ANALYSIS: Will the Stealth Revolution in Saudi Arabia Lead to Peace With Israel?

As Saudi Arabia’s dynamic new leader enacts sweeping reforms, he’s clearly not shackled by concern for the Palestinian cause.

By Yochanan Visser | | Topics: Saudi Arabia, Abraham Accords
De facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
De facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Photo: Public domain

An incredible upheaval is taking place not far from Israel’s borders that could pave the way for the expansion of the so-called Abraham Accords. The normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, recently called the “most important Arab country” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is slowly but surely getting closer.

Saudi Arabia finally made it onto the news shows of the three main TV channels in Israel this week.

That happened after soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo received a hero’s reception in the oil-rich kingdom, where he will now play for the football club Al-Nassr.

Ronaldo will receive a record $200 million a year to play for the Saudi club and for the various commercial contracts he signed.

At a press conference, the Portuguese soccer star explained that he chose a club in Saudi Arabia to take the sport of soccer in the country to a higher level and to help develop Al Nassr’s women’s team.

“A women’s team in Saudi Arabia?” you may wonder.

Yes, recently Saudi Arabia established a league for female teams as part of the massive modernization that the once-most-conservative Muslim country has been undergoing for a few years now.

This modernization is part of the comprehensive economic and social plan dubbed “Vision 2030” that was introduced in 2016 by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom.

The Crown Prince, who is usually referred to by his initials MBS, was also appointed Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia late last year.

This was further proof that his father King Salman has the utmost confidence in his son’s ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking.


MBS’s reforms

The following is a brief look at what MBS has already done in Saudi Arabia and what awaits the nationals of the kingdom in the near future.

In the context of Vision 2030, efforts are being made to reform the Saudi economy, which until recently was entirely based on oil exports.

Saudi Arabia’s economy grew by more than seven percent last year, making it one of the best-performing economies in the world.

To finance his massive economical and cultural reforms MBS secured control of Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Investment Fund back in 2015. In his capacity as chairman of this fund, MBS invested more than $49 billion in equities of Western companies and organizations.

Partly with the then-obtained dividend, MBS created more than half-a-million jobs and founded 66 new companies and cultural organizations in Saudi Arabia.

These new organizations introduced Western culture to Saudi Arabia, where, for example, pop and film festivals are being held nowadays.

One of those music festivals based on Western culture was recently held in the ancient port city of Jeddah on the Red Sea. There you could hear electronic music and see mostly young women and men dancing in jeans and other modern clothing.

Some residents of Jeddah were shocked by the festival, but the youth of the city reacted enthusiastically to the drastic change in a country that up until the start of MBS’s rule had been dominated by Wahhabism. Such events were formerly unthinkable in Saudi Arabia, where the so-called “Sharia police” have now been abolished and where women are now increasingly given the same rights as men.

This was also reflected this week in the appointment of two female Saudi ambassadors to Finland and the European Union.


The arrival of Ronaldo as part of VISION 2030

Al-Nassr’s signing of Ronaldo should also be seen as part of the cultural revolution Saudi Arabia is undergoing.

The kingdom wants to host the World Cup soccer tournament in 2030 and has lifted the long-standing ban on sporting events under MBS’s rule.

According to the news site Gulf News, the Argentinean football star Lionel Messi is now also negotiating with a football club from Saudi Arabia after being contracted by the kingdom for promotion activities.

Messi’s contract with the French soccer team Paris St. Germain will end next summer and he’s already negotiating with the Al-Hilal club in Saudi Arabia, according to the report.

If true, it would be new evidence that Saudi Arabia is on its way to becoming part of the modern world through this type of action.


Relations with Israel

The reforms in Saudi Arabia will eventually also lead to the normalization of relations with Israel.

This is not only the expectation in Israel, where returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated last week that peace with Saudi Arabia is high on the new government’s agenda.

In Saudi Arabia itself, diplomats have recently indicated that the normalization of relations with Israel is just a matter of time.

In November 2022, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir met with leaders of the Jewish community in the United States and said that “the direction of Saudi-Israeli relations is normalization.”

However, “it will take time,” the top Saudi diplomat said, adding that “we should not put the cart before the horse.”


The road to normalization runs through America

It was later revealed that during his visit to the US, Al-Jubeir had given the US administration of President Joe Biden a short list of conditions for the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

A solution to the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict was not on this list, which Al-Jubeir had obtained from MBS.

The leader of Saudi Arabia wants the US to lift its embargo on the supply of certain modern weapons and to regard the kingdom as a kind of NATO ally.

The Biden administration initially imposed this embargo over human rights violations and MBS’s role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated in the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2, 2018.

MBS also wants the Biden administration to allow Saudi Arabia to develop a peaceful nuclear program with US help, and suggested American oversight of the Saudi nuclear program.

These conditions for normalization with Israel cannot be separated from the threat Iran poses to the Gulf states.

Iran has already attacked Saudi Arabia directly with cruise missiles and remote-controlled suicide drones, while also indirectly attacking the kingdom through the Ansar Allah (Houthi) militia in Yemen.

President Biden has recently shown that he is changing his attitude toward Saudi Arabia and MBS under the influence of regional events in the Middle East, where until recently Iran was able to implement its aggressive imperialist policy unimpeded.

The US president acknowledged at the end of December that the nuclear negotiations with Iran are “dead” and have clearly been influenced by the popular uprising against the regime in Tehran.


Positive developments

Apart from the political maneuvers, there are other positive developments that have already taken place and that show that there is a tentative normalization in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

For example, shortly after the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and two Gulf states, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to over-flights from Israeli airlines.

It had previously become clear that Israeli hi-tech companies were helping MBS develop the mega-project NEOM, a huge futuristic city being built along the coast of the Red Sea.

This project is being carried out by Saudi Arabia in collaboration with Egypt and Jordan, where parts of the NEOM project are being realized.

The city will have exclusively green energy and agriculture, which is said to be based on Israeli innovations.

Israeli businessmen have also been able to obtain a travel visa for a visit to Saudi Arabia for some time now.

According to Israeli media, dozens of Israeli entrepreneurs have traveled to Saudi Arabia for commercial reasons, while the kingdom also allowed some Israeli journalists into the country in order to cover sports events.


Mass tourism on the way

Israeli tourism expert Joseph Fisher recently traveled to the capital Riyadh in order to attend a conference of the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Fisher did not hide his Israeli nationality and said he was warmly welcomed everywhere and could freely chat with locals.

Fisher saw firsthand the massive projects currently underway in Saudi Arabia, among them the construction of the infrastructure necessary for mass tourism.

The Saudi government has earmarked as much as six trillion dollars to implement these projects, including a multi-million dollar ski resort to be built in the Arabian desert.

The ultimate goal of the tourism projects is to bring 100 million tourists to Saudi Arabia per year by 2030.

This also shows that the arrival of Ronaldo, and maybe Lionel Messi, is part of the Vision 2030 project, as MBS saw what was happening in Qatar during the recent World Cup tournament.

If the tournament is held in Saudi Arabia in 2030, thousands of Israelis will again want to attend the games, and the chance that this dream will come true is increasing every day.


The role of King Salman

Now that the reform process in the kingdom has clearly become irreversible, the next steps toward normalizing relations with Israel do not seem far off.

Whether this will happen in the short term depends mainly on the situation surrounding the monarchy in Saudi Arabia.

As the list of conditions that MBS drew up for this normalization showed, he is not so much interested in the Palestinian national cause. In fact, the Crown Prince has openly expressed his disdain for the Palestinian leadership.

This also has to do with his relationship with Jared Kushner, a former Middle East envoy in the administration of former President Donald Trump.

Kushner and his team had free access to MBS and reportedly succeeded in revolutionizing Saudi Arabia’s approach to Israel.

King Salman is the one who has so far prevented the normalization of relations with Israel from happening now.

The king maintains the old Arab line of thinking that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must be resolved first, and apparently was behind Saudi Arabia’s recent support for a new anti-Israel resolution that was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on the eve of New Year.


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