The Gulf kingdom may have ceded the chance to host an international chess competition rather than hand out visas for Israelis, but the two countries do maintain an association behind the scenes.

Saudi Arabia has lost the right to host the chess World Blitz and Rapid Championship Tournament due to its refusal to grant visas to Israelis. Instead, the competition will be held in Russia. The development highlights the complexity of the Jewish state’s burgeoning relations with the Sunni Muslim kingdom: namely, that the rapprochement remains almost entirely under the radar.

Israeli-Saudi ties have dramatically improved in recent years primarily due to the shared security interest of neutralizing Iran’s expansionism and potential nuclearization. Nevertheless, the informal association is in its infancy and conditioned on current geopolitical realities that may be fleeting.

“If there is a sudden improvement in Iranian and Saudi relations, there is a chance that Riyadh will weaken its links to Israel,” says Dr. Ronen Zeidel, a Middle East expert at the University of Haifa.

To offset this possibility, the evolving partnership has been fostered and strengthened by the administration of US President Donald Trump, which views both countries as key to actualizing American foreign policy goal of reining in the Iranian regime. Notably, President Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly backed bin Salman amid a global uproar over his alleged involvement in the October 2 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi mission in Turkey.

“What happened at the Istanbul consulate was horrendous and it should be duly dealt with,” Trump said, before qualifying that, “at the same time, it is very important for… the region and the world that Saudi Arabia remains stable.”

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, left, sits beside Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal at an Israel Policy Forum debate in New York in October 2017 (Photo: Israel Policy Forum) (Photo: Israel Policy Forum)
Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, left, sits beside Saudi Prince Turki Al-Faisal at an Israel Policy Forum debate in New York in October 2017 (Photo: Israel Policy Forum) (Photo: Israel Policy Forum)


This sentiment is not universally shared, however, and there is even a push within the US Senate to punish the House of Saud with sanctions and by ending American support for the Saudi-led Sunni coalition fighting Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen.

“The US, Saudi Arabia and Israel do not see eye-to-eye with the European Union, not just on Khashoggi but also about the Iran nuclear deal,” says Dr. Nachum Shiloh, an expert on Gulf at The Moshe Dayan Center of Tel Aviv University.

In this respect, the Trump administration in May withdrew from the nuclear accord and has since slapped financial penalties opposed by Brussels on the Islamic Republic’s crucial energy, shipping and banking sectors.

Despite a confluence of interests, Riyadh is still hesitant to bring its dealings with Israel above the table, mainly because of the ongoing stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

“This conflict is one source of radicalization that is a threat to (bin Salman’s) regime. By trying to take an active role in peace talks, the Saudis can insulate themselves against public backlash of being too close to the Israelis even while working to confront Tehran,” explains Dr. Nir Boms, a board member of the Israeli Council of Foreign Relations.

By contrast, Israel’s budding relations with other Gulf States have garnered public attention, notably the landmark visit in October by Netanyahu to Muscat, as well as calls by Bahraini officials for Jerusalem’s acceptance and regional integration.

And while bin Salman is the first-ever Saudi leader to recognize Israel’s right to exist, he has been more reserved in his approach.

“Neither side is pushing for public relations because they have more important concerns, which are security cooperation and international affairs. Coordination on these fronts can be done privately,” says Lenny Ben-David, formerly the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Accordingly, it may be some time before Israelis and Saudis are sipping coffee together in the cafes of Jerusalem and Riyadh.

As reported by Ynetnews