JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — It was well after 11 p.m. on Friday night in the coastal Saudi city of Jeddah, and people of all ages still peppered the sidewalks of Palestine Street.
Some were heading west through the muggy heat toward the boardwalk to catch the slightly cooler breeze coming in off the Red Sea.
Families and others took photos in front of King Fahd’s Fountain, a production resembling a burst fire hydrant that continuously shoots water 853 feet in the air.
Others went the other direction, heading to the many restaurants and American fast-food chains that line the bustling boulevard.
Despite the name of the street, and the presence in Jeddah of US President Joe Biden, who had flown straight from Tel Aviv hours earlier following a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestine did not seem to be at the top of the minds of people out for a night on the town.
For a reporter tasked with fleshing out the spasm of diplomatic activity that Israelis have excitedly seen as a sign of emerging normalization with Saudi Arabia, the scene seemed a salient representation of how the kingdom views the issue: officially placing the Palestinians near the top of its agenda and stridently backing them in word at every turn, but in deed not overly concerned with the conflict taking place about a thousand kilometers (600 miles) northwest.
As for welcoming normalization with Israelis, the only thing chillier than the air-conditioning at Palestine Street’s Haifa Mall was the reception that idea got.
The mall, a standard Gulf mega-shopping complex, was exceptionally clean and state-of-the-art, making it a go-to gathering spot for locals of all ages in a conservative country where bars and nightclubs are banned. At a movie theater in the mall, dozens of youths spilled out of a screening of “Minions: Rise of the Gru,” chattering excitedly.
“A Jew is a Jew, whether in Israel or Moscow,” said Sultan, a salesman at a watch kiosk, as Beyonce’s “Halo” played in the gleaming mall.
The sweeping generalization was not entirely different from the ones I’d heard about Palestinians and Arabs during my time covering the West Bank settlements.
Aware he was speaking with a member of the Israeli press — I was one of three reporters for Israeli publications who joined the White House press corps for the Saudi leg of Biden’s Middle East trip — the salesman had no problem launching into a diatribe about how the Jews wanted to kill the prophet Muhammad and are “the enemies of Islam.”
“There’s no difference between Israel and Jews elsewhere,” he said, arguing that the latter group “funds the oppression of Palestinians” from abroad and therefore cannot be trusted.
Learning my name, Sultan admitted that he had never met a Jew before. “The Quran says it’s good that we’re all different,” Sultan clarified, in an impressive 180-degree turn from his original argument.
Experts say a similar about-face will be needed if Israeli-Saudi normalization — a process Riyadh claims is not happening — is to see a warm welcoming of Israeli and Jews after decades of hostility and demonization.
“For decades, Arab leaders, textbooks, and press have fomented negative views about Israel and in many cases, Jews, and there has been little opportunity to counter that narrative,” said Carmiel Arbit, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“Similar challenges exist in Israel: Studies have shown that many Jewish Israelis hold negative perceptions about Arabs and Muslims.”
At another stand in the mall, a niqab-wearing saleswoman was adamant about dabbing what seemed to be Jeddah’s strongest perfume on my inner wrist before she opened up.
She was aware, as most were, that Biden was in town for a regional summit, and she expressed hope for improved relations with the US.
Israel was another story, though, and she insisted that most Saudis are opposed to peace with the Jewish state, due to its treatment of the Palestinians.
Out in the Jeddah night, my Uber driver, Ahmed, echoed a sentiment expressed by many others in the mall: that he didn’t have much of an opinion on the matter and that he trusted the Saudi government to act appropriately.
I had not been planning on polling Ahmed, seeking to avoid the cliche of the taxi-driver interview. But upon learning what brought me to Jeddah, he was eager to discuss the issues and did so in proficient English.
Ahmed was aware of the Red Sea island transfer advanced at the GCC+3 summit, along with the steps Saudi Arabia had agreed to take toward normalization with Israel in order to secure control of Tiran and Sanafir.
Ahmed did agree that most Saudis oppose Israel, but he criticized what he said was a minority who do so for religious reasons.
“If you hate Israel because of the Jews, then you will hate all people who are different,” he maintained.
It’s hard to deny that the region is shifting, after being on the first-ever direct flight from Tel Aviv to Jeddah on Friday, along with dozens of other US-based reporters, just hours after Saudi Arabia announced it would open its airspace to all civilian airliners.
And it may well have been, as Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid characterized, the first step toward normalization of Israel-Saudi ties. But Riyadh has continued to maintain that ties with Israel won’t leapfrog the Palestinian cause, even though recent polling has shown levels of support for contacts with Israelis at levels on par with the UAE and Bahrain.
As I made my way through Palestine Street, I recalled a 2012 Saudi movie called “Wadjda” that had been part of the curriculum for one of my Arabic college courses. Filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour subtly criticizes the conservative kingdom for failing to extend many rights to women and girls while also opening a window into shifting Saudi attitudes toward the Palestinians.
In the film, a 10-year-old girl named Wadjda dreams of owning a bike in order to race and beat her friend Abdullah. While largely disconnected from religion, Wadjda enters the school’s Quran recital competition in order to use the winnings to buy a two-wheeler. But when she wins, her teacher decides that instead of using the prize to buy a bike — bike-riding being immodest behavior for women in Saudi Arabia of the 2000s — she will instead donate the money to the Palestinian cause.
Returning home, Wadjda’s mother asks her where the prize money is.
“In Palestine,” comes her furious reply, showing little understanding or care for the cause that robbed her of a bike.
As for Israel, the Atlantic Council’s Arbit noted that increased opportunities for interaction between Israelis and Gulf Arabs afforded by the Abraham Accords may eventually help chisel away some of the negative attitudes toward the Jewish state.
“All sides have a long way to go to weed out hate,” she said. “But fostering opportunities to meet the other and supporting education initiatives will be key to promoting tolerance between countries in the region.”
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