Israel officials attend UNESCO conference in Saudi Arabia for first time

Israel officials attend UNESCO conference in Saudi Arabia for first time
2 min read
11 September, 2023
For the first time ever, Saudi Arabia has allowed Israeli officials to take part in a conference organised by UNESCO in the kingdom
Israeli officials are in the kingdom for the visit, despite the two countries sharing no diplomatic ties [Getty]

Israeli officials attended a UNESCO meeting hosted by Saudi Arabia on Monday, the first time such a visit has been arranged.

Three Israeli officials were seen taking part in the culture and heritage gathering in Riyadh on Monday, according to Reuters, following US-led efforts to normalise ties between the two countries.

Nine Israeli staffers are in the Saudi capital for the heritage meeting including a delegation from the country's antiquities authority. This marks the first publicly announced visit to Saudi Arabia by Israeli officials.

"We are happy to be here - it's a good first step," an Israeli official told AFP during the meeting. "We thank UNESCO and the Saudi authorities."

Live Story

The delegation travelled to Riyadh via Dubai due to there being no direct transport links between Israel and Saudi Arabia and received their visas via UNESCO. Saudi Arabia had earlier refused visas for two Israeli ministers - Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Education Minister Yoav Kisch.

A report said that the Israeli foreign ministry had pulled back from its efforts to get visas for the two ministers, following a US request.

It is unclear whether the current Israeli group in Riyadh- made up of more minor officials - will meet members of the Saudi government, with the two countries sharing no diplomatic relations.

Reuters reported that the delegation included representatives from the Israeli education ministry,  the foreign ministry's deputy director-general for international organisations, and the ambassador to international organisations in Paris.

The US has made great efforts for Israel and Saudi Arabia to normalise ties, after the UAE, Sudan, Bahrain, and Morocco established ties with Israel under former President Donald Trump in 2020.

Saudi Arabia has so far insisted on a Palestinian state being established before it normalises ties with Israel and requested a host of demands from the US, such as being able to establish a civilian nuclear programme.

There have been mixed views of the likely outcome of the US-led normalisation talks due to Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and some reservations in Washington about the nuclear issue.

Normalisation with Israel is a highly controversial issue in the Arab world, particularly with the continued occupation of the Palestinian territories and the presence of extreme-right figures in the current Israeli government.

Saudi Arabia has allowed some Israeli business people and athletes to visit the kingdom, which is host to Islam's two holiest shrines, despite its continued refusal to normalise ties.