeli public broadcaster, Kan.

Saudi Arabia plays hard to get

In 2020 Israel signed US-brokered normalization deals with the UAEBahrainMorocco, and Sudan, in what became known as the Abraham Accords.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met secretly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the kingdom in 2020, according to several Israeli media reports at the time.

Netanyahu, who oversaw the 2020 Abraham Accords, has made expanding the agreements to Saudi Arabia a top foreign policy goal.

According to Axios, Israel lobbied the World Tourism Organization and the Biden administration to press the Saudis for Cohen to attend the UN event.

“Eventually the Saudis found a way to say ‘yes’ to the UN as they had to, but at the same time create conditions that won’t allow the visit to happen,” A senior Israeli official told Axios.

Saudi Arabia has signalled an openness to normalizing ties with Israel. During US President Joe Biden’s visit to the kingdom in July, Riyadh announced it would open its airspace to Israeli airlines.

However, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said the kingdom would not normalize relations with Israel until the Palestinians are granted statehood, comments that were shared on the Saudi foreign ministry’s official Twitter account.

The Saudis have also presented a list of demands to the US that are likely to face congressional opposition. On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Riyadh is asking for stronger security guarantees from Washington and help to develop its civilian nuclear program in exchange for normalizing ties.


Saudi Arabia refuses visas for Israeli delegation to UN tourism event

Middle East Monitor  /  March 13, 2023

Saudi Arabia has rejected visa applications for members of an Israeli delegation invited to attend the UN World Tourism Organization conference in Al-Ula, Bloomberg has reported. Jewish settlers from Kafr Kanna in Galilee were due to join representatives from 22 other countries at the conference but didn’t get appropriate visas despite an appeal from the UN for equal treatment between member states and the billions spent by the Kingdom to develop a major tourism industry.

Al-Ula in Saudi Arabia and the Israeli Palestinian city of Kafr Kanna are among the 32 places selected by the UN for its list of best rural tourism destinations of the year.

“There were great expectations ahead of the event, and it is frustrating that we were prevented from taking part in it,” Israeli Mayor Zakaria Napso was quoted as saying by Walla news site.

According to Walla, Israel’s ministry of tourism condemned the rejection of the visa applications. “Israel calls on the UN World Tourism Organization and other UN bodies to preserve the UN’s guidelines, including equal treatment in ensuring the participation of states in the organization’s events. In this case, the organization failed to meet these standards, which is regrettable.”

The visa issue came after Saudi Arabia announced that it has restored relations with Iran after years of estrangement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that he wants full diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, expanding the normalization deals reached with the UAE and Bahrain in 2020 brokered by the US.

Israel and Gulf monarchies share concerns over Iran’s nuclear and missile programs and its network of proxies in the region. However, while Saudi Arabia did not condemn the UAE and Bahrain normalization with the occupation state, it has stopped short of formally recognizing Israel in the absence of a resolution to Palestinian statehood goals.