Saudi Arabia Is Laying the Groundwork for Normalization with Israel

August 18, 2023 | Haisam Hassanein
About the author: Haisam Hassanein was the 2016–17 Glazer Fellow at The Washington Institute, and is a policy analyst focusing on Israel relations with the Arab world.

Since the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, there has been hope and speculation that Saudi Arabia will be the next Arab country to make peace with the Jewish state—speculation that has intensified more recently with reports of diplomatic activity by the Biden administration. Haisam Hassanein observes that the kingdom appears to be taking steps to ready its population for such a development:

Traditionally, Riyadh adopted an unfriendly stance toward Israel due to its conflict with the Palestinians. Clerics in Friday sermons would lash out at Washington and Jerusalem over the plight of Palestinians. Conspiracy theories about Israel abounded. . . . Over the past year, [however], there have been numerous signs of open warming. Last fall, Riyadh hosted Samer Haj Yehia, chairman of Israel’s Bank Leumi, as a panelist at the Saudi investor forum, where Yehia described “amazing” opportunities in the desert kingdom. In a June press conference, the Saudi foreign minister Faisal bin Farhan said that normalization with Israel “would bring significant benefits” to the region.

In Saudi-affiliated media as well, Israel and normalization are no longer taboo. When rockets from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip were launched at Israel in July, the London-based Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat avoided pejorative labels for Israeli troops such as “occupation forces.” The Saudi news network Al-Arabiya hosted Israelis to share their thoughts on issues unrelated to the Palestinians as well as Arab commentators who shared favorable views of Gulf normalization with Jerusalem while demanding that the Palestinians give peace a chance.

This openness stands in stark contrast to popular attitudes among Israel’s longtime Arab peace partners, Egypt and Jordan. Just this week, a hotel in Egypt reportedly kicked out an Israeli model after discovering her nationality. Meanwhile, Israeli and Jewish tourists have complained of anti-Semitic abuse when entering the Hashemite kingdom. . . .

[In Saudi Arabia], the overall trend is running strongly in favor of normalization. The kingdom has been paving the road to prepare its population for such a historical moment so that when peace comes, it will hopefully be a warm one.

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