Will Khashoggi’s Murder Foil the Saudi-Israeli Thaw?
These burgeoning ties, marked by resistance to Iran, depend on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ability to stay in power
By Amos Harel and Yarden Michaeli Apr 17, 2019
The Saudi-Israeli relationship is one of the less-talked-about axes in the Middle East, despite its importance. It’s a delicate relationship. On the one hand, common rival Iran is bringing the two sides closer. On the other, Saudi Arabia portrays itself as the leader of the Arab world, so the Palestinians’ woes don’t let it demonstrate friendship with Israel publicly.
The links between Israel and Saudi Arabia are based on security and business interests. For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Saudis are key in Washington’s efforts to isolate the Iranian regime. The common interest is so strong that Netanyahu was one of the few leaders to publicly defend Saudi Arabia after the killing of Khashoggi last October.
Like the United States, Israel worried that moves to remove Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the murder would lead to the fall of the Saudi regime. The fall of the Gadhafi regime in Libya in 2011 flooded the Middle East with weapons that had been looted from the dictator’s warehouses. A similar development in Saudi Arabia could turn out much worse because of Riyadh’s advanced weapons acquired from the United States. In the wrong hands, they could endanger Israel as well.
According to foreign media reports, the Saudi-Israeli relationship finds expression in intelligence coordination as well. According to The Wall Street Journal, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen has met with Saudi officials, and Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates regularly share intelligence on the Iranian security threat. In some cases, there is also diplomatic coordination, as has been reported regarding the Saudis’ takeover of the Red Sea islands of Sanafir and Tiran from Egypt.
In 2012, a cyberattack afflicted 30,000 computers at the Saudi oil company, Aramco. This was attributed to Iran, and according to reports in the foreign media, Riyadh responded by forming links with Israeli cybercompanies. Since then, there has been an increasing number reports of such links between the two countries, especially as Mohammed has increased his power. According to reports in the foreign media, Saudi Arabia has started issuing special entry permits to Israeli businessmen, who can now enter the kingdom without showing a passport.
A company whose name keeps cropping up in this respect is Herzliya-based NSO Group Technologies. According to some sources, including Amnesty International, University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab and Forbes magazine, offensive tools provided by NSO have been used to track human rights activists, though the company has repeatedly said these allegations are wrong.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that two senior officials with key roles in the kingdom’s relations with Israel have unexpectedly lost these positions. The international community has demanded that the people responsible for Khashoggi’s murder be brought to justice; among the first to run into problems as part of the kingdom’s response were the crown prince’s adviser Saud al-Qahtani and the deputy intelligence chief, Ahmed Asiri.
The journalist’s murder had further impact. As a senior Saudi official told The Wall Street Journal late last year, “Things have definitely cooled off right after Khashoggi’s murder.” He said people in the kingdom were worried that reports about closer Israeli-Saudi ties could stoke harsh reactions in the Arab world, and that the royal court sought to avoid another crisis.
Currently, the future of Israel-Saudi ties depends in part on Mohammed’s ability to stay in power. If the crown prince manages to restore his standing, the chances are better that he can promote reforms and conduct controversial moves in the kingdom, including closer ties with Israel.