In Jeddah, where Israel is still taboo, the path to normalization feels anything but direct

In Jeddah, where Israel is still taboo, the path to normalization feels anything but direct

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – It was well after 11pm on Friday night in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, and people of all ages were still peeping on the sidewalks of Palestine Street.

Some were heading west through the wet heat toward the boardwalk to catch the slightly cooler breeze that came in from the Red Sea.

Families and others took pictures in front of King Fahd’s Fountain, a fire hydrant that looks like a production that continuously shoots water 853 feet into the air.

Others went the other way, getting in and out of the many restaurants and American fast food chains along the busy boulevard.

Despite the name of the street, and the presence in Jeddah of US President Joe Biden, who had flown straight from Tel Aviv hours earlier after a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, it did not appear that Palestine was at the top of its list. people out for a night on the town.

For a reporter tasked with deepening the spasm of diplomatic activity that Israelis have enthusiastically viewed as a sign of emerging normalization with Saudi Arabia, the scene seemed a prominent representation of how the kingdom views the issue: Officially placing the Palestinians near the top of their agenda and persistently supported them with words at every turn, but in reality not overly concerned with the conflict that is taking place around a thousand kilometers (600 miles) northwest.

A sign for the Palestine Street walkway in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia July 16, 2022. (Jacob Magid / Times of Israel)

When it came to welcoming normalization with Israelis, the only thing cooler than the air conditioner at Palestine Street’s Haifa Mall reception was the idea.

The mall, a standard mega-shopping complex in the Gulf, was exceptionally clean and state-of-the-art, making it a gathering place for locals of all ages in a conservative country where bars and nightclubs are banned. At a movie theater in the mall, dozens of young people ran out of a screening of “Minions: Rise of the Gru,” while talking excitedly to each other.

“A Jew is a Jew, whether in Israel or Moscow,” said Sultan, a salesman at a security kiosk, while Beyonce’s “Halo” played on the shiny mall’s speakers.

The comprehensive generalization was not entirely different from those I would have heard of Palestinians and Arabs during my time covering the settlements in the West Bank.

I was aware that he was speaking to a member of the Israeli press – I was one of three journalists for Israeli publications who joined the White House Press Corps for the Saudi stage of Biden’s Middle East journey – the salesman had no problem starting a fight about how Jews wanted to kill the Prophet Muhammad and are “enemies of Islam”.

Food Court at Haifa Mall in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. (Jacob Magid / Times of Israel)

“There is no difference between Israel and Jews elsewhere,” he said, arguing that the latter group “finances the oppression of Palestinians” from abroad and therefore cannot be trusted.

When the Sultan learned my name, he admitted that he had never met a Jew before. “The Qur’an says that it is good that we are all different,” Sultan explained, in an impressive 180-degree turn from his original argument.

Caffe Aroma is located on Palestine Street in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. (Jacob Magid / Times of Israel)

Experts say a similar reversal would be necessary if Israeli-Saudi normalization – a process that Riyadh claims does not happen – is to see a warm welcome from Israelis and Jews after decades of hostility and demonization.

“For decades, Arab leaders, textbooks, and the press have promoted negative views of Israel and, in many cases, Jews, and there has been little opportunity to counter that narrative,” said Carmiel Arbit, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“Similar challenges exist in Israel: studies have shown that many Jewish Israelis have negative perceptions of Arabs and Muslims.”

A grocery store in Haifa Mall in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia July 16, 2022. (Jacob Magid / Times of Israel)

At another booth in the mall, one niqab-The wearing salesman was determined to first dab what appeared to be Jeddah’s strongest perfume on my inner wrist before she opened up.

She was aware, as most were, that Biden was in town for a regional summit and expressed hope for better relations with the United States.

However, Israel was a different story, and she insisted that most Saudis were opposed to peace with the Jewish state, because of its treatment of the Palestinians.

The White House Press Corps Boarded a Chartered Egyptair Flight to Jeddah at Ben Gurion Airport July 15, 2022 (Jacob Magid / Times of Israel)

During the night in Jeddah, my Uber driver, Ahmed, repeated a feeling expressed by many others in the mall: that he had no opinion on the matter and that he trusted that the Saudi government was acting correctly.

I had not planned to vote for Ahmed to avoid clichés of the taxi driver interview. But when he learned what brought me to Jeddah, he was eager to discuss the issues and did so in fluent English.

Ahmed was aware of the transfer of the island in the Red Sea that was advanced at the GCC + 3 summit, along with the steps Saudi Arabia had agreed to take on normalization with Israel to secure control of Tiran and Sanafir.

Ahmed agreed that most Saudis are against Israel, but he criticized what he said was a minority doing so for religious reasons.

“If you hate Israel because of the Jews, then you will hate all people who are different,” he said.

A restaurant in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia July 16, 2022. (Jacob Magid / Times of Israel)

It is hard to deny that the region is changing, after being on the first direct flight ever from Tel Aviv to Jeddah on Friday, along with dozens of other US-based journalists, just hours after Saudi Arabia announced it would open airspace. to all. civil airlines.

And it may well have been, as Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid characterized, the first step towards the normalization of Israeli-Saudi ties. But Riyadh has continued to argue that ties with Israel will not skip over the Palestinian cause, although recent polls have shown levels of support for contacts with Israelis at levels similar to those of the UAE and Bahrain.

Al-Balad area of ​​Jeddah, Saudi Arabia July 15, 2022. (Jacob Magid / Times of Israel)

As I made my way through Palestine Street, I remembered a 2012 Saudi film called Wadjda that had been part of the curriculum for one of my Arab college courses. Filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour subtly criticizes the Conservative kingdom for not extending many rights to women and girls, while opening a window to changing Saudi attitudes toward the Palestinians.

In the film, a 10-year-old girl named Wadjda dreams of owning a bicycle in order to race and beat her friend Abdullah. While he is largely disconnected from religion, Wadjda participates in the school’s Koran competition to use the winnings to buy a two-wheeler. But when she wins, her teacher decides that instead of using the prize to buy a bicycle – cycling was immodest behavior for women in Saudi Arabia in the 2000s – she will donate the money to the Palestinian cause.

A map showing the route of the first ever direct flight from Tel Aviv to Jeddah on July 15, 2022. (Jacob Magid / Times of Israel)

When she got home, Wadjda’s mother asked her where the prize money was.

“In Palestine,” comes her furious reply, showing little understanding or concern for the case that robbed her of a bicycle.

As for Israel, Arbit noted that increased opportunities for interaction between Israelis and Gulf Arabs provided by the Abrahamic Treaty may eventually help to dispel some negative attitudes toward the Jewish state.

“All sides have a long way to go to weed out hatred,” she said. “But promoting opportunities to meet the others and support educational initiatives will be the key to promoting tolerance between countries in the region.”

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