Saudi peacebuilding efforts need outside support to take root

Saudi nationals are traveling to Israel and publicly showing an openness to both people-to-people relations and a possibility of political rapprochement.

SAUDI CROWN Prince Mohammad bin Salman looks on as he meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Riyadh last week (photo credit: REUTERS)
SAUDI CROWN Prince Mohammad bin Salman looks on as he meets with French President Emmanuel Macron in Riyadh last week
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘They take everything from me. MBS [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman], he didn’t know that,” Abdul Hameed Al-Ghabin, a noted Saudi writer and analyst, explained in a private chat. He was referring to a message he received earlier from the Saudi Interior Ministry (considered one of the country’s more conservative government agencies), confirming the rumor that his citizenship would be taken away, perhaps in retaliation for Mr. Al-Ghabin’s recent outreach peace efforts toward Israel. Al-Ghabin subsequently shared this news in a statement that was translated into Hebrew and English by an Israeli journalist and circulated on Twitter.
However, according to multiple Saudi sources, there was nothing in the Saudi media about this development, and furthermore, revocation of citizenship happens to terrorists (like Hamza bin Laden). Was a ministry rogue actor exacting vengeance on Al-Ghabin? Was there a misunderstanding as some bureaucrat meant to impose a travel ban? Was this a private threat meant to intimidate Al-Ghabin, or perhaps a comment meant to leak to assuage the backlash that ensued after his two recent controversial articles for Israel Hayom and The Times of Israel? Anything is possible but from the public reaction to these two pieces, what seems clear is that there is concern among more conservative Saudis who have not been quite as excited about the crown prince’s much-touted reforms.
Saudi nationals are traveling to Israel and publicly showing an openness to both people-to-people relations and a possibility of political rapprochement. Al-Ghabin himself was critical of Israel in the past, but now writes about the possibility of a “peace without preconditions,” based on changing control over the Temple Mount from the Wakf Islamic religious trust, instituted by Jordan after Israel’s War of Independence, to Saudi Arabia, which he believes can do a much better job administering the holy site.
Al-Ghabin says he speaks on behalf of a growing number of “Saudi and Muslim scholars,” but also appears to indicate the backing of this position by Mohammad bin Salman, notes that Saudi society has developed a realistic assessment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and is seeking pragmatic solutions. He also underscored MBS’s progressive attitude, stating that he is the “only Arab leader in history to affirm the right of the Jews to their national homeland.”
These articles generated support as well as skepticism. Al-Ghabin promised to address in future writings two salient points raised by the less enthused but open-minded:
• What measures would Saudi Arabia take to protect the Temple Mount’s Jewish historical heritage and permit Jewish prayer there (both of which have been challenged by the Jordanian Wakf),     • Would the change of Temple Mount authority lead to the collapse of the Jordanian monarchy and regional chaos.
The more extreme skeptics argued that nothing short of the Saudis allowing Jewish prayer spaces in Mecca and Medina would convince them of Riyadh’s sincerity and commitment to peace with Jews and Israel. These trust issues notwithstanding, Al-Ghabin’s comments come in the context of consistent and increasingly bold steps by MBS (and certainly the private Saudi Arabians who share his vision). One of the first major steps indicating the direction of the future crown prince came in 2016, a month before the heated elections in the United States.
Salman Al-Ansari’s op-ed in The Hill addressed how Israel could contribute to Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 (the plan of reforms largely masterminded by Mohammad bin Salman). At the time, MBS was deputy crown prince, but was already influential on many issues. His strong opposition to influences of the Muslim Brotherhood and commitment to a reformist direction in religious, political, economic and social affairs eventually brought him to his current position.
The op-ed symbolized how Israel was increasingly being seen not only as a potential ally against regional threats, but also as a positive partner. The article initially generated attention in Jewish advocacy circles, but due to the timing was quickly forgotten. However, over the next two years, and despite various challenges on other fronts, increasing numbers of Saudi writers and analysts wrote articles in Arabic and English further expounding on the idea of improving relations with Israel, putting aside the excessive focus on the Palestinian issue, and finding pragmatic paths for collaboration.
A BLOGGER KNOWN as “Mohammed Saud” visited Israel with much fanfare, met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and despite some uncomplimentary comments from Saudi Twitterati, returned to the kingdom without any problems from the government. He recently hosted Jewish friends at his home, which brought more attention to his outreach.
Another Saudi journalist and scholar of Jewish history visited Israel and gave an interview about his personal and national interests. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been opening legislatively. Within the past two weeks, a new law was enacted that allows qualified practitioners in several professions to take up long-term residence inside the kingdom, regardless of religion. That law has not yet been highlighted in Western media. However, one of the official Saudi travel advisories explains in English that having an Israeli stamp in a traveler’s passport is no longer an obstacle to visiting the country. These steps show that Saudi efforts to open the kingdom and to establish better relations with both other Abrahamic religions and with Israel are practical, genuine and are being implemented even when no one is gaining PR points.
On the contrary, the Saudi government faces extreme external agitation opposing each step. A few days ago, a major article in the Qatar-backed Al Estiklal (an Arabic-language publication) attacked Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Mohammed Saud, and other defenders of these recent developments (including the author), mixing facts with fiction in an appeal to the Arab and Muslim streets. The attack regurgitated the antiquated pan-Arabist and Islamist arguments, as well as asserted that a Jewish presence near al-Aqsa Mosque or the Two Holy Mosques (Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam) is a “desecration.” Saudi Arabia’s regional rivals Qatar, Turkey, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood cadres everywhere have constantly attacked the crown prince using these discredited arguments.
Al-Ghabin – who despite the forces that stand arrayed against peace-building efforts – jumped headfirst into the thick of it, faces curses and death threats daily on Twitter. His articles drew both affection from some Jews and Israelis and the isolating ire of Pan-Arabists and Islamists, who still dominate Arab media.
Skeptics should be mindful that this sort of outreach is new to the Saudis, and to the young crown prince, who has not lived in the West and has not had much exposure to Judaism, Jews or Israelis. Incremental trust-building measures can overcome natural skepticism.
Even the most enthusiastic advocates of the Israeli-Saudi relationship should not expect friendship instantaneously. There are steps both sides can take to make this possibility an eventuality. Continuing dialogue is key. A Saudi newspaper recently interviewed Israeli diplomat Dore Gold. While Saudis are expressing their perspectives in Jewish and Israeli outlets, Jews, Israelis and their supporters should reciprocate in Saudi media.
Engaging in discussions, despite the cultural differences and challenges, needs to happen both online and in-person in order to break down barriers. Social gatherings, entrepreneurial forums and professional conferences are where real conversations happen and relationships are forged. Humanizing one another is just as important as whatever formal steps the Israeli and Saudi governments take out of necessity, or thanks to US diplomatic efforts.
Changing perceptions will take time. In the meantime, accepting the possibility of good faith is a path worth exploring, including with Evangelical friends who have long believed that Saudi Arabia is not a friendly actor. The Saudis are extending a hand; they clearly believe in something better, a more integrated and prosperous region. It may not happen quickly or in an expected way, but thanks to people like Al-Ghabin, and especially to the leadership and vision of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, there is a chance for a new Middle East.
The writer is a New York-based human rights and national security lawyer and analyst. She has written numerous articles about Gulf geopolitical issues, and has been engaged in outreach with Saudis for the past two years.