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September 8, 2023 8:03 am

History: Special Dispatch From First Israeli Business Delegation to Saudi Arabia

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avatar by i24 News and Algemeiner Staff

A combination picture shows Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, in Osaka, Japan, June 29, 2019, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, Israel, Feb. 9, 2020. Photos: Sputnik / Mikhail Klimentyev / Kremlin via Reuters and Reuters / Ronen Zvulun / Pool.

i24 News — With headlines swirling in recent months on US efforts to broker a normalization agreement, diplomatic ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, long regarded as the crown jewel, are no longer a distant dream. White House officials have been shuttling back and forth to the region, several Israeli ministers have traveled to the US, and even a Palestinian delegation visited the kingdom, giving credence to the belief that a new era in the Middle East may be upon us.

And there are some in Israel and Saudi Arabia who are eager to jump-start relations already. It’s in this context that an Israeli business delegation landed in Saudi Arabia at the start of September for an official government conference on cybersecurity.

So what do the Saudis themselves have to say about the prospect of ties between the Jewish state and the Gulf kingdom?

“We have a golden chance, and I mean the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Israel, with the help of the United States, we can normalize our relations. But we should bring Israelis and Palestinians to Riyadh to talk about peace,” said Abdulaziz Alkhamis, a prominent Saudi journalist who already visited Israel three times.

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“Signing the Abraham Accords was an important event, but we must remember that Saudi Arabia is different, since it is the largest country in the region, in the Muslim world, and in the Arab world. In other words, it is not just another country that is waiting in line to shake hands with the Israelis,” said another attendee.

“We know that without Israel, the new Middle East proposed by our crown prince, Mohamed bin Salman, will not happen,” added yet another.

“For us, the Saudis, it always annoys us to hear Israelis asking us: ‘When will you join the Abraham Accords?’”

This is what Saudi government officials confessed to me when, for the first time, they hosted a delegation of 12 Israeli businessmen at an official conference held on September 6 and 7 in Dammam. Known as the oil capital of the Gulf, Dammam is the third largest city in the country, located on the Persian Gulf — or as they call it here, the Arabian Gulf.

In 2019, the city and its surrounding areas were attacked by missiles and drones launched by pro-Iranian Houthis in Yemen, at a range of 600 miles. This is the reason why, among other things, the Saudis are showing great interest in acquiring defense technologies against these types of attacks.

In a meeting with the group of Israeli businessmen who were specially invited to the government’s cybersecurity conference, the Saudi officials delivered a sharp message to Jerusalem: “With all due respect to the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco, who are the signatories of the Abraham Accords, we are something else. The great Saudi Arabia, the custodians of the cities of Mecca and Medina, the holy places for almost two billion Muslims. Therefore, normalization with us, if it comes, will be an event of a completely different magnitude.” And they emphasized: “Peace between us will open the door and legitimize any official relationship between Israel and many Arab and Muslim countries that are watching from the sidelines.”

Last May, Israeli researcher Dr. Nirit Ofir was invited to lecture at a conference on “Security in the Middle East” held in the Saudi capital. This was likely the first time in which an Israeli Jew lectured openly, in front of audience members from across the region, including Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq.

“Most of the participants showed great curiosity and asked me countless questions, and even agreed to exchange business cards and keep in touch,” recalled the Israeli academic, who has been moving around the Gulf region for a decade as part of her work. “At the same time, there were also those who were frightened when they heard that I was Israeli, and they avoided any contact with me.”

The big surprise was when Saudi government officials approached the Israeli researcher and businesswoman and asked her to lead a business delegation to the conference in Dammam. It wouldn’t be the first time either — in 2021, Dr. Ofir brought an Israeli team to Saudi Arabia to compete in the Dakar Rally, and all of its members entered the country with Israeli passports.

This time, the businessmen entered with foreign passports, but openly identified as Israelis at the conference, which was attended by over 300 participants, including representatives of huge companies such as Aramco as well as other oil and gas companies from other Gulf countries.

“This is an unusual and unprecedented opportunity to establish contact with Saudi officials during a critical period, during the process of building the relationship between the State of Israel and the blossoming Kingdom,” said Frank Melloul, CEO of i24NEWS Group, which broadcasts from Israel in English, French, and Arabic, and is watched in the Gulf countries. “This is a historic opportunity because here, in Dammam, a connection is being revealed in front of our eyes that points to a new Middle East. The Saudis reveal to us in face-to-face talks that we have more similarities than differences,” Melloul added.

At the conference, Israeli cyber companies presented innovative technologies that spurred great interest. For the most part, the delegates were warmly received, although a few participants demonstratively ignored their presence or demanded maximum discretion from their Israeli counterparts. “It seems to me that we still have a long way to go, but there is no doubt that something is happening in the connection between Jerusalem and Riyadh,” said Dr. Ofir.

During the conference, the Israeli companies were invited to private meetings with companies from all over the Arab world and the Gulf in particular, who knew about their participation in advance and asked to make contact. These included discussions with the Saudi oil giant Aramco, the Saudi Ministry of Energy, the Saudi Electricity Company, and the Ministry of Gas and Oil of Bahrain.

“The conversations that developed were fascinating and largely went beyond the professional topics,” told us one of the representatives from a well-known Israeli company who asked to remain anonymous. He added, “We talked about the accelerated change that Saudi society is going through in issues such as the status of women, and even the Saudi [soccer] league that aspires to become one of the best in the world.”

It was not just cyber companies participating in the conference. For example, one of the Israeli companies present is an innovator in the field of facial recognition. With the technology they developed, only 30 percent of a person’s face needs to appear in a photograph in order to identify them, and it can even identify people in photographs  from 50 years ago, when an adult was a child.

As Dubai-based engineer Ambar Dalvi, who represents the Israeli company OOSTO in the Gulf, put it: “In countries that are actually enemies of Israel, your technologies are highly valued, and they have no shame in using them.” The engineer was at the conference promoting this facial recognition technology. The company’s vice president, Vadim Aloni, added: “Israeli companies have amazing technologies that the Saudi market needs, in the worlds of defense and security. OOSTO specializes in facial and behavior recognition products, and is proud to take part in this groundbreaking delegation, which can promote both regional peace and the economic relationship between the countries.”

In that spirit, Doron Belachovsky, an Israeli businessman visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time, declared: “Our delegation gives hope to the Jewish and Muslim people [who want] to restore an ancient connection from the past into a strong and promising shared future.”

“You are so proud to have become a start-up nation. Maybe together we can build a start-up region. You have a lot to offer,” said Nada Al-Mushin, a 30-year-old Saudi woman with an MBA from Kansas City University. When she returned to the Kingdom after her studies, she felt that it had changed beyond recognition. “To me, it is completely natural that you Israelis are here. I hope that soon it will be a normal thing,” she said. According to her, this business delegation is a touchstone for the future and may open the way for increasing cooperation between the business communities of the two countries.

In private meetings between the Israeli and Saudi representatives, the claim came up more than once that Israeli companies are already operating in Saudi Arabia in areas such as technology and agriculture — under a foreign flag, of course. This is the exact same strategy that was used in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain before the Abraham Accords were signed in September of 2020.

The image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS) appears in every possible corner of the city streets, sometimes alongside his 87-year-old father, King Salman. The conference in Dammam was also attended by representatives of the crown prince’s flagship project: 2030 Vision. MBS is undoubtedly the architect of the accelerated change that is taking place in the country, one that he may become the ruler of in the near future.

“Neom is the jewel in the crown of the new Saudi Arabia.” This is what I heard from Mohammed, the representative of this ambitious project, who was participating in the conference. Construction on the new city “The Line” has already begun. A central component of the Neom project, the city is planned to be 170 kilometers (105 miles) long, yet only 200 meters (650 feet) wide, and aims to be the city of the future: environmentally friendly, with no roads, cars, and gas emissions. The estimated budget for its construction is over a trillion dollars. In Neom, it will be possible to reach any point in the city within 20 minutes thanks to a high-speed train, and there will be flying taxis. Neom’s representatives contacted the Israeli companies and asked about various technologies that might help them with the futuristic project.

Mohammed, the Neom representative, sought out Israelis during the coffee break to chat in the corridor and confided to me: “Saudi Arabia is a huge country, the size of western Europe. It is no coincidence that our leadership decided to build Neom exactly 350 kilometers (about 220 miles) from the border with Israel. We take you into account, this time for the better. At the same time, we have to remember that there are things that need to happen, for example on the Palestinian issue, in order for us to move forward and establish relations. It will be good for all of us.”

The Saudi journalist Abdelaziz Alkhamis elaborated further: “We’ve built Neom next to the Red Sea. It’s a big economic spot and it needs innovation and new technologies. The Israelis have them. We should cooperate on this”.

It’s notable that the Saudis are investing heavily in tourism, making it easier than ever to enter the Kingdom. This is most evident at the airport. Citizens of certain countries, such as in the European Union, can obtain an e-visa online within minutes  through the website of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In Dammam, they are claiming that tourism is the “new oil.”

Hesa, one of the workers at the hotel where the conference was held, saw my Portuguese passport with which I entered the country and remarked with a wink: “You’re Portuguese from Tel Aviv, right?” Then it turned serious: “One of my dreams is to visit Tel Aviv and pray in Jerusalem at the Al Aqsa Mosque.” After saying “Welcome” in Hebrew, she concluded: “There are two forces that are leading the change in my country: women, who until recently were confined to their homes and are increasingly joining the labor market, like me. And above all, young people. 70 percent of the Saudi population is under the age of 30.”

Until recently one of the most conservative places in the world, these young people are the driving force that is pushing the heavy gates of the Saudi Kingdom wide open towards the outside world.

When the delegation was preparing to return to Israel via Dubai, the Saudi ground steward in Dammam asked us what our final destination was. When we answered “Tel Aviv,” he answered with a smile from ear-to-ear: “Wow! I haven’t heard that yet! But I think I will hear it more and more in the future.”

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