The UAE’s decision to normalise ties with Israel could propel Saudi Arabia to deepen its furtive relations with the Jewish state as Riyadh seeks to entice investments to fund an ambitious economic transformation, analysts say.
The United Arab Emirates on Thursday became the first Gulf state to normalise relations with Israel, in a historic US-brokered accord that raised the prospect of similar deals with other Arab states.
Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s biggest economy, has maintained a conspicuous silence over the deal, but local officials have hinted that Riyadh is unlikely to immediately follow in the footsteps of its principle regional ally.
However, “the UAE-Israeli normalisation lends itself to expanding the realm of indirect Saudi-Israeli relations,” said Aziz Alghashian, a lecturer at Essex University specialising in the kingdom’s policy towards Israel.
“I think Saudi-Israeli interactions will increase via the UAE.”
Home to Islam’s holiest sites, Saudi Arabia would face sensitive political calculations before a formal recognition of the Jewish state. Like the UAE’s move, such a step would be seen by Palestinians and their supporters as a betrayal of their cause.
But the kingdom has already cultivated covert ties with Israel in recent years, a shift spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman even as his father King Salman has voiced steadfast support for an independent Palestinian state.
A shared animosity towards Iran, along with Saudi attempts to attract foreign investment to fund Prince Mohammed’s ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification plan, appear to be pushing the kingdom closer to Israel than ever.
A centrepiece of Vision 2030 is NEOM, a $500 billion planned megacity on the kingdom’s west coast, for which observers say the kingdom requires Israeli expertise in areas including manufacturing, biotechnology and cyber security.
The creation of NEOM “requires peace and coordination with Israel, especially if the city is to have a chance of becoming a tourist attraction,” said Mohammad Yaghi, a research fellow at Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.
NEOM is set to be built close to the Israeli resort town of Eilat, along the geopolitically sensitive waters of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba.
Gulf states have increasingly sought Israeli technology for the surveillance of their own citizens and to purchase precision missiles that Western countries are unwilling to sell, Yaghi wrote in a research paper in April.
Saudi Arabia has sought to keep its outreach to Israel out of the public eye, but it has not been easy.
In June, a verified Twitter account linked to the kingdom’s embassy in Washington said the Saudi council of ministers had agreed to recruit Israeli cyber security firm Check Point Software in NEOM.