Saudi Arabia avoids reference to UAE normalisation with Israel


Saudi Arabia continued its silence on the deal by the United Arab Emirates to establish ties with Israel, as the kingdom’s cabinet issued a statement after its Tuesday meeting with no reference to the agreement.

The Saudis’ Gulf Arab neighbour last week said it’s moving to normalise relations with Israel, joining Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab countries to do so. The decision sent shock-waves through a region where “the Palestinian cause” has been a cultural and political touchstone for decades, with Israel viewed as a public enemy for occupying Palestinian land. Others saw normalisation as long-expected after years of clandestine ties, with the security interests of Gulf Arab countries and Israel drawing closer as they find a common foe in Iran.

Even as Egypt, Oman and Bahrain welcomed the deal, much of the world has been waiting to hear a reaction from Saudi Arabia — the biggest Arab economy and a symbolic leader of the global Muslim community. Some even speculated that Saudi Arabia could follow the same route as the UAE, including Jared Kushner, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a senior adviser, who has led the administration’s attempts to broker a peace deal for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“I do think it is an inevitability that Saudi Arabia and Israel will have fully normalised relations and they will be able to do a lot of great things together,” Kushner told CNBC last week.

Yet the Saudi government has remained conspicuously silent on the deal for days, refraining from a formal statement. The kingdom’s lack of response on Tuesday likely reflects the complexity of balancing public opinion — and the government’s long-time support for the Palestinians — with shifting paradigms of regional security.

Asked about the issue during an online seminar on Monday, Saudi royal court adviser Mohammad al-Tuwaijri called the U.A.E.’s deal a “sovereign decision” and “entirely their call.”

However he also said that Saudi Arabia stands behind a 2002 initiative that called for normalised relations only after Israel withdraws from territories occupied in the 1967 war and claimed by the Palestinians for a state.

Notably, Saudi Arabia’s government-sanctioned media has been more unfettered in its praise of the UAE’s decision, likely reflecting a shift in views among decision-makers, and the kingdom’s close alliance with its neighbour.

In the daily newspaper Okaz, Saudi columnist Mohammed Al-Saaed enthusiastically compared the normalisation agreement to the “fall of the Berlin wall.”

Meanwhile, in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, Saudi columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed — who is close to the government — portrayed the UAE’s decision as a natural and pragmatic step.

“The reality is that Arabs have passed the stage of dealing with Israel,” he said. “It isn’t considered a shock, but an old and boring story.”

The columns underline the gradual diversification of opinions on a topic that was once completely taboo in Saudi Arabia. To some extent, there’s been a generational shift: a nationalistic reaction against long-established support for Palestinians, partly due to perceived Palestinian criticism of Saudi Arabia. Some Saudis closer in age to 34-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman argue that it’s time to focus on their own country, not pan-Arab dilemmas that absorbed years of attention with little result.

Yet many Saudis and other Gulf nationals — including youth — still hold tight to “the Palestinian cause,” viewing the UAE’s deal as a betrayal. Criticism was particularly strong in Kuwait, which allows more freedom of speech than Saudi Arabia.

On Monday, a group of activists and intellectuals called the “The Gulf Coalition Against Normalization” held an unusually frank online event to speak out against the deal, with participants from every country in the Gulf Cooperation Council.

“We’re not starting from zero,” said Sultan Al Amer, a Saudi PhD student abroad, pointing out the long history of popular resistance to normalisation and calling on citizens to “exert all possible pressure” on their governments to discourage normalisation.

He urged the participants to use social media to “form a new rhetoric” in line with the times, “connecting the issue of fighting normalisation with national interests.”