Saudi Arabia Blocks Israelis From Attending UN Event

(Bloomberg) -- A group of Israeli Muslims invited to a United Nations tourism event to honor their picturesque mountain village was unexpectedly blocked from attending by host Saudi Arabia, a sign that Israel’s hopes of warming relations with Riyadh may be premature.

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The Israeli village of Kfar Kama in the Galilee region was among 32 spots chosen by the UN as the best rural tourism destinations of the year. Winners were picked for their cultural and natural assets, as well as their commitment to economic, social and environmental sustainability.

The UN World Tourism Organization had invited both the villagers and Israeli officials along with those from 22 countries to the two-day event in the Saudi village of AlUla, starting on Sunday. But the Israelis were never issued visas, according to people familiar with the matter. This is despite an appeal from the UN for equal treatment for member states and the Saudis spending billions to become a major player in the tourism industry.

Since Israel established diplomatic ties with a number of Arab states under the 2020 Abraham Accords — the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — Saudi Arabia was taking steps in that direction, allowing Israeli planes to fly over its territory. The kingdom has granted Israelis visas for religious or approved business purposes, but on rare visits Israelis often travel on second passports, such as those from Europe or the US.

But after the election of the most right-wing Israeli government in history in November, tensions have flared inside Israel as well as in the occupied West Bank, where more than 80 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the year. Last Friday, China announced that it had brokered a renewal of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a blow to Israel’s diplomatic agenda.

When they hadn’t received visas by the start of March, the Israeli delegation got worried. The foreign ministry sent a letter to the UN World Tourism Organization insisting that the entries should be issued. Last Monday, the UN asked the Saudi Ministry of Tourism to issue the visas.

“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 UN WTO secretary-general, wrote to the Saudi tourism ministry, according to a letter reviewed by Bloomberg.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Tourism and the UN WTO didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“Israel calls on the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the United Nations organizations to uphold the guiding principles of the United Nations, including equal treatment in ensuring the possibility of countries participating in the organization’s meetings,” the Israeli Tourism Ministry said in an emailed statement. “In this case, the United Nations World Tourism Organization did not meet these standards and we regret this.”

Kfar Kama was built by Circassian immigrants from the northwest Caucasus region in the late 1800s, though archaeological history in the region dates back centuries earlier. The town has remained ethnically Circassian ever since. Many of its 3,500 residents are Muslim and speak Circassian as their first language. Like some Bedouins, they serve in the Israeli army.

The Saudi kingdom, long closed to casual visitors, began issuing tourist visas in 2019 as part of a long-term mission to diversify the country’s economy away from oil. It is aiming for 100 million tourists a year by 2030, an ambitious goal that would put it on a par with top global destinations. Now, it is developing luxury vacation resort outposts, building cities around its historic sites and hosting or sponsoring major tourism-industry events.

(Updates with Israel Tourism Ministry’s official response in ninth paragraph.)

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