Israeli journalist visits Saudi Arabia amid speculation on breakthrough in ties

Channel 13’s Alon Ben-David says some Riyadh locals turned a cold shoulder, others invited him for coffee; normalization will take time

Israeli Channel 13 reporter Alon Ben-David in Riyadh (Channel 13 screenshot)
Israeli Channel 13 reporter Alon Ben-David in Riyadh (Channel 13 screenshot)

As speculation mounts over a possible breakthrough in relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia in the near future, an Israeli journalist recently traveled to Riyadh to see how the Saudi people may feel about warming relations with the Jewish state.

While traveling on non-Israeli passports, since individuals with Israeli passports are officially not yet allowed to enter the kingdom, Channel 13 military correspondent Alon Ben-David said he and a fellow Israeli reporter did not hide the fact that they were from Israel. (* See Editor’s note at the foot of this article.)

In a segment broadcast Monday night, the reporter noted that obtaining a visa for the trip was a quick and easy process, and described going through passport control upon landing as a smooth experience.

Ben-David stressed throughout his trip the warm welcome felt at every site and in most encounters with locals.

After visiting Riyadh’s center, Ben-David continued to the outskirts of the massive city — home to over 8 million people — describing their reality as being “much less glamorous” than that in the center.

Touring a flea market, Ben-David described the locals as “very friendly,” and shop sellers were heard saying “business is good” when approached by Ben David.

After experiencing a warm welcome, Ben-David and his team decided to start identifying as Israelis.

He said Israelis should not expect the same warm relationship with Saudi Arabia that they have experienced with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, at least not at the beginning. He described most locals as politely turning a shoulder or simply walking away when they were told they were speaking to an Israeli. Other times, though he could tell that “there was some discomfort” over his nationality, he was met with an invitation for a cup of coffee.

“It’s going to be much slower with Saudi Arabia,” Ben-David said.

Israeli Channel 13 reporter Alon Ben-David in a mosque in Riyadh (Channel 13 screenshot)

While Israelis have visited Saudi Arabia before, most have been Mossad chiefs or senior political figures, along with Muslims making the hajj pilgrimage. Recently, an Israel business delegation visited.

Officially, Saudi Arabia rejected recognition of the Jewish state in 1948 and maintained that policy in part due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That, however, started to change in recent years amid behind-the-scenes attempts to promote diplomatic and security cooperation in face of the Iranian threat.

Last month, ahead of US President Joe Biden’s planned trip to the Middle East, reports indicated Israel’s intention to ask Biden to approve the delivery of an Israeli laser-powered air defense system to Arab countries aligned against Iran, including Saudi Arabia.

The move would be part of a US-led effort to establish regional cooperation against the threat of Iranian attack drones and missiles. Recent reports have said the parties include the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz has spoken of a possible “breakthrough” during Biden’s upcoming visit to the region.

All eyes will be on Saudi Arabia, which Biden will visit in mid-July after his visit to Israel. However, analysts have said that diplomatic ties with Israel will not be made possible as long as King Salman, 86, still reigns.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to clarify that Ben-David traveled with a fellow Israeli reporter, but not with a production team, as originally stated.

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