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Will Saudi Arabia be next to officially normalize ties with Israel?

Saudi Arabia places condition for normalizing relations

Towards the end of last month, Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached a deal to normalise relations, with Israel agreeing to suspend its controversial plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. In a surprise statement by US President Donald Trump, who helped broker it, the countries called the accord “historic” and a breakthrough toward peace. The United Arab Emirates has become the first Gulf Arab country to reach a deal on normalising relations with Israel, capping years of discreet contacts between the two countries in commerce and technology. The global reaction to the latest historic deal has been largely positive, while there have also been several negative responses, largely coming from the Palestinian camp.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia was not one of the nations to oppose the deal, in fact, it has shown several signs in the past weeks that not only is it content with the agreement, but that it could be next in signing such an agreement with Israel. However, it appears the Saudi Arabian royal family remains wary and cautious of acting too fast and going too far, due to its self-claimed position as the leader and representative of the Muslim world, it still officially maintains the need to consider Palestine.

Most recently, on Monday, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz told United States President Donald Trump that the Gulf country wanted to see a fair and permanent solution for the Palestinians, which was the starting point for its 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, the kingdom’s state news agency reported. The two men spoke by phone following the US-brokered accord last month.

King Salman told Trump that he appreciated US efforts to support peace and that Saudi Arabia wanted to see a fair and permanent solution to the Palestinian issue based on its Arab Peace Initiative. Under the proposal, Arab nations have offered Israel normalised ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Saudi Arabia still does not officially recognize Israel’s statehood.

Saudi Arabia opens airspace to Israeli planes

Despite this, many believe the Saudi calls for justice for the Palestinians is simply a display to maintain its legitimacy in the Muslim world. This is further supported by the fact that this month the kingdom allowed flights between UAE and Israel, including by Israeli aircraft, to use its airspace.

Saudi Arabia announced two weeks ago that it would allow any flights going to and from the United Arab Emirates to fly over its territory, a move that would give Israel access to some of the kingdom’s airspace for the first time.

The announcement, made at the request of the United Arab Emirates, came days after the first direct flight from Israel to the emirates, a symbolic move as the two nations begin normalizing relations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, in a video statement delivered while standing in front of a map of the region, called the announcement a “tremendous breakthrough.”

“Flights will be cheaper and shorter, and it will lead to robust tourism and develop our economy,” Mr. Netanyahu said, while tracing the route between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi with his finger on the map. He also said the route would allow Israelis to save time and money when traveling east to Asia.

This permission to use Saudi Arabian airspace will apply regardless of what country a plane is registered in, meaning that even an Israeli airline could operate over Saudi Arabia, assuming it is enroute to the UAE. As of now this new policy only applies for flights to & from the UAE. In other words, flights from Israel to other countries still don’t have blanket authority to operate in Saudi Arabian airspace, but rather it would need to be issued on a case-by-case basis.

Nevertheless, the latest move is a clear sign that Saudi Arabia not only acknowledges the UAE-Israel peace agreement, but approves of it.

Saudi Arabia already have strong ties with Israel

Saudi Arabia, although still not officially tied with Israel, in the past years has built growing relations with Israel. This has been apparent on many fronts. Since the take over of Mohammed Bin Salman as ruler of Saudi Arabia, growth of relations has accelerated.

The role of Iran in bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia is undeniable, as it has served as a source of common interest for the two nations. Iran’s opposing role to Saudi in the Yemen war has been the biggest factor in helping Saudi put its differences with Israel aside. In May, Iran even acknowledged this, accusing Riyadh of “sowing division” in the region to Israel’s advantage after the kingdom hosted summits of Gulf and Arab leaders to rally support against the Islamic republic. Saudi Arabia has “continued to sow division between Islamic countries and in the region, which is the wish of the Zionist regime,” foreign ministry spokesman Seyed Abbas Mousavi said last year,  adding “We see the attempts by Saudi Arabia to rally neighbouring and Arab countries against Iran as the continuation of futile attempts by America and the Zionist regime.” The latest source of tension in the Persian Gulf in 2019 played a big role in maintaining and even strengthening ties between Saudi and Israel.

Furthermore, Israel is set to take advantage of its improved relations with Saudi Arabia, as the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently revealed details of a proposed railway project that will connect the port of Haifa to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Unveiled in the UAE by Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz the project was introduced as being a way to “promote regional peace” and link the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Gulf to allow for increased trade and improve local economies.

US Israeli ties have followed the same trend of US Saudi ties, although Saudi’s relationship with the US goes a long time back, due to its oil sales, as well as geopolitical importance. Nevertheless, the latest nuclear worries with Iran coming from Washington, as well as the tensions in the Persian Gulf, have created a scenario where US Saudi ties are stronger than ever. In fact, despite opposition towards Saudi’s treatment of Khashoggi, The Senate failed last year to override President Donald Trump’s veto of resolutions to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, demonstrating  that despite bipartisan concern over the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia, the majority of Senate Republicans view the kingdom as a key counterbalance to Iran’s influence in the Middle East. This has impacted Israel and Saudi’s openness to one another and served the same geopolitical interests.

It is clear that Saudi Arabia has for several years accelerated ties with Israel, and there are less and less obstacles to the normalization of ties. In fact many predicted Saudi Arabia to normalize ties with Israel earlier than the UAE due to the larger scale of their ties despite being unofficial.

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