- Historic Israeli Delegation’s Visit to Riyadh
- Unesco Meeting to Update World Heritage Inventory
- Growing Speculation of Saudi-Israeli Relations
On Monday, an Israeli delegation attended a Unesco meeting in Riyadh, marking the country’s first publicly announced visit to Saudi Arabia at a time when rumors of a possible normalization of relations are growing.
An Israeli official told AFP that the five-member delegation arrived on Sunday for the meeting to update Unesco’s world heritage inventory of cultural and historic sites.
During the meeting, the official said, “We are happy to be here — it’s a good first step.”
“We would like to thank Unesco and the Saudi authorities.”
They obtained their visas through Unesco, the educational, scientific, and cultural arm of the United Nations.
The delegation, which included a security official, boarded the Unesco meeting on Monday, sitting in front of a sign that read “Israel”
The official stated that the visit had been “very good; they treated us very well.”
The “Israel” sign garnered the attention of Saudis working at the meeting, where over fifty sites are candidates for inclusion on the coveted world heritage list.
“This is a divine command. When asked about the Israeli delegation, a young Saudi man working in the support services stated, “The issue is bigger than us, so we cannot object.”
The director-general of Unesco, Audrey Azoulay, was instrumental in securing Israel’s participation in Riyadh, according to a Unesco diplomat.
“It’s the result of several years of work by Audrey Azoulay to create, in the heart of Unesco, the conditions for a dialogue between all the states of the region,” said the diplomat, who did not want to be named.
While the visit has no overt political significance, it occurs at a time when rumors of efforts to bring the two countries closer are increasing.
Saudi Arabia, home to two of Islam’s sacred sites, does not recognize Israel and did not sign the US-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020, through which Israel established ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
To reshape and revitalize its oil-dependent economy, Saudi Arabia has made several historic diplomatic moves in recent months, including a surprising rapprochement with Iran, years after the two superpowers severed ties.
According to Aziz Alghashian, a Saudi analyst and authority on the bilateral relationship, the fact that Unesco coordinated the visit indicates that “obstacles” remain in the way of Saudi-Israeli normalization.
“This is most likely a result of Saudi Arabia being more open to the world, which will include Israelis, and not a result of bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel,” Alghashian explained.
Alghashian stated that Saudi officials have realized they cannot ban anyone if they wish to transform the kingdom into a global business and tourism center following the Vision 2030 reform agenda of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“The Israelis will certainly portray this as the first step, even though Unesco facilitated it. It has nothing to do with their diplomacy or diplomatic victories.”
He compared the visit of the Israeli delegation to that of Israeli eSports participants to the Gamers8 festival this summer, which also required “third-party coordination” by global tournament organizers.