Saudi Arabia has announced that Palestinian citizens of Israel are going to be allowed to work in the Kingdom. Such an arrangement will require coordination between Riyadh and Tel Aviv which, in turn, means even further normalisation between the two countries.
Israel's economic magazine Globes broke this story late last month, in the context of improving relations with Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom regards Arab graduates of Israeli universities as valued professionals who might be attracted by the Saudi Shura Council's approval of the "Privileged Iqama [work permit]" scheme to attract those with engineering and investment experience. The Saudis want to diversify their economy by opening up to investments and trade to non-Saudi citizen and develop the private sector.
While the decision did not mention Palestinian-Israelis specifically, it did not exclude citizens of any particular state. Since Israeli-Saudi relations have grown recently, it is clear that the decision includes such Palestinians. The government in Riyadh has not denied this.
The Kingdom does not need Palestinian workers from Israel, as it uses cheap labour from Asia. While it does need foreign expertise, it is worth noting that the Saudi offer is not necessarily particularly tempting, as the economic situation in Israel is better. Nevertheless, although the Saudi employment system imposes fees and taxes on workers, and Riyadh is experiencing problems with its neighbours, some Palestinians in Israel are still interested in working there. According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, unemployment amongst its Arab citizens who might be affected by the Saudi decision stands at 5 per cent.
Although Palestinian reaction has been varied, most agree that Riyadh wants to use the Palestinians in Israel as part of the normalisation of ties with Israel, paving the way for the US "deal of the century". Palestinian writer Soliman Abo Irshed, for example, is surprised by what he described as the "privileges" showered on the "Israeli Arabs" by Saudi Arabia after decades of being deprived of such opportunities as the right to travel and visit Arab states, and take up permanent or temporary residence in Arab countries and work therein. This was especially the case with the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, which stopped Palestinian-Israelis from visiting Saudi Arabia and performing the Muslim pilgrimage for 30 years until the Camp David Accords were signed between Egypt and Israel in 1978.
Some commentators caution against the Saudi decision, calling it an invitation to basically deport Palestinians from their land. They are not in need of Saudi Arabia's money and the working conditions there are not what they were in the past. Others believe that such opportunities will relieve Palestinians' economic difficulties.
Those who make the move should understand that the Saudi authorities have fired and deported Arab workers without any humanitarian, moral or legal considerations, even when they have lived in the country for decades. Is it not strange that the same authorities are now opening the door to Palestinians who hold Israeli passports?
While the status of Arab doctors in Israel is excellent, and so they will probably not seek jobs in Saudi Arabia, those in the hi-tech and engineering fields may do so, because their working conditions and salaries are worse than Israeli Jews in similar positions. Their decisions will be dependent on the salaries and living conditions on offer in Saudi Arabia.
The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics puts the unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip at 51 per cent, compared with 16 per cent in the West Bank. The Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories are thus in greater need of job opportunities than those in Israel. Even those who are well-qualified face dire living conditions. It is odd, therefore, that the Saudis are prepared to accept Palestinians with Israeli citizenship whilst putting more pressure on those from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip working in the Kingdom — there are up to 500,000 there at the moment — to pay more fees and taxes. A complicated bureaucracy in Saudi Arabia is being used to try to force Palestinians from the occupied territories into leaving the country; they have few basic rights and are threatened with deportation at any time. Their position in the Kingdom is perilous, despite making a major contribution to the growth of the state; they are being stabbed in the back at a time when they really need employment more than their fellow Palestinians from Israel.
Israelis view the Saudi decision as a very significant development in Riyadh's foreign policy based on mutual interests with the Zionist state. Hence, Tel Aviv is comfortable with and encouraging the Saudis, not least because remittances from Palestinian-Israeli workers will filter into the Israeli economy.
Riyadh's normalisation with Israel includes a "welcome" sign for visitors to Medina which has the word "shalom" written in Hebrew. In the civil sector, Saudi bloggers attacked Hamas after the recent confrontation with Israel in Gaza. That was an unprecedented example of Saudi bias towards Israel and against the Palestinians.
In June 2017, secret talks were held by the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel in preparation for direct flights between Tel Aviv and the Kingdom to transport Palestinian pilgrims from Israel. In March last year, Air India began its first direct flights to Israel through Saudi airspace, ending decades of Saudi Arabia's ban on such overflights. This was another step in the undeclared normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In short, the Saudi decision to accept Arab and Palestinian workers with Israeli passports is clearly a deeply political decision; it has not been taken out of concern for the well-being of the workers and their families. It remains to be seen if such an opportunity will be taken up in any great numbers, or if it will be viewed for what it is; a cynical political move to boost the normalisation of links between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.