Two senior Saudi officials fired over their involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi were key actors in the covert relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Saud al-Qahtani, former royal court adviser, and Ahmed al-Assiri, former deputy intelligence chief, were dismissed from their posts over their suspected involvement in the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.
The two were fired amid a spate of dismissals and arrests by Saudi authorities aiming to deflect international attention from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler widely suspected of a direct role in the plot to kill Khashoggi.
Al-Qahtani “issued directives to the Saudi press to help soften Israel’s image in the kingdom,” the Journal reported.
The former adviser was also involved in Saudi Arabia’s purchase of sophisticated Israeli spyware, said to have intercepted Khashoggi’s conversations.
Al-Assiri “secretly traveled to Israel on several occasions, making him the most senior Saudi official known to have set foot in the country,” according to the Journal.
Israeli daily Haaretz revealed in November that Israeli cyber warfare company NSO Group had offered the Saudi government advanced spyware that can breach a person’s phone and obtain immense amounts of data.
Representatives of NSO Group met with Abdullah al-Malihi, a close associate of a former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence services, and Nasser al-Qahtani, a top Saudi official close to the crown prince, in June 2017 in Vienna, according to Haaretz.
The Saudis expressed interest in NSO’s technology at the meeting, and an agreement was later struck to sell the system to the Saudis for $55 million.
Saud al-Qahtani “was the key player in all of this,” an unnamed Saudi official told the Journal. “He wanted the best and he knew that Israeli firms offered the best.”
“The Saudi government, meanwhile, has been weighing an investment of at least $100 million in various Israeli technology companies, according to people familiar with the deal,” the Journal reported.
The firing of the two officials could strain Saudi-Israeli relations, but not irreversibly.
Israel and its lobby wanted the crown prince to get away the Khashoggi killing, as he’s seen as Israel’s key regional ally and a gateway to closer relationships with rulers in other Gulf states.
Sacrificing the two officials may be seen as a worthwhile price if it helps stabilize the crown prince’s grip on power.
Bahrain’s foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa defended Australia’s decision to recognize West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, contradicting the official position of the Arab League.
“These words are irresponsible,” Khalifa tweeted in reference to the Arab League’s condemnation of Canberra’s decision.
“Australia’s position is without prejudice to official Palestinian demands, the first of which is East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine, and it does not contradict the Arab Peace Initiative and the Arab League.”
Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, criticized Australia’s decision, stating that it “clashes with international law and inalienable Palestinian rights.”
Aboul Gheit called on “the Australian government to correct its position and recognize the state of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital without delay.”
Australia will not move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem yet, however.
Khalifa defends Netanyahu
Bahrain’s ties with Israel and US lobby groups are strengthening.
In November, Khalifa praised Israel’s leader.
“Despite the ongoing conflict, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a clear position on the importance of stability in the region, and the role of Saudi Arabia in ensuring that stability,” Khalifa tweeted in response to Netanyahu’s reaction to the killing of Khashoggi.
Netanyahu stated that the murder is “horrendous and it should be duly dealt with,” according to Israel’s i24 News, but that at the same time “it is very important for the stability of the world, for the region and for the world, that Saudi Arabia remain stable.”
Earlier this year, Khalifa endorsed Israel’s military attacks against its neighbours.
In May, amid large-scale Israeli air raids in Syria, and after President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear agreement, Khalifa tweeted that “as long as Iran breaches the status quo in the region and violates states with its troops and missiles, any state in the region, including Israel, has the right to defend itself by destroying the sources of danger.”
Next Gulf stop for Netanyahu
Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar newspaper recently revealed that Mort Fridman, president of Israel lobby giant AIPAC, spoke about growing normalization between Israel and Arab states at a meeting with members of a Christian Zionist church in New Jersey.
The newspaper said it obtained leaks from the meeting from “trusted sources.”
Israeli military chief Gadi Eizenkot made two secret visits to the United Arab Emirates last month “and met with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed and a number of senior UAE military officials, and it was agreed to sell Israeli weapons to Abu Dhabi, and for top UAE officials to visit Israel very soon,” Fridman said according to Al-Akhbar.
Fridman stated that Israel has had political and economic relations with Qatar and Bahrain for some time, adding that it also has covert ties with Tunisia and Morocco that span decades, despite there being no formal diplomatic relations between Israel and those Arab states.
The AIPAC president said that Netanyahu’s visit to Oman in October opened doors for more normalization in the region, and suggested that Netanyahu’s next stop in the Gulf will be Bahrain.
“Saudi Arabia gave Bahrain the green light for Israel to open a representative office during the visit,” Fridman is quoted as saying.
Fridman reportedly said that Israel faced no real obstacles from Arab regimes, but still faced fierce opposition from Arab public opinion and non-state political and armed groups “that Israel and its friends need to focus on.”
Fridman stated that Saudi Arabia is “Israel’s closest ally in all regional and international affairs,” and spoke about the close US alliance with Israel.
“The current president of the United States not only pays more attention to Israel’s interests than all former American presidents, but also prioritizes Israel’s interests over those of the United States in some cases.”
- Saudi Arabia
- Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa
- Arab League
- Ahmed Aboul Gheit
- Benjamin Netanyahu
- Anna Ahronheim
- Mohammad bin Salman
- The Jerusalem Post
- Donald Trump
- Al-Akhbar (Lebanon)
- Mort Fridman
- Gadi Eizenkot
- Mohammed bin Zayed
- United Arab Emirates
- Israel Lobby
- Saud al-Qahtani
- Ahmed al-Assiri
- Jamal Khashoggi
- The Wall Street Journal
- NSO Group
- Abdullah al-Malihi
- Nasser al-Qahtani