Is Saudi Arabia close to normalising relations with Israel? 

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan has said that normalising relations with Israel would bring "enormous benefits" to the Middle East
AFP PHOTO / SAUDI ROYAL PALACE / BANDAR AL-JALOUD  -   Benjamin Netanyahu y Mohamed Bin Salman en una foto compuesta

AFP PHOTO / SAUDI ROYAL PALACE / BANDAR AL-JALOUD  -   Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohamed Bin Salman

Four Arab countries have established relations with Israel by 2020 thanks to US mediation. First the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain through the Abraham Accords, then Sudan and Morocco. The latter agreed in exchange for Washington's recognition of Moroccan sovereignty in Western Sahara. Now, following statements by Saudi officials, it seems that Saudi-Israeli rapprochement is closer. 

Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, said in an interview with CNN that any agreement to establish relations with Israel would benefit the Middle East. "The normalisation of Israel's status within the region would bring enormous benefits to the area as a whole," Farhan said. Moreover, "it would be of great help economically, socially and from a security perspective," he added. However, he stressed the need for the Palestinians to receive a sovereign state. "Normalisation in the region can only succeed now if we address the problem of the Palestinians and if we are able to achieve a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders that gives them dignity and gives them their rights," he stressed. The Saudi minister said that progress towards peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would lead to the development of formal relations between the two countries. "If we have progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, we will welcome Israeli citizens of all religions, not just Muslims, to the Kingdom," Farhan said. 

AFP PHOTO / Russian Foreign Ministry-El ministro de Asuntos Exteriores saudí, el príncipe Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud
AFP PHOTO / Russian Foreign Ministry- Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud the Saudi foreign minister

This is not the first time that Saudi Arabia has taken a positive view of the rapprochement with Israel. After the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain formalised relations with Israel, the Palestinian authorities criticised this decision, calling it "a betrayal" and "a stab in the back". The Saudi kingdom defended these relations and criticised the Palestinian leadership. "This low level of statements is not what we expect from officials seeking to gain global support for their cause," said Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief and former ambassador to Washington. "The Palestinian cause is a just cause but its advocates fail, and the Israeli cause is unjust but its advocates have proven successful," the Saudi prince added. 

In November 2020, shortly after the Abraham Accords, Israeli media announced a meeting between President Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The meeting would also be attended by Mike Pompeo, a key figure in Israel's rapprochement process with Arab countries. However, Riyadh denied this information. The Saudi government claimed that they only met with US officials. 

REUTERS/TOM BRENNE  -   De izquierda a derecha, el Ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de Bahrein, Abdullatif Al Zayani, el Primer Ministro de Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, y el Ministro de Relaciones Exteriores de los Emiratos Árabes Unidos (EAU), Abdullah bin Zayed, exhiben sus copias de los acuerdos firmados mientras el Presidente de los Estados Unidos, Donald Trump, los observa mientras participan en la ceremonia de firma de los Acuerdos de Abraham en Washington
REUTERS/TOM BRENNE  -  From left, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of the signed agreements as US President Donald Trump looks on as they participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords in Washington.

Saudi Arabia is not only politically important in the region, but also religiously important. The Saudi king is considered the Guardian of the Holy Places of Islam. For this reason, Saudi Arabia's historical position since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 has been one of defence of the Palestinians. However, it has not expressed as much rejection of Israel as other Arab countries that are more critical of the Hebrew country. In 2002, the Riyadh-led Arab Peace Agreement was presented. The pact offered the normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel in exchange for the latter's withdrawal from the occupied territories and recognition of the Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. This document, although not accepted by Israel, marked the beginning of possible relations between the two countries. 

Since then, Saudi Arabia and Israel have been united by their enmity towards Iran and their good relations with the United States, as both states are Washington's main allies in the region. The normalisation of relations would also bring economic benefits for both. Riyadh could benefit from Israeli high technology to develop its Vision 2030 project, a plan to reduce dependence on oil and develop other sectors. However, some members of the country's royal family and spiritual leaders oppose developing relations with the Hebrew state. The same is true of the Saudi population: only six per cent support normalising relations with Israel, according to the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies.