Elliott Abrams: Saudi Arabia Stops Blocking Israeli Papers Online

Saudi men access the internet on their cellphones in at a café in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 24. Elliott Abrams writes that Saudi Arabia has stopped blocking access to Israeli newspapers online. Now you can read The Jerusalem Post in Riyadh online. Faisal Al Nasser/reuters

This article first appeared on the Council on Foreign Relations site.

It is easy to exaggerate the opening that is occurring between Israel and several Gulf states, but it's easy to underestimate it too. The most recent change: Saudi Arabia has stopped blocking access to Israeli newspapers online.

Al-Akhbar in Beirut reported this in a story titled "Saudi Arabia Lifts Ban on Israeli Press." Here's a part of the story:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is gradually endorsing its relations with Israel and widening these relations' scope by moving from the political communication calls and mutual visits into media normalization. This indicates that things will further escalate in a way as to prepare for subsequent steps.

Yesterday, the Hebrew media revealed that the ban and surveillance that were imposed on the Saudis preventing them to enter Israeli news websites have been lifted knowing that this ban had gone on for years. This Saudi step was seen in Tel Aviv as an indication to enhancing the [bilateral] relations and normalization.…

The Israeli Jerusalem Post newspaper, which is published in English, had confirmed that Saudi Arabia lifted the surveillance and ban imposed on the Israeli press and that the Saudis can now enter and browse its website and other Israeli websites including the websites of the Hebrew media.

The newspaper indicated that the number of people browsing its website from Saudi Arabia is on the rise. It further quoted journalists via social communication networks as saying that entering the website as well as other Israeli news websites is now possible.…

Israeli users of the social communication networks expressed their joy over what they called the normalization with the Kingdom and the enhancement of the relations between the two parties.

(And here is the original, in Arabic.)

This is not so small a step. Sure, Saudis could get around the ban in the past—but now access to the Israeli press is normal and no big deal, just like reading The Times of London or The Washington Post.

Sure, very few Saudis read Hebrew, but there are many Israeli news sites in English, from The Times of Israel to The Jerusalem Post to Ynetnews.

Reading such sites will give Saudis a view of Middle Eastern, and Israeli-Palestinian, affairs that's quite different from their Foreign Ministry's official line. It will give them far deeper insights into Palestinian and Israeli politics, U.S.-Israel relations and Israeli society.

What's more, it will show them that a free press does exist in at least one place quite nearby in the Middle East, able to criticize government policy without fear.

So it is an entirely positive development, and one must give credit to the Saudi government. The Saudis keep saying there is change and reform underway in the kingdom. This is a sign that they mean it.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.