Israel’s Tourism Minister Haim Katz on Tuesday arrived in Saudi Arabia in what his office described as the first-ever public visit by an Israeli minister to the kingdom.
Katz is attending the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) conference in Riyadh. A statement from the Tourism Ministry said that Katz would focus on meetings with Middle Eastern partners during the two-day event.
“Tourism is a bridge between nations,” Katz said in a statement. “Partnership in tourism issues has the potential to bring hearts together and foster economic prosperity. I will work to create collaborations to promote tourism and Israel’s foreign relations.”
The visit follows statements by both Israeli and Saudi leaders suggesting that a breakthrough agreement to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia might be close.
In an exclusive interview with The Algemeiner on Sunday, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan said that the two countries have “never been closer” to reaching a deal. That followed an interview that Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, gave to Fox News on Wednesday in which he said that “every day we get closer” to a deal. Bin Salman also confirmed that negotiations with the United States to broker an agreement were ongoing.
A potential Saudi normalization deal was also a major focus of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech last week to the UN General Assembly, where he touted the possibility of a “new Middle East“ with Israel at peace with its neighbors. Israel’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen in turn predicted that the deal could be ready by the first quarter of 2024.
While the UNWTO conference is an international forum that gives Saudi Arabia deniability that the invitation to Katz signals a move toward normalization with Israel, such invitations were nonetheless a prelude to the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates in 2020. In 2015, Israel opened an office at the headquarters of the UN’s International Renewable Energy Agency in Abu Dhabi, and in 2019 the Jewish state confirmed its participation in the UAE’s Expo 2020, a full year before the announcement of the Abraham Accords.
Katz’s trip marks the first open visit by an Israeli minister to Saudi Arabia after years of never-confirmed media reports of secret visits between the two countries. Saudi Arabia denied that Mohammed Bin Salman traveled to Israel in 2017 and also denied that Netanyahu and Bin Salman held a secret meeting in Saudi Arabia in 2020, despite US and Israeli media reports saying that the meeting had occurred.
While Bin Salman has now said publicly that he is seeking a normalization deal with Israel in exchange for concessions from the United States, the Saudis have also indicated that they still seek concessions from Israel on the Palestinian issue.
In his address to the UN General Assembly on Saturday, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Furhan did not mention a potential normalization deal with Israel, calling instead for an independent Palestinian state.
And on Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority welcomed Saudi Arabia’s non-resident ambassador. It was the ambassador’s first visit to the West Bank, despite Saudi Arabia’s longstanding recognition of Palestinian statehood.
“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates welcomes the visit of the Saudi Ambassador to the State of Palestine and considers it a historic milestone for the development of fraternal relations between the two countries,” the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.