Saudi Arabia Denies MBS Secretly Met Israeli Officials During Pompeo Visit

The Saudi Arabian foreign ministry has denied reports that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)—heir to the throne and widely seen as the main power behind his elderly father King Salman—met with Israeli officials during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to the country this weekend.

Pompeo traveled to Riyadh for the G20 summit, and as part of a 10-day trip to the Middle East and Europe, which has been widely described as a farewell tour.

Pompeo traveled to Saudi Arabia from Israel, where he had been to celebrate President Donald Trump's close work with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government over the past four years.

Pompeo's trip is also designed to cement the Abraham Accords—historic deals signed by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. There has been speculation that other Gulf monarchies may soon follow suit, among whom Saudi Arabia would be the most significant.

Saudi Arabia and Israel have been cooperating on political and intelligence matters for many years, but officially the two nations do not have diplomatic relations.

Israeli media reported Monday that Netanyahu had traveled to Saudi Arabia to meet with MBS and Pompeo. Education Minister Yoav Gallant appeared to confirm the visit on Army Radio on Monday, saying: "The very fact the meeting happened, and was outed publicly, even if half-officially right now, is a matter of great importance.

Haaretz and Walla news reported that the meeting was held with the participation of Yossi Cohen, the current head of the Israeli spy agency Mossad.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz—due to become prime minister in 2021 under his power sharing deal with Netanyahu—said: "leaking the news of the prime minister's secret flight to Saudi Arabia is an irresponsible move."

But the Saudi foreign minister denied the Israeli reports. Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud wrote on Twitter: "I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between HRH the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit by @SecPompeo. No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi."

If the meeting is confirmed, it would be the first between an Israeli and Saudi leader and mark a significant milestone in the slow detente between Israel and the Arab world.

For generations, Arab nations have refused to engage with the Israeli government until it ends it occupation of Palestinian land. But a new generation of Gulf leaders are shifting away from the Palestinian issue, which has proved intractable.

They are instead warily watching Iran while looking to the economic and security boost that deeper engagement with Israel and the U.S. could bring.

The Saudi position is particularly awkward, given its ruling royal king's status as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. To officially abandon the Palestinians and their claim to the holy city of Jerusalem would be hugely damaging to the Saudi reputation among Muslim nations.

Still, MBS is reportedly less committed to the Palestinian cause than his predecessors. During a 2018 visit to the U.S., the crown prince reportedly told the heads of American based Jewish groups that the Palestinians should accept Trump's controversial—and widely panned—Middle East peace plan or "shut up."

"In the last several decades the Palestinian leadership has missed one opportunity after the other and rejected all the peace proposals it was given," MBS said, according to Axios. "It is about time the Palestinians take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiations table or shut up and stop complaining."

Mike Pompeo, Israel, Saudi Arabia MBS, Netanyahu
U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Abizaid and Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud greet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan as they arrive at Neom Bay Airport in Neom, Saudi Arabia, on November 22, 2020. PATRICK SEMANSKY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images/Getty