Israel & Saudi Arabia: A Complicated Under-the-table Relationship
Riyadh’s refusal to grant visas to Israelis leads to the kingdom being stripped of right to hold chess competition
Saudi Arabia has lost the right to host the chess World Blitz and Rapid Championship Tournament due to its refusal to grant visas to Israelis. Instead, the competition will be held in Russia. The development highlights the complexity of the Jewish state’s burgeoning relations with the Sunni Muslim kingdom: namely, that the rapprochement remains almost entirely below-the-radar.
Israeli-Saudi ties have dramatically improved in recent years primarily due to the shared security interest of neutralizing Iran’s expansionism and potential nuclearization. Concurrently, the emergence of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has led to the implementation of reforms geared towards slowly modernizing the ultra-conservative nation.
Nevertheless, the informal association is in its infancy and conditioned on current geopolitical realities that may be fleeting.
“If there is a sudden improvement in Iranian and Saudi relations, there is a chance that Riyadh will weaken its links to Israel,” Dr. Ronen Zeidel, a Middle East expert at the University of Haifa, contended to the Media Line.
To offset this possibility, the evolving partnership has been fostered and strengthened by United States President Donald Trump, who views both countries as key to actualizing his foreign policy goal of reining in the Iranian regime. Notably, President Trump and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu publicly backed bin Salman amid a global uproar over his alleged involvement in the October 2 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“What happened at the Istanbul consulate was horrendous and it should be duly dealt with,” the U.S. president affirmed before qualifying that, “at the same time, it is very important for…the region and the world that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”
This sentiment is not universally shared, however, and there is even a push within the U.S. Senate to punish the House of Saud with sanctions and by ending American support for the Saudi-led Sunni coalition fighting Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.
“[The U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel] do not see eye-to-eye with the European Union, not just on Khashoggi but also about the  Iran nuclear deal,” Dr. Nachum Shiloh, an expert on Gulf at The Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, conveyed to The Media Line.
In this respect, the Trump administration in May withdrew from the atomic accord and has since slapped financial penalties opposed by Brussels on the Islamic Republic’s crucial energy, shipping and banking sectors.
Despite a confluence of interests, Riyadh is still hesitant to bring its dealings with Israel above-the-table, mainly because of the ongoing stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
“This conflict is one source of radicalization that is a threat to [bin Salman’s] regime. By trying to take an active role in peace talks, the Saudis can insulate themselves against public backlash of being too close to the Israelis even while working to confront Tehran,” Dr. Nir Boms, a board member of the Israeli Council of Foreign Relations, explained to The Media Line.
By contrast, Israel’s budding relations with other Gulf states have garnered public attention, notably the landmark visit in October by Netanyahu to Muscat as well as calls by Bahraini officials for Jerusalem’s acceptance and regional integration.
And while bin Salman is the first-ever Saudi leader to recognize Israel’s right to exist, he has been more reserved in his approach.
“Neither side is pushing for public relations because they have more important concerns, which are security cooperation and international affairs. Coordination on these fronts can be done privately,” Lenny Ben-David, formerly the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, told the Media Line.
Accordingly, it may be some time before Israelis and Saudis are sipping coffee together in the cafes of Jerusalem and Riyadh.
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press & Policy Student Program)