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Saudi Arabia blocks Israeli delegation from attending UN awards ceremony

Circassians from Kfar Kama were denied entry visas into the Gulf kingdom to attend an event honoring their Lower Galilee village.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires. Nov. 20, 2018. Photo by Matias Lynch/Shutterstock.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman at the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires. Nov. 20, 2018. Photo by Matias Lynch/Shutterstock.

Saudi Arabia has blocked a group of Israeli Muslims from attending a United Nations event being held in the Gulf Arab state.

The U.N. World Tourism Organization invited villagers from the Circassian town of Kfar Kama in the Lower Galilee region of northern Israel to the event honoring their village, but Saudi authorities denied them visas, according to a report in Bloomberg.

Kfar Kama, home to the descendants of Muslim immigrants from the North Caucasus, was one of 32 places chosen as Best Rural Tourism Destinations of the year. Israel’s Tourism Ministry announced in December that Kfar Kama was included on the U.N. World Tourism Organization’s exclusive Best Tourism Villages 2022 list.

It marks the first time that an Israeli locale has been so recognized by the UNWTO.

Villagers from Kfar Kama and Israeli officials were invited by the UNWTO to the two-day event that started on Sunday in the ancient desert city of Al-’Ula, located in the Medina province of northwestern Saudi Arabia. However, the Israelis never received visas, despite an appeal by the United Nations.

The Old Town district of Al-’Ula is among the locations honored.

According to the Bloomberg report, the Israelis got worried when they hadn’t received their visas at the start of March, with Israel’s Foreign Ministry sending a letter to the UNWTO requesting the entry visa. The UNWTO last Monday sent a letter to the Saudi Ministry of Tourism to issue the visas so Israel could join the 22 other countries in Saudi Arabia for the event.

“In the spirit of assuring equal rights to all members of the organization, UNWTO as the UN specialized agency is seeking the kind support of the Ministry of Tourism of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in facilitating the visa issuance for the Israeli delegation,” Zurab Pololikashvili, the UNWTO secretary-general, wrote to the Saudi tourism ministry.

The snub comes as Jerusalem is attempting to persuade Riyadh to join the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February said he was actively courting Saudi Arabia in an effort to persuade it to join the Trump administration-brokered agreements, as that would constitute a “quantum leap” towards regional peace.

But Riyadh is reportedly demanding security guarantees from the United States before it enters into any normalization deal with the Jewish state, along with assistance from the U.S. in building its civilian nuclear program.

Also in March, China brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel’s arch-rival Iran.

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