How are we to understand the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s crass treatment of The Jerusalem Post, Israel’s only English-language daily?
This week it emerged that Riyadh denied a visa to Michael Wilner, the Post’s Washington bureau chief. The White House had invited Wilner, a US citizen, to cover US President Barack Obama’s whirlwind trip to Saudi Arabia.
But after holding his US passport for two weeks, the Saudis rejected Wilner’s request. They did this despite personal pleas from National Security Adviser Susan Rice and special assistant to the president Tony Blinken to Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the US, Abdel bin Ahmed al-Jubeir.
Wilner remains the only journalist who has been denied permission to go to Saudi Arabia to cover Obama’s visit.
As Wilner noted: “I am an American journalist covering the travel of an American president. We consider it unfortunate that Saudi Arabia would deny any legitimate reporter the ability to complete that work – much less one properly credentialed, in the White House press corps, expressly invited on the trip. We have little doubt that my access was denied either because of my media affiliation or because of my religion. That is a grave disappointment and a lost opportunity for the kingdom.”
The Saudis’ behavior is all the more inexplicable if one considers that Israeli and Saudi interests today are surprisingly close.
The most obvious example regards Iran. The Saudis are no less threatened by a Shi’ite Islamic Republic with a nuclear bomb than is Israel. Numerous media outlets, including London’s Sunday Times have reported that Israel and Saudi Arabia are working together to bring down Tehran’s nuclear activities.
The Saudis and Israel also have a common interest regarding Egypt. Both support the military junta that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood. In Syria it could be said that Israel and the Saudis are in the same camp, if only because of the danger presented there by Hezbollah and the Iran-backed Assad regime.
On occasion in the past, these two radically different countries have coincidentally, and often for very different reasons, had common interests. It happened, for instance, during the North Yemen Civil War in the 1960s, when Israel paired up with the Saudis against Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Soviet-backed Egypt.
But the present dove-tailing of Saudi-Israeli relations is unprecedented. If this is the case, why did the Saudis treat Wilner so unjustifiably badly.
It seems the Saudis are interested in keeping up the false impression – particularly before the greater Sunni world – that it has never stopped ostracizing Israel. They do this in a feeble attempt to cover up the cooperation between the two countries. This time it was the Post’s Wilner who was the fall guy for the Saudis’ cowardly foreign policy.
Indeed, there seems to be an inverse correlation between clandestine and formal relations: The more the Saudis secretly cooperate with Israel to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining nuclear weapons capability, the more the kingdom takes pains to show the world – especially the Sunni world – how it snubbed a reporter who works with an Israeli daily. Ultimately, this entire sorrowful episode is yet another depressing example of how much of decision-making in this region is guided by irrational fears and prejudices, not real shared interests, and of how hatred of Israel continues to be a rallying call for Muslims.
None of the above should be interpreted as an endorsement of the idea that Saudi Arabia and Israel could be true allies. Too much separates the countries. Saudi Arabia completely disregards basic human rights, including religious freedom and women’s rights – not to mention the rights of homosexuals, while Israel champions these rights as guiding principles. The Saudi regime is autocratic, reactionary and fundamentalist, while Israel strives to maintain basic democratic principles against daunting challenges. It was not until the 1990s that Riyadh was willing to concede that Israel was not going anywhere, and even then only grudgingly. In short, there is very little on which to build a lasting relationship.
At the very least, however, the Saudis should have the decency and the courage to fess up to their limited cooperation with Israel instead of generating public relations spectacles at the expense of The Jerusalem Post.