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

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — It was well after 11 p.m. Friday night in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, and people of all ages still dotted the sidewalks of Palestine Street.

Some headed west through the sweltering heat towards the boardwalk to catch the slightly cooler breeze off the Red Sea.

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

Others went the other way, in and out of the many restaurants and American fast food chains that line the bustling boulevard.

Despite the name of the street and the presence in Jeddah of US President Joe Biden, who had flown straight from Tel Aviv a few hours earlier following a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestine didn’t seem to be the focus of people going out for a night on the town.

For a reporter tasked with fleshing out the spasm of diplomatic activity that Israelis have enthusiastically seen as a sign of emerging normalization with Saudi Arabia, the scene seemed like a salient representation of how the kingdom views the issue: officially placing the Palestinians near the top of their agenda and vehemently supporting them at every turn, but in fact not overly concerned with the conflict unfolding some one thousand kilometers (600 miles) to the northwest.

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

In terms of the positive reception of normalization with the Israelis, the only thing colder than the air conditioning of the Haifa mall on Palestine Street was the reception this idea received.

The mall, a standard Gulf-standard mega-complex, was exceptionally clean and state-of-the-art, making it a must-see gathering spot for locals of all ages in a conservative country where bars and nightclubs are banned. . In a movie theater in the mall, dozens of young people emerged from a screening of “Minions: Rise of the Gru”, chatting excitedly.

“A Jew is a Jew, whether in Israel or Moscow,” said Sultan, a salesman at a watch kiosk, as Beyonce’s “Halo” played over the gleaming mall speakers.

The sweeping generalization was not entirely different from those I had heard about Palestinians and Arabs during my time covering West Bank settlements.

Aware that he was speaking with a member of the Israeli press — I was one of three reporters from Israeli publications who joined the White House press corps for the Saudi leg of Biden’s Middle East trip — the seller had no problem launching into a rant about how the Jews wanted to kill the Prophet Muhammad and are “the enemies of Islam”.

The Haifa mall food court in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 16, 2022. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

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

Upon hearing my name, Sultan admitted that he had never met a Jew before. “The Quran says it’s good that we are all different,” Sultan clarified, in an impressive 180-degree turn from his original argument.

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

Experts say a similar about-face will be necessary if Saudi-Israeli normalization — a process Riyadh says is not happening — 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 fomented negative views about Israel and, in many cases, Jews, and there have been few opportunities to counter this narrative,” Carmiel said. Arbit, non-resident senior researcher at the Atlantic Council.

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

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

At another booth in the mall, a niqab– the saleswoman was adamant about first dabbing what seemed to be Jeddah’s strongest scent on my inner wrist before it opened.

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

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

The White House press corps boards a plane chartered by Egyptair for Jeddah at Ben Gurion Airport on July 15, 2022. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Overnight in Jeddah, my Uber driver, Ahmed, echoed a sentiment expressed by many others in the mall: that he didn’t really have an opinion on the matter and that he trusted the Saudi government to act appropriately.

I had not planned to question Ahmed, trying to avoid the cliché interview with the taxi driver. But after learning what brought me to Jeddah, he was eager to discuss the issues and did so in proficient English.

Ahmed was aware of the transfer of the Red Sea islands being advanced at the GCC+3 summit, as well as the steps Saudi Arabia had agreed to take towards normalization with Israel to secure control of Tiran and Sanafir .

Ahmed acknowledged that most Saudis oppose Israel, but he criticized what he said was a minority who do 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’s hard to deny that the region is changing, having been on the first-ever direct flight from Tel Aviv to Jeddah on Friday, along with dozens of other US-based journalists, just hours after the Saudi Arabia has announced that it will open its airspace to everyone. civilian airliners.

And it may well have been, as Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid described it, the first step toward normalizing Saudi-Israeli relations. But Riyadh has continued to maintain that ties with Israel will not blow up the Palestinian cause, even though recent polls have shown levels of support for contact with Israelis at levels comparable to those in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

The al-Balad neighborhood in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

As I walked through Palestine Street, I remembered a 2012 Saudi film called Wadjda that was part of the curriculum for one of my university Arabic classes. Filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour subtly criticizes the conservative kingdom for failing to extend many rights to women and girls while providing a window into Saudis’ changing attitudes towards Palestinians.

In the film, a 10-year-old girl named Wadjda dreams of owning a bicycle to race and beat her friend Abdullah. Although largely out of touch with religion, Wadjda enters the school’s Quran recitation contest in order to use the winnings to buy a two-wheeler. But when she wins, her teacher decides that instead of using the prize money to buy a bike – cycling being shameless behavior for women in 2000s Saudi Arabia – she will instead 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)

Back home, Wadjda’s mother asks her where the prize money is.

“In Palestine,” comes his furious response, showing little understanding or concern for the cause that stole a bicycle from him.

As for Israel, Arbit noted that the increased opportunities for interaction between Israelis and Gulf Arabs offered by the Abraham Accords could eventually help eliminate some negative attitudes toward the Jewish state.

“All parties have a long way to go to eliminate hate,” she said. “But fostering opportunities to meet each other and supporting education initiatives will be key to promoting tolerance between countries in the region.”

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