Saudi Arabia, Israel Take Baby Steps Toward Normalization, Carefully Exposing Cooperation

Saudi Arabia, Israel Take Baby Steps Toward Normalization, Carefully Exposing Cooperation

More Israeli companies are operating openly in the kingdom, expert says

The announcement earlier this month that Saudi Arabia was lifting all restrictions on overflying its airspace came in the middle of the night.

The excitement in Israel was great, though the 2 am announcement on Twitter showed less enthusiasm from Riyadh.

The decision was much anticipated in Jerusalem. It will allow Israeli airlines that until now had to detour around the Arabian Peninsula, to shorten their routes to Asia and Oceana, making their flights shorter, cheaper, and more competitive.

The announcement did not mention Israel by name. Rather Saudi Arabia’s civil aviation authority said the decision came “to open the kingdom’s airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements of the authority for overflying.”

Over recent years, Israel and Saudi Arabia have been growing increasingly closer, but under the radar, motivated by mutual concerns over Iran. The removal of the flight restrictions comes after US President Joe Biden’s recent trip to the region, a trip that highlighted the growing changes in the Middle East.

For decades Saudi Arabia has said that normalization with Israel can only take place after the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved. While the airspace decision signals a departure from that policy, the modest manner in which the step was taken indicates there is still a long way to go in normalization between the two countries.

But also in recent decades, often through back channels and third parties, Saudis and Israelis have established trade ties. Israeli tech companies, especially in the agriculture and water sectors, have found a thirsty market in the Arabian Peninsula.

Dr. Nirit Ofir, CEO and founder of National Projects & Investment in the Gulf and a researcher at Bar-Ilan University, told The Media Line, “There are more Israeli companies operating openly in Saudi Arabia; we see entry permits for Israeli passport holders given more freely. There is more openness to Israel in the country.”

In 2020, when Israel signed the Abraham Accords with several Arab countries, Saudi Arabia was absent. Relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco were normalized. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, was not ready to take such a step. Still, normalization between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain could not have happened without the prince’s blessing, as Saudi Arabia is the strongest and most influential of the Gulf countries.

“The Saudis are operating with great caution,” said Ofir. “The lifting of airspace restrictions does not mean we will see full-fledged peace in the coming days or weeks.”

Mark Feldman, CEO and founder of Ziontours Jerusalem, said, “Don’t expect many packages to Riyadh or Jeddah in the near future. Whatever peace is achieved between Saudi Arabia and Israel will be akin to the peace with Egypt. Cool and correct will be the cornerstones of relations.”

The warm, peaceful relationships between Israel and the UAE, and between Israel and Morocco, differ greatly from the decades of cold but stable peace between Jerusalem and Cairo. The reasons for the difference are complex, but the root lies in ties that have not graduated from the government level to warm relations between peoples.

Last year, for the first time, an Israeli team participated in the Dakar Rally off-road endurance event in Saudi Arabia using their Israeli passports. Such open participation would have been unthinkable prior to the Abraham Accords.

The opening of the airspace could have major implications for Israel.

“This is a very important step as part of a slow but impressive process of strengthening relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” said Michael Harari, a policy fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies and a former senior Israeli diplomat.

“The significance is more political than economic,” he added.

Israeli media also reported that direct flights between the countries will soon be available for Muslim pilgrims, saving them a great deal of money. This has not been confirmed by either side.

Muslim Israelis are waiting for direct flights to Mecca. Currently, people who want to participate in the Hajj pilgrimage have to travel through Jordan.

The Saudi announcement has yet to be translated into altered flight paths. There are still no practical agreements in place that pave the way for the change. This could change in the coming weeks.

“This will be a gradual process,” said Ofir. “The Saudis will want something in return, probably in the form of security arrangements.”

“Getting closer to Israel is meant to give the Gulf states more confidence in the region, in terms of security,” said Hariri. “Israel is perceived as having an open door to the White House, which could help countries such as Saudi Arabia.”

The Saudi government has to tread carefully as there are elements within the kingdom resistant to normalization with Israel.

“If the Saudis feel such a step will promote their interest vis-à-vis Israel and the US, while not angering certain parts of society, they will promote it,” said Harari.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid responded with enthusiasm to the Saudi decision but added that Jerusalem will work “with necessary caution” going forward. It was an acknowledgment of the complexities attached to the budding relations.

The two countries will likely continue their cooperation and trade ties, mostly behind the scenes. With time, more of these interactions may come to center stage.

“There is no need to go further at this point. It is better not to endanger the process that we are witnessing with steps that are too big,” Hariri said.

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