Israeli, Saudi Arabia inching closer to normalize diplomatic relations

For years Israel and Saudi Arabia have been partners in all but name. The leaders of the two countries confer in secret, share a rival in Iran, plan joint telecoms infrastructure, do quiet business deals and are members of American-led defence alliances.

But while five other members of the Arab League already have agreed to full diplomatic relations with Israel, it has not been that simple for the Saudi kings to break 75 years of taboo against “normalisation” with the oft-reviled Jewish state.

Israel, Saudi Arabia land bridge construction started

An official from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has confirmed to Global Defense Corp that work has begun on a trade corridor project connecting the country to Saudi Arabia, and that it will operate even if diplomatic ties between the two countries are not officially normalized.

A car drives past a road signal indicating the Allenby (King Hussein) bridge crossing point to Jordan (background), in the city of Jericho in the occupied West Bank, on January 28, 2021. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Ynet reported on July 7 that Israel and the United States were working on a plan to establish a continuous trade land bridge connecting Jordan, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, leading from the Persian Gulf straight to Israel’s seaports. The outlet cited senior Israeli officials, but until now there had been no official word on the project.

Israel Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat confirmed that the government was working on the project, which will start in the UAE, pass through Saudi Arabia and then end in the seaports of Israel. It is planned to later expand to Bahrain and Oman, Ynet reported.

“We’re working on it. We do not have a deadline for completion,” Haiat told Global Defense corp, adding that it could be completed by the end of the year.

There have been a series of reports suggesting that Israel and Saudi Arabia are slowly inching closer to restoring ties, three years after Israel signed the Abraham Accords with several Gulf states. Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told Al-Monitor in May that the two countries could reach a breakthrough by the end of the year.

“This project can work even without official normalization (the same way the flights over Saudi Arabia work),” Haiat added.

Although Saudi Arabia is not a party to the Abraham Accords, since the agreement was signed in 2020, the kingdom has allowed Israeli airlines to use its airspace for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain. Authorization for flights extending to other destinations was not granted until July 2022.

The planned land bridge route will facilitate the transfer of goods in trucks between the countries and is expected to facilitate trade for the entire region. It will also enable tourist movement.

Israel, Saudi Arabia diplomatic ties possible

Establishing diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel is difficult but possible, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said, reasserting that Washington is pushing to normalise ties between the two countries.

Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City on Wednesday, the top United States diplomat said both Saudi Arabia and Israel are “interested” in the prospect of normalisation.

“It is incredibly challenging, hard – not something that can happen overnight,” Blinken said. “But it’s also a real prospect, and one that we’re working on because … both the Saudis and Israelis are looking for us to play a particular role in that effort. We’re very much engaged in it.”

Blinken visited Saudi Arabia earlier in June with the explicit objective of promoting normalisation after declaring it a “national security interest” of the US.

Although he did not secure a deal between the two countries during his trip to the region, his remarks on Wednesday showed that the administration of President Joe Biden is pushing on with that campaign.

The top US diplomat’s comments also came amid an apparent regional realignment after Iran and Saudi Arabia re-established their own diplomatic ties after years of animosity.

Saudi Arabia allows Israeli delegates in Riyadh for UNESCO summit

Saudi Arabia has signed an agreement with UNESCO in which it committed to allowing free access to delegations from all member states, including Israel, for the World Heritage Committee’s meeting in Riyadh in September, two sources with knowledge of the issue told Axios

If Saudi Arabia, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, upholds its commitment, it will be the first time representatives of the Israeli government officially and publicly enter the kingdom.

Global Defense Corp reported last month that Saudi officials refused to sign a “host country agreement” with UNESCO, with Israeli participation as the main sticking point.

Abraham Accords

Few Arabs states have recognised Israel – a key US ally in the region – since its establishment in 1948, but former US President Donald Trump’s administration helped secure agreements to forge formal relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020.

Sudan also agreed in 2021 to join the normalisation deals, known as the Abraham Accords.

Israeli leaders have said they are seeking to include Saudi Arabia in the normalisation deals.

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