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Growing Israel-Saudi Arabia ties 'set back by Khashoggi murder'

Israel and Saudi Arabia's burgeoning ties have been set back by Khashoggi's murder. [Getty]

Date of publication: 19 December, 2018

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The killing of Khashoggi has weakened MbS' position in the kingdom and reduced political will for risky foreign policy moves such as rapprochement with Israel.
Israel and Saudi Arabia's burgeoning ties have been set back by the gruesome killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.

Khashoggi, a former Saudi royal insider who became a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was murdered at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

The grisly murder has sparked an international backlash against Saudi Arabia, with particular ire directed at the Saudi crown prince amid intelligence assessments concluding he personally ordered the murder.

The subsequent fallout in the Saudi royal court has weakened MbS' position in the kingdom and reduced political will for risky foreign policy moves such as rapprochement with Israel, WSJ reported.

"Things have definitely cooled off right after Khashoggi’s murder," a senior Saudi official told the WSJ. "The last thing the kingdom wants is for this to come out now and cause another backlash."

The sacking of two of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's top aides, Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmad al-Assiri, following the killing has also undermined the growing relationship, the report said.

Both Assiri and Qahtani reportedly played key roles in secret contacts between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Qahtani was sacked in October with deputy intelligence chief Ahmad al-Assiri - in a move that has widely been seen as an attempt to cover up Prince Mohammed's likely role in Khashoggi's murder.

A Turkish prosecutor has since demanded that arrest warrants be issued against two senior Saudi officials close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the murder of Khashoggi.

Both senior MbS aides were reportedly closely involved in bids to buy Israeli surveillance technology, WSJ reported, but Riyadh's monitoring and hacking of dissidents has been closely scrutinised since Khashoggi's killing.

Israeli companies have long considered Saudi Arabia a lucrative marker for cybersecurity technology, while Riyadh has weighed investments of over $100 million in various Israeli companies, according to WSJ.

Qahtani, a brutal media enforcer, had sought to buy software by Israeli spyware maker NSO Group and its affiliate Q Cyber Technology, which had already provided cyber surveillance tools to Saudi Arabi last year.

"Qahtani was the key player in all of this," one Saudi official told WSJ. "He wanted the best and he knew that Israeli firms offered the best."

Assiri had also secretly travelled to Israel on several occasions in visits focused on Israeli surveillance technology, WSJ reported, making him the most senior Saudi official to have visited the country.

Contacts have cooled since the murder of Khashoggi.

Israel and Saudi Arabia began drawing closer in the twilight of the Obama administration, sharing mutual antipathy towards Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal.

Warming ties

Israel and Saudi Arabia began drawing closer in the twilight of the Obama administration, sharing mutual antipathy towards Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal.

Saudi outreach to Israel grew further following the election of Donald Trump and Mohammed bin Salman's nomination as Crown Prince shortly afterwards.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was one of few world leaders to publicly support MbS amid the uproar over Khashoggi's killing.

Saudi Arabia had also begun quietly issuing special wavers to Israeli businessmen to allow them to travel to the kingdom on special documents, WSJ reported.

Saudi Arabia's official position on Israel is not to normalise ties unless there is a Palestinian state based on 1967 with East Jerusalem as its capital.

In 2002 the Arab League endorsed Riyadh's Arab Peace Initiative, which offered Israel full normalisation with the Arab and Muslim world in return for peace with its neighbours.

Gulf states, however, have held clandestine talks with Israel for decades, going back to at least the early 1980s.

Arab leaders have not historically publicised talks over fears of a public backlash over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Broader policy alignment, primarily on the need to contain Iran, have emboldened both sides to now make those talks public, sparking Palestinian fears of public "normalisation".

In recent months, Israel has stepped up efforts to pursue rapprochement with a number of countries in the region and in Muslim-majority parts of Africa, including a surprise visit to Oman in October by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

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