30% of Saudis support business, sports contacts with Israel — poll

Though vast majority of kingdom still opposes normalization, percentage of survey respondents who support some ties is up threefold from June

Saudi Arabian city view with the Kingdom Tower, background, and 'Al-Faislia Tower' in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Saudi Arabian city view with the Kingdom Tower, background, and 'Al-Faislia Tower' in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Amid signs of warming relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Saudi public remains overwhelmingly opposed to ties with the Jewish state, according to a new poll commissioned by a US think tank.

According to the The Washington Institute for Near East Policy poll released Tuesday, when asked if “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so,” 64 percent of Saudi respondents said they “somewhat disagree” or “strongly disagree” while 30% said they “somewhat agree” or “strongly agree.” The remaining 6% said they didn’t know or declined to answer.

Despite the vast majority of Saudis opposing normalization, the 30% of respondents who said contacts with Israelis should be allowed marked a threefold increase from a poll conducted in June.

The Washington Institute said the figures contextualized “reports that Saudi officials have cited concerns over internal public opinion in explaining why they are deferring full normalization with Israel at this time.”

When asked their view on the normalization agreements Israel reached with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, 40% of respondents called it a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” development, while 55% called it “very negative” or “somewhat negative,”  with 5% not answering.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a virtual G-20 summit held over video conferencing, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 22, 2020. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

The Washington Institute said the poll didn’t indicate a significant generational or sectarian divide between respondents.

The survey had a sample size of 1,000 Saudi citizens polled in face-to-face interviews, with a 4.5 % margin of error. It was conducted by “a highly reputable, independent, and apolitical regional commercial market research firm” that the Washington Institute didn’t name.

The release of the poll came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was widely reported to have traveled Sunday to Saudi Arabia for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.

The trip, which was not officially confirmed, marked a watershed moment in shifting Gulf ties with Israel, which have been bolstered in recent months at the urging of the Trump administration.

Netanyahu in May 2019 visited Oman, another Gulf country with which Israel does not have diplomatic ties. He is slated to visit Bahrain and the UAE next month, following the normalization deals.

Covert ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia are believed to have expanded in recent years. The shift in policy has reportedly been led by the crown prince, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, who sees Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence in the region.

The Trump administration has hoped Saudi Arabia would join the UAE and Bahrain in recognizing Israel and forging diplomatic ties, a move seen as increasingly distant in the wake of Joe Biden’s election as US president. But Saudi leaders have hitherto indicated that Israeli-Palestinian peace will have to come first.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan attends a joint press conference with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Berlin on August 19, 2020. (John MacDougall/Pool/AFP)

“We have supported normalization with Israel for a long time, but one very important thing must happen first: a permanent and full peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians,” Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said on Sunday.

In late October, when US President Donald Trump announced that Israel and Sudan would be making peace, he predicted that Saudi Arabia would soon follow. Reports this week however indicated that Riyadh won’t normalize ties with Jerusalem as long as King Salman, who is believed to oppose normalization without the establishment of a Palestinian state, remains in power.

When the White House announced in August that the United Arab Emirates and Israel had agreed to establish full diplomatic ties — a move matched by Bahrain weeks later — Saudi Arabia refrained from criticizing the deal or hosting summits condemning the decision, despite Palestinian requests to do so. The Palestinians have slammed the agreements as a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause,” but government-controlled Saudi media hailed them as historic and good for regional peace.

The kingdom also approved the use of Saudi airspace for Israeli flights to the UAE, a decision announced the day after Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, met with the crown prince in Riyadh. Kushner has been pushing Arab states to normalize ties with Israel and has said that the Jewish state could eventually enjoy fully normalized relations with Saudi Arabia.

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