A delegation from Israel traveled to Saudi Arabia to attend a UNESCO meeting. (REUTERS/Ammar Awad) (AMMAR AWAD/)
An Israeli delegation attended a UNESCO meeting in Riyadh on Monday, marking the country’s first publicly announced visit to Saudi Arabia, as speculation grows about a possible normalization of ties.
The five-member delegation arrived in Riyadh on Sunday to attend the meeting aimed at updating the list of cultural and historical sites declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, an Israeli official told AFP.
“We are happy to be here, it is a good first step,” said the official during the meeting, who did not want to give his name given the sensitivity of the visit. “We thank UNESCO and the Saudi authorities.”
The team traveled via Dubai, the official said, as there are no direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and arrived on Sunday.
They received their visas through UNESCO, the educational, scientific and cultural organization of the United Nations.
The delegation, which included a security official, joined the UNESCO meeting on Monday, sitting behind a sign reading “Israel” on the front of their desk.
The visit has been “very good, they treat us very well,” declared the official.
The “Israel” sign caught the eyes of Saudis working at the meeting, in which more than 50 sites are contenders for entry onto the coveted world heritage list.
“It is God’s command. The issue is bigger than us and we cannot oppose it,” said a young Saudi who worked among the support services, when asked about the Israeli delegation.
There are still “obstacles”
Although the visit has no overt political significance, it occurs at a time when rumors of rapprochement between the two countries are growing.
A Palestinian delegation reportedly visited Riyadh last week to discuss the way forward if Saudi Arabia and Israel were to formalize their relations.
Home to two of Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel and did not adhere to the 2020 Abraham Accords, negotiated by the United States, under which Israel established ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, countries of the Gulf.
Saudi Arabia, which is trying to reshape and revitalize its oil-dependent economy, has made a series of historic diplomatic moves in recent months, including a surprising rapprochement with Iran, eight years after both heavyweights severed ties.
The fact that the visit was coordinated by UNESCO suggests that there remain “obstacles” to Saudi-Israeli normalization, said Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi analyst and expert on the bilateral relationship.
“This is most likely due to Saudi Arabia being more open to the world, which will include Israelis, and not due to bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Alghashian said.
Saudi officials have realized they cannot ban anyone if they want to transform the kingdom into a global business and tourism hub under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform agenda, Alghashian said.
“The Israelis will definitely milk this as the first step, when in reality it was facilitated by UNESCO. It’s not really because of his diplomatic skill or his diplomatic victories.”
Alghashian compared the Israeli delegation’s visit to that made this summer by Israeli eSports players for the Gamers8 festival, which also required “third-party coordination” by global tournament organizers.
(With information from AFP)