One of the most remarkable recent developments in the Middle East is the transparent growing partnership between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. While the back channels between Israel and the Arab states date back to the 1960s, for the past few years, we have witnessed as this tacit relationship started to manifest to the public. The Arab-Israeli alliance to counter Iranian efforts in the regions leaves many Arab states with no other option but dealing with decades of their anti-Israel hostility. Lately, Saudi public moves seem to indicate a dramatic shift, which may be signaling the start of a Saudi campaign aiming to form Arab acceptance of Israel. Recently, Saudi took the mantle to fight the BDS movement.
While warming up between Saudi and Israel had already started during Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah in 2006, in 2008, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, the social reformer and political tyranny, said to The Atlantic “We share a lot of interests with Israel, and if there is peace there will be a lot of interest between Saudi and the [Gulf] countries.” Those little steps indicated the new Saudi vision of the Crown prince for his country does include Israel. Those steps only accelerated to a high level of visibility in 2019. In August, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leaked footage of Saudi and Gulf officials defending Israel’s right to defend itself and stating that confronting Iran takes priority over the Palestinian cause.
UAE, Bahrain, and Oman had already gone public with their Israeli relations. In October, an Israeli delegation attended an anti-Iran summit in Bahrain alongside Saudi and the UAE, and in 2018 Benjamin Netanyahu made a rare public visit to Oman. While it is easy to attribute the recent developments in relations between Israel and the GCC to the Iranian threat, it would be unwise to do so. General stability and fears of Arab Spring 2.0 are a significant concern for the Saudis, who have been trying to stabilize countries such as Egypt and Syria. Saudi interest in Israeli military and cyber defense technologies is already being translated into direct investments and purchases. Saudi previously approved a plan which allows Arab Israelis to live and work and Saudi and also allowed Air India to use its airports to conduct direct flights to Israel.
One would do well to wonder if these cover relations means to be kept only to formal levels, or do they have the chance to translate into a more substantial and more significant development relating to Israel’s acceptance by the Arab world. Thankfully, the Saudis didn’t let us wonder for long. Saudi journalists, writers, thinkers, and social media activists have been filling both the print and virtual spaces of messages of acceptance of Israel and refutations of Arab antisemitism. In a country where people get imprisoned over tweets, this could not have happened without Saudi official approval and blessings. Earlier this year, both Israeli’s and Arabs were shocked by the Riyadh based Saudi blogger Mohamed Saud visiting Israel, learning Hebrew, and meeting with Israeli officials. Mohamed reaches out to Israelis through social media and introduces Saudi in Hebrew. Despite unequivocal denials by state officials that the visit carried any official capacity, there is no doubt that this is happening with the approval, and maybe even encouragement of the Saudi state. In an increasingly authoritarian country which not before long captured eagles and birds spying for Israel, it is definitely involved in such a dramatic development.
Yet, the most significant development in Saudi occurred this week, not in the Middle East, but in London. A group of Arab thinkers, writers, scholars, artists, and former politicians gathered in London under the title of the Arab Council of Regional Integration with the shocking goal of repudiation and rejection of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions antisemitic movement. The group declared the boycott movement to be a failure, only hurting Arabs more than Israel and call for normalization of relations with the state of Israel. One of the main organizers of the event is the Saudi publication Majalla, a Saudi funded newspaper which is owned by Saudi Publishing and Research Group. The newspaper’s goal is to promote Saudi political positions and attack Iranian actions in the regions. The Ryadh based group owns several media and publishing companies responsible for major publications in seven Arab countries. Sitting on the board of the Saudi Publishing and Research Group are several former Saudi ministers and officials with close ties to the Saudi royal family.
This leaves us with a clear conclusion, beyond the formal Israeli-Saudi relations, Saudi is quietly starting a campaign aiming to make the Arab public opinion more receptive to the idea of Saudi-Israeli partnership. This Saudi crusade seems to be well organized and carrying a particular Saudi vision for the region. While it is true Saudi needs to mitigate lashbacks by occasional condemnations of Israeli actions, they seem to be only interested in working with Israel. Mohamed Bin Salman is not a democratic ruler, nor does he abstain from crimes against dissidents and journalists. Yet, he has proven himself to be willing to use his authoritarianism to achieve some desirable progress when it comes to social issues such as women’s rights and promoting cooperation between Israel and the Arabs. This doesn’t mean that Saudis are great Zionists or discovered their great love for Israeli democracy or found a new love for the writings of Jabotinsky, but they merely recognized what has been obvious for decades; Arabs are much better off working with Israel than rejecting it. This Saudi pragmatic realization of their interests has the potential of dramatically changing Israel’s position in the region.