A question I asked more than three decades ago has become relevant today.
President Joe Biden’s mid-July trip to Israel and the West Bank, and then to Saudi Arabia, has fueled speculation about the potential for formal relations between the two countries.
“The rumors about talks regarding Saudi Arabia are not unfounded,” Israeli then-foreign minister Yair Lapid told reporters. [Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has been dissolved. Lapid will serve as interim prime minister until a new government is formed, after elections take place on Nov. 1.]
On Aug. 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, sparking fears that Saddam Hussein would move next against Saudi Arabia, which possessed the world’s largest oil reserves. Within days, the United States began a massive deployment of troops, airplanes, ships, and military material to the Kingdom.
American news organizations deployed correspondents, producers, camera crews, and satellite technicians. CNN had one of the larger contingents working out of the Dhahran International Hotel, adjacent to a sprawling Saudi air base. The hotel hosted some 350 members of the international media, who taxed the kitchen’s room service capabilities and laid electrical cable throughout the building.
Islam is the state religion of the Saudi Arabia, which surely knew that the
American news corps would include Jews. Given that the entry forms included religious identity, they probably had a good idea how many Jews, save for those who listed themselves as Quakers or some other presumably less problematic designation.
The number was more than sufficient for a minyan, leading to jokes about holding a Chanukah party. No such event was held.
I arrived a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving, doing relief duty for one of the network’s most experienced field producers, who would return to Saudi Arabia with the new year.
My role was to coordinate the work of correspondents and camera crews, which meant seeking permission from the Saudis to travel within the country and from the U.S. military’s Joint Information Bureau to cover the buildup of forces. I also traveled to Qatar for the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting, a gathering of potentates and foreign ministers, who condemned Saddam Hussein and reiterated that Middle East peace was contingent on Israel withdrawing from Palestinian territories.
I would like to have stayed to cover what the media assembled in Saudi Arabia knew was coming, but in the first week of January 1991, I returned to my duties on the national desk in Atlanta and a reunion with my wife and three-month-old daughter, who had stayed with my in-laws in Florida while I was away. The Gulf War began the evening of Jan. 16, as CNN reported live from Baghdad.
Which brings me to the question mentioned at the beginning of this column.
Because of its international reach — search online for “the CNN effect” — the Kingdom paid the network extra attention. A likable, up-and-coming Saudi diplomat, educated at a university in Washington, D.C., had been assigned as our primary liaison.
He was not from the royal family but was well connected.
One of the last events I attended was a private birthday party at the home of the German hotelier. We enjoyed food, non-alcoholic beverages, and cigars.
Taking advantage of an opportunity for one-on-one conversation, I asked the young diplomat whether he could envision his nation establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
Without giving short shrift to the Palestinian issue — and the Saudis were angered by Palestinian support for Iraq — he saw no reason why not, not in the near term, but perhaps in the future. It made sense, he said, given that Israel and Saudi Arabia were two of the most educated and technologically advanced nations in the region (never mind differences in the structure of their societies).
The party continued, with mirth and merriment, and I consigned that conversation to a mental file folder. Which is where I retrieved it when the White House announced the upcoming trip.
Israel is, again, in the throes of political turmoil and remains wary of U.S. intentions regarding a return to the Iran nuclear deal. Candidate Biden labeled Saudi Arabia a “pariah” for its human rights record, but now he needs the Kingdom’s help to ease inflation by moderating the price of oil.
Even as issues between Israel and the Palestinians appear no less intractable today, the Abraham Accords have seen Israel establish formal ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. The addition of Saudi Arabia would signal an even more sizable shift in the region’s political dynamics.