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Inside Saudi Arabia: Israeli minister speaks to JNS from Riyadh

"We're making the crack in the wall; after us people will blow up the wall," says Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz of his historic visit to the kingdom.

Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz ahead of the opening session of a U.N. World Tourism Organization gathering in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Courtesy.
Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz ahead of the opening session of a U.N. World Tourism Organization gathering in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 27, 2023. Credit: Courtesy.

Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz on Tuesday became the first Israeli minister to be granted an entry visa by the Saudi government, arriving in Riyadh to participate in a conference of the United Nations World Tourism Organization and mark World Tourism Day, celebrated annually on Sept. 27.

His visit comes amid warming relations between Jerusalem and Riyadh as the two work toward a normalization deal. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) said just last week that peace with the Jewish state is “getting closer every day.”

U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke openly on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly debate in New York about a coming agreement.

Katz may be the first Israeli minister to be granted a visa, but he won’t be the last. Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia next week, together with Likud Knesset member David Bitan.

Katz recently spoke with JNS from Riyadh about his historic visit.

Q: Do the participants know you’re Israeli?

Katz: People approach me and tell me, we saw you in all the media outlets all over the world, which are covering the event extensively. The Saudi Minister of Tourism [Ahmed Al Khateeb], who opened the event [at the Four Seasons Hotel in Riyadh], also said, “There is a delegation here in the country for the first time. I hope they were received well. Welcome.” Of course, he did not name names—but it was clear to everyone who he meant.

Q: do you feel safe?

A: I do walk around with security, although not tight security; you’re surrounded from afar […] and feel no fear. I walked around here at night; it’s a much more beautiful place in the dark with all the light than during the day itself—which is also about 42 degrees warmer. No pressure. And people approach me all the time.

Q: A few months ago the Saudis refused to give visas to representatives of Israeli villages for an international tourism competition in Riyadh, and today, Riyadh is giving a visa to an Israeli minister—what happened?

A: […] Four months ago, we were elected to an official position in the World Tourism Organization organization—something that has not happened since we joined. It’s about Israel being part of the strategic team—we need to be here, too, in Riyadh. I made it clear, after months during which we had problems with the visa issue […]: Either we will enter through the main door, or we will not come. We won’t come in by the window. The team, ours, has done significant work on the matter, and it is impossible to disconnect Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempts to achieve normalization with Saudi Arabia—because here, every little thing requires the approval of the royal house.

Q: How does it feel to be the first Israeli minister to publicly visit Saudi Arabia?

A: We’re making the crack in the wall; after us people will blow up the wall. The process takes time. The Saudis also have a great interest in this story—because they want to host the Expo in 2030, and this probably also has a role in their decision to approve our entry.

Q: Tell us about the Israeli role and the World Tourism Organization

A: I decided that Israel should take a more significant part in this organization. I was in several meetings and several conferences, and I pushed for this involvement. As part of Israel’s membership in the Strategic Planning Committee of the UNTO, Israel is supposed to work directly with Saudi officials as well. I hope that the cooperation between the two countries will not stop at the field of tourism and will also open a way for investment, technological cooperation, agricultural cooperation. There are many things that should be promoted between the two countries.

Amichai Stein is the diplomatic correspondent for Kan 11, IPBC.

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