As Saudi bloggers reach out to Israel, some see signals of a regional shift

A recent visit to the Jewish state by Mohammed Saud received major publicity after he was attacked by Palestinians. But is this a condoned political strategy, or more of the same

Likud MK Avi Dichter meeting Saudi blogger Mohammed Saud on July 22, 2019. (Credit: Knesset Spokesperson's Office)
Likud MK Avi Dichter meeting Saudi blogger Mohammed Saud on July 22, 2019. (Credit: Knesset Spokesperson's Office)

On May 29, a Saudi student pinned a video clip of himself to his Twitter profile, making a statement that to some may be nothing short of remarkable. “Hello everyone,” he says in the clip. “My name is Mohammed Saud. I’m from Saudi Arabia. I love Israel, and I wish there [to be] a diplomatic relationship between our country and Israel.”

The 27-year-old Saud, who lives in Riyadh and goes by the Twitter handle @mohsaud08, retweets posts by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the premier’s son, Yair, and other Israeli government-run Twitter accounts in Arabic and Hebrew. He also sends out regular “Shabbat shalom” greetings from Riyadh in Hebrew to his followers, shares links of famous Israeli songs, and, calling the Israeli prime minister by his local nickname, claims that “there is no one like Bibi Netanyahu.”

And Saud is far from alone.

@SULTAN20_30 is yet another Saudi citizen whose account is almost entirely dedicated to relations with Israel, the Jews, and US President Donald Trump. When sent a direct message on Twitter, Sultan, a 37-year-old clerk from Riyadh, immediately agreed to answer questions put to him by The Times of Israel.

“There is no problem with Israel. It is important because of Jerusalem that is holy to Jews and Christians, while Islam’s holy places are Mecca and Medina,” Sultan said via the social media platform.

“We, the young generation, aspire to have normal relations with all states. We also know that 70 years ago there was no Palestinian state, while the Jews have existed for 3,000 years. For us, Jerusalem has no significance; Islam’s holy places are in Mecca and Medina. We want peace and coexistence,” he said.

As of this week, Sultan’s active Twitter account had 2,068 followers — far short of qualifying him as a social media “influencer.”

Likewise, Saud had just 2,000 or so followers — at least, until his dramatic visit to Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque late last month. When video emerged of Saud getting spit on and attacked by Palestinians livid over his attitude towards Israel, over 16,000 people quickly started following his account.

Do bloggers such as Saud and Sultan act alone? Or are they being directly or indirectly supported by some element in the Saudi administration?

For now, there is no evidence to support any official government connection. However, the bloggers’ proliferation is significant: One Israeli security expert who deals with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states believes that the bloggers may be a means for Saudi authorities to gauge public opinion.

“There is a change that is taking place, and it’s real,” the former official in one of Israel’s national security branches told The Times of Israel, requesting not to be named publicly. “Also, nowadays, when the Crown Prince [Mohammed bin Salman] tries to change the image of his country, one of the ways to do that is through getting closer with Israel and the Jews.”

Relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have strategic depth and run much deeper than the blogosphere — but this unusual phenomenon is perhaps the most vivid recent sign of a change in attitude towards the Jewish state within the Saudi kingdom.

Historic roots of support

Some analysts tend to name the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman — also known by his initials, MBS — as a catalyst for the seemingly recent change. Bin Salman has cultivated close ties with Jared Kushner — Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, as well as architect of the administration’s Middle East peace plan — and has displayed a positive attitude towards Israel on many occasions.

The truth is that the tide started turning almost two decades ago, and was hinged on the Saudi peace plan that would soon be adopted by the Arab League and dubbed the Arab Peace Initiative.

In March 2002, the now deceased Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz — then-heir to the Saudi throne — unveiled a new peace plan at the Arab League’s Beirut Summit aimed at ending the ongoing Middle East conflict and granting Israel unanimous recognition among Arab states.

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, center, sits under the Arab League logo during the opening session of the Arab Summit in Beirut Thursday, March 27, 2002. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Tawil)

At the time, say Israeli security officials, the Saudis were still contributing large sums of money to Hamas, the terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction and which now holds de-facto rule over the Gaza Strip. Vicious anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sermons were often heard in Saudi mosques.

Soon after the unveiling of the Arab Peace Initiative, however, the money transfers from Saudi charitable funds to Hamas stopped. The Second Intifada was still raging, but Saudi-controlled media began releasing content that indicated that the kingdom’s attitude towards Israel was slowly changing.

Days after the peace plan was released, Saudi journalist Abdul Karim al Nasser published an oped supporting Prince Abdullah’s initiative in the popular Saudi daily Al-Watan newspaper, which is considered to be liberal and pro-reform. In the article, translated by this reporter for the Middle East Media Research Institute, al Nasser virtually accused the Palestinian leadership of acting irrationally and dragging the rest of the Arab world into another war with Israel.

“No one will give the Palestinians and the Arabs their land and rights back if they don’t act rationally and seriously,” he wrote. “If they try to transform their conflict with Israel into a greater Arab conflict, it will just come to mutual accusations and arguments.”

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah, center, is flanked by unidentified members of his delegation at the opening of the Arab summit in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, March 27, 2002. Arab discussed a Saudi peace initiative to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat did not attend the summit. (AP Photo/Santiago Lyon)

At the time, even restrained support of Israel was quite rare. More common were the frequent blood libels and accusations of Israel being behind the 9/11 attacks, the war in Iraq, and other worldwide or regional cataclysms.

But in 2005, in order to facilitate its application to the World Trade Organization, Saudi Arabia announced the end of its ban on Israeli goods and services. In late 2008, Saudi authorities arrested Sheikh Awad al-Qarni, a radical cleric who vilified the West and encouraged violence against Israeli targets.

The country also quelled anti-Israeli demonstrations as Saudi journalists and editors largely refrained from openly criticizing Israel, blaming the Palestinians — and more specifically, Hamas — for the continuing crisis in Gaza.

Other major regional events — the 2011 Arab Spring, the sweeping gains of the Islamic State, the olive branch extended by president Barack Obama’s administration to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the US nuclear deal with Iran — sped up the rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Intelligence officials and politicians from both countries eagerly cooperated and often met in discreet locations. Relations with other Gulf states improved as well, including a rare official visit by Netanyahu to Oman last year (the only other Israeli prime minister to have visited the country was Yitzhak Rabin), and statements in favor of increased ties by leaders of Oman, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (SL), acompanied by his wife Sara, is greeted by Sultan Qaboos bin Said in Oman on October 26, 2018 (Courtesy)

This significant geopolitical shift is widely supported in Israel. According to a recent American Jewish Committee survey, 62 percent of Israelis believe that there will be a Saudi embassy in Tel Aviv and an Israeli embassy in Riyadh within five years.

Why some Saudis think Israel isn’t the devil

In Saudi Arabia, the House of Saud must continue to persuade a public that is, for now, reluctant to embrace relations with Israel. In addition, many voices in the Arab and Islamic world would be happy for the opportunity to attack the Saudis over their new attitude towards the Jewish state.

In March 2018, bin Salman told the heads of US-based Jewish groups that the Palestinian leadership must accept the peace proposal being drawn up by the Trump administration, which does not make clear mention of a two-state solution.

“For the past 40 years, the Palestinian leadership has missed opportunities again and again, and rejected all the offers it was given,” the Saudi leader reportedly said. “It’s about time that the Palestinians accept the offers, and agree to come to the negotiating table — or they should shut up and stop complaining,” he reportedly added.

Shortly thereafter, it was reported that the prince’s father, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, decided to retake control over the country’s public policy regarding the Palestinians, as Riyadh and Ramallah were drifting apart from each other too quickly. It is possible that the king felt his young son and heir apparent was making too extreme a shift, and opted to revert to the more traditional policy of supporting an independent Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem.

Still, many Saudis testify that the change in attitude towards Israel is real and undeniable. Some also believe that the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between their country and Israel is just around the corner.

Saudi analyst and journalist Abdul Hameed Ghbein. (Courtesy)

Abdul Hamid Ghbein, a Saudi analyst and journalist who writes for a number of Saudi publications, told The Times of Israel, “There is no doubt that the attitude of Arabs, and specifically of the Saudis, has changed a lot, and that Israel is no longer an enemy state, but a part of the region.”

“I believe that there will be diplomatic, economic, and cultural relations with Israel before the end of 2020,” said Ghbein, who often speaks to the Israeli media. “The Jews have a right to this land where their ancestors were living thousands of years ago. The stories of the kings and the prophets in the Quran are clear evidence for that.”

Two reasons for this change, said Ghbein, are Saudi media coverage and an Israeli culture of innovation.

“The new media contributed to changing the negative idea about Israel and its people. We were looking at Israel as a terrorist state that kills children demolishes houses and displaces Palestinians from their land. [We thought] Israel is a barbaric military barracks. There is no education, no industry, no agriculture, and they live on Western aid,” he said.

“Now the Arabs, and especially the Saudis, are amazed by the Israeli scientific, technological and cognitive development in all fields, and they know that the Jewish people are good and peaceful people. Very soon, there will be Saudi students studying in Israeli universities as well as Israeli students studying in Saudi universities. Perhaps I will be the first one,” said Ghbein.

A permanent rapprochement?

Incitement and hatred against Israel and the Jews has dropped dramatically over the last 15 years, and is significantly less popular among the younger generation.

US President Donald Trump, left, speaks with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during family photo session at G-20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, June 28, 2019. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool Photo via AP)

Dr. Moran Zaga, a policy associate at the think tank Mitvim — The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, says the gamut of Saudi reforms being pushed by bin Salman, including the development of closer ties with Israel, are here to stay.

“Apart from the Iranian threat and the understanding that the parties need to cooperate, there is a genuine change taking place in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf,” Zaga told The Times of Israel.

However, at the same time, said Zaga, “Some influential circles continue to oppose the advancement of normalization with Israel in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Many fellow Saudis attacked the young blogger Muhammad Saud online after the video of him being attacked by the Palestinians in Jerusalem went viral. Some of them claimed that Saud was not even a Saudi, other accused him of ‘betraying Arab interests.'”

The incident also sparked a massive backlash among Saudi bloggers, she said, who harshly criticized the behavior of the Palestinians towards a Saudi national. Many of Saud’s attackers had also cursed bin Salman, thus insulting his wide base of supporters.

For now, the official line of the Saudi administration remains unchanged. In April 2018, the king “reaffirmed the kingdom’s steadfast position toward the Palestinian issue and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital,” according to the official Saudi Press Agency.

The government clearly realizes that the road to normalization between Jerusalem and Riyadh still runs through Ramallah. However, to that end, they are willing to finance, push, and pressure the Palestinians towards a mutually agreeable solution along the way to an Israeli-Saudi-US alliance against Iran.

Fifty-two years ago in Khartoum, soon after the conclusion of the 1967 Six Day War, leaders of the Arab states said, “No to the recognition of Israel, no to negotiations with Israel, no to peace with Israel.”

Today, the grandchildren of some of these leaders are starting to state “yes,” but are still inextricably bound to the grave reality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The question now is not how the bilateral relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh will develop, but whether a future Israeli government will use this positive atmosphere in the Arab world to push for a solution with the Palestinians, and eventually, have it all.

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