One side of Saudi normalization to watch for: The Riyadh World Expo 2030 campaign

It’s unclear if Saudi Arabia would allow Israeli participation if it is named as host of the international gathering

The campaign to host the 2030 World Expo — the contemporary version of the World’s Fair — is heating up, with the vote set for November. 

Israel’s vote remains an open question. An Italian delegation came to Jerusalem in late August to make the case for Rome to Foreign Ministry officials, and South Korea has put out feelers in Israel for a vote for Busan to be the host city.

The Expo vote decision, which would typically stay within the Foreign Ministry’s purview, climbed further up the ladder to the Prime Minister’s Office, due to the third city campaigning to host Expo 2030 being Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the timing as Israel-Saudi normalization talk heats up.

When Saudi Arabia submitted its bid to host the 2030 expo, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told the Bureau International des Expositions that it would “coincide with the culmination of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030,” in which the prince aims to diversify its economy and open it up to tourists from around the world.

Former Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, today head of the Misgav Institute for National Security and Zionist Strategy, said that, in line with Vision 2030, the Expo would be a platform for Saudi Arabia to “present its rich historic and cultural heritage, together with the great social and economic changes it has achieved thus far in pursuit of its strategy of dramatic modernization.”

When the United Arab Emirates announced in 2019 that it would allow Israelis into Expo 2020, it was a major public step toward diplomatic relations between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem, who would go on to normalize ties the following year. Yet it remains unclear whether Riyadh would allow active Israeli participation if it hosts the Expo in 2030. 

Israeli representatives received an invitation to the Riyadh 2030 launch event in Paris in June, leading to media speculation that Israel planned to support the Saudi bid. However, just days later, the Israelis were turned away at the door from the Paris event hosted by the crown prince and were told they had been removed from the guest list. The event took place on the same day as an IDF anti-terrorism raid in Jenin, which the Saudi Foreign Ministry condemned as “aggression…which led to killing innocent victims.”

On Sunday, two high-ranking Israeli Foreign Ministry officials attended a UNESCO conference in Riyadh, making them the first Israeli diplomats to make a public visit to Saudi Arabia — potentially a sign of warming relations. At the same time, Saudi Arabia was required to sign an agreement to allow all U.N. member states to attend the education, science, and culture organization’s event. But not every Israeli diplomat was welcome: the Saudis reportedly blocked Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Education Minister Yoav Kisch from attending.

When President Joe Biden and other world leaders announced on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi over the weekend that they plan to launch an international project to link South Asia and Europe via the Middle East, both Israel and Saudi Arabia were named partners in the initiative. However, the sides are not expected to communicate directly, and diplomatic sources told Jewish Insider that the U.S. would be coordinating their moves.

In between all of these government initiatives, two teams of Israeli gamers, playing under an Israeli flag, participated in esports tournaments in Riyadh.

All of these events create a pattern by which the Saudis are able to tolerate Israelis’ presence, but unwilling to allow any high-profile figures or connections that would be seen as real normalization measures. 

If Riyadh openly courts Israel’s vote or says it would allow an Israeli pavilion, the move — much like when the UAE did so — could be seen as a major milestone on the way to normalization.

Israel’s invitation to the Riyadh 2030 event “could be a diplomatic signal, an expression of intent…or the lifting of a curtain ahead of the big thing, and the first public steps are more comfortable to take in an international conference than in a smaller bilateral framework,” Ben-Shabbat said. 

However, he said, Israel should not overstate the invitation’s significance. Ultimately, it was clear that “the hosts have additional considerations.” 

Israel will have a difficult choice in November, Ben-Shabbat added. 

Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute, thought that Saudi Arabia has a good chance at winning the Expo vote.

“Today’s Saudi Arabia sees itself operating on the global playing field with a multi-dimensional approach. It’s not what it used to be, it’s much more sophisticated,” Katulis said. “So I give them a good shot on things like trying to hold more international conferences and sports competitions, because it has invested in building the relationships and the diplomatic capacity to position itself as a regional hub and a global player with a diversity of relationships.”

That does not necessarily mean welcoming Israel, however.

Diplomatic missteps of the past decade have made Riyadh more cautious, Katulis said. 

“Their lessons learned from moving too quickly without thinking things through more carefully during that 2013-2020 period is one of the reasons why I suspect the possible normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia might take a bit more time, but we’ll see,” he said. “There’s a stronger ‘look before you leap’ impulse these days.”

Ben-Shabbat said that “the chances of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia never looked higher. Every one of the leaders has good reasons to want it.”

Recent positive signals from the Saudis pertaining to Israel show that they are ready to make a move, Ben-Shabbat posited.

“The window of opportunity, limited to a few months, must push them to accelerate the discussions and exhaust their options to be flexible on controversial matters…The question now is not if there will be an agreement, but what price each side will pay for it,” he stated.

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