Saudi tourism minister acknowledges historic Israeli presence at Riyadh confab

Ahmed bin Aqil al-Khateeb says he hopes delegation led by Haim Katz was ‘received well,’ as Israeli tourism minister holds slew of meetings with foreign officials

Tourism Minister Haim Katz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on September 27, 2023, on the first such high-level public mission to the oil-rich kingdom. (Israeli Tourism Ministry via AFP)
Tourism Minister Haim Katz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on September 27, 2023, on the first such high-level public mission to the oil-rich kingdom. (Israeli Tourism Ministry via AFP)

Tourism Minister Haim Katz was welcomed to Riyadh in comments by his Saudi counterpart on Wednesday, while he held an unprecedented trip to the Gulf nation as rapprochement between the countries appears closer than ever.

While there was no meeting reported between the two officials, Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed bin Aqil al-Khateeb on Wednesday publicly noted the presence of his Israeli counterpart in comments at the start of the UN World Tourism Organization conference in Riyadh.

“There is a delegation here in the country for the first time. I hope they were received well. Welcome,” said Khateeb. “Everyone in this room understands that tourism is the bridge between people and between cultures.”

According to the Tourism Ministry, Katz has so far held meetings with a wide range of foreign officials during his time in Riyadh, including his counterparts from Monaco, Malta, Albania and Greece, as well as the economy minister of Kyrgyzstan and the trade minister of Bahrain.

Katz’s arrival in Riyadh on Tuesday kicked off the first public visit of an Israeli minister leading a delegation to the kingdom, according to his office.

“They received me very nicely, we landed in the afternoon, there were lots of people in the welcome committee, everybody looked the same, it was wonderful,” Katz told Channel 12 news on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia’s Tourism Minister Ahmed al-Khateeb speaks during an interview with AFP in Riyadh, on October 26, 2022. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

In a statement on Tuesday, Katz said that “tourism is a bridge between nations” and that “cooperation in the field of tourism has the potential to bring hearts together, and economic progress.”

His visit comes as Israel and Saudi Arabia seemed to be edging closer to a normalization deal.

US President Joe Biden’s administration is actively engaging Riyadh and Jerusalem to try to broker a normalization deal between the two countries. As part of the framework, Saudi Arabia is also asking the US for a major mutual defense pact and significant arms deals, as well as Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations in his address last Friday that Israel was “on the cusp” of a historic deal with Saudi Arabia.

Earlier in the week, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Fox News that “every day we get closer” to his country normalizing ties with Israel, while clarifying that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the process and declaring that Saudi Arabia will have to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.

Earlier this month, an Israeli delegation of nine staffers flew to Saudi Arabia as observers for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting. The delegation was led by the head of Israel’s Antiquities Authority and included diplomats, according to an Israeli official.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Next Monday, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi will land in Saudi Arabia to attend the Universal Postal Union’s 2023 Extraordinary Congress in Riyadh, his office told The Times of Israel. Karhi will speak at the UN conference, which runs from Sunday to Thursday next week.

Karhi is flying through another country in the region, and has his visa already. He will bring a small delegation with him to the kingdom, which does not recognize Israel.

Knesset Economic Affairs Committee chairman David Bitan is also set to visit Saudi Arabia next week, according to Hebrew media reports. Like Katz, both Karhi and Bitan are members of the ruling Likud party.

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