JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — It was well past 11pm on Friday night in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah, and people of all ages were still lining the sidewalks of Palestine Street.
Some headed west through the sweltering heat to the seafront promenade to catch the slightly cooler Red Sea breeze.
Families and others took photos in front of King Fahd’s fountain, a burst hydrant-like production that continuously shoots water 853 feet into the air.
Others walked the other direction, popping in and out of the many restaurants and American fast-food joints that line the busy boulevard.
Despite the name of the street and the presence in Jeddah of US President Joe Biden, who had flown hours earlier directly from Tel Aviv after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestine didn’t seem to be a priority for people for one night in the city.
For a reporter tasked with fleshing out the spasm of diplomatic activity, which Israelis are excited to see as a sign of looming normalization with Saudi Arabia, the scene seemed like a stellar portrayal of how the kingdom views the issue: The Officially putting Palestinians at the top of their agenda and vocally supporting them at every turn, but in fact not overly concerned about the conflict taking place about a thousand kilometers (600 miles) to the northwest.
As for welcoming normalization to Israelis, the only thing colder than the air conditioning at the Haifa Mall on Palestine Street was the reception this idea found.
The mall, a standard Gulf mega-shopping complex, was exceptionally clean and state-of-the-art, making it a popular hangout for locals of all ages in a conservative country where bars and nightclubs are banned. At a movie theater in the mall, dozens of teenagers poured out of a screening of Minions: Rise of the Gru, chatting excitedly to one another.
“A Jew is a Jew, whether in Israel or Moscow,” said Sultan, a clerk at a watch kiosk, as Beyonce’s “halo” blared from the speakers at the gleaming mall.
The sweeping generalization was not very different from what I had heard about Palestinians and Arabs during my time as a reporter on the West Bank settlements.
The salesman was aware that he was speaking to a member of the Israeli press — I was one of three reporters for Israeli publications who joined the White House press corps for the Saudi leg of Biden’s Middle East trip — and had no problem delivering diatribes to begin about how the Jews wanted to kill the Prophet Muhammad and are “enemies of Islam”.
“There is no difference between Israel and Jews elsewhere,” he said, arguing that the latter group “funds the oppression of Palestinians” from abroad and is therefore untrustworthy.
When Sultan found out my name, he admitted that he had never met a Jew. “The Qur’an says it’s good that we are all different,” Sultan clarified, in an impressive 180-degree turn from his original argument.
Experts say a similar about-face will be required if Israeli-Saudi normalization – a process Riyadh claims is not happening – is to result in a warm welcome from Israelis and Jews after decades of hostility and demonization.
“For decades, Arab leaders, textbooks and the press have fomented negative views of Israel, and in many cases Jews, and there has been little opportunity to counter that narrative,” said Carmiel Arbit, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
“Similar challenges exist in Israel: Studies have shown that many Jewish Israelis have negative perceptions of Arabs and Muslims.”
At another booth in the mall, a niqab-wearing saleswoman insisted on first dabbing what appeared to be Jeddah’s strongest perfume onto my inner wrist before opening.
She, like most, was aware that Biden was in town for a regional summit and expressed hope for improved relations with the US.
Israel, however, was a different story, and she insisted most Saudis were opposed to peace with the Jewish state because of its treatment of the Palestinians.
Outside Jeddah night, my Uber driver Ahmed echoed an opinion expressed by many others in the mall: that he did not have much of an opinion on the matter and that he trusted the Saudi government to act appropriately.
I hadn’t planned to question Ahmed to avoid it the stereotype of the taxi driver interview. But when he learned what had brought me to Jeddah, he was eager to discuss the issues and did so in competent English.
Ahmed was aware of the Red Sea island transfers pushed forward at the GCC+3 summit, along with normalization steps Saudi Arabia had agreed with Israel to secure control of Tiran and Sanafir.
Ahmed agreed that most Saudis are against Israel, but criticized what he said was a minority doing so for religious reasons.
“If you hate Israel because of the Jews, then you will hate all people who are different,” he claimed.
It’s hard to deny the region is shifting after they sat alongside dozens of other US-based reporters on the first-ever direct flight from Tel Aviv to Jeddah on Friday, just hours after Saudi Arabia announced it would be giving up its airspace to everyone to open civilian airliners.
And it may well have been the first step toward normalizing Israeli-Saudi relations, as Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid put it. But Riyadh has remained adamant that ties with Israel will not skip the Palestinian cause, despite recent polls showing it supports contacts with Israelis on par with the UAE and Bahrain.
As I walked down Palestine Street, I remembered a 2012 Saudi film called Wadjda that had been part of the curriculum for one of my Arabic college classes. Filmmaker Haifaa al-Mansour subtly criticizes the conservative kingdom for not extending many rights to women and girls, while opening a window to change Saudi attitudes towards Palestinians.
In the film, a 10-year-old girl named Wadjda dreams of owning a bicycle to race and beat her boyfriend, Abdullah. While largely disconnected from religion, Wadjda enters the school’s Quran recitation competition to buy a two-wheeler with the winnings. But when she wins, her teacher decides that instead of using the money to buy a bicycle — riding a bike was a form of indecency for women in 2000s Saudi Arabia — she will instead donate the money to the Palestinian cause .
When she returns home, Wadjda’s mother asks her where the prize money is.
“In Palestine,” comes her angry reply, showing little sympathy or concern for the cause that stole her bicycle.
As for Israel, Arbit noted that the expanded opportunities for interaction between Israelis and Gulf Arabs offered by the Abraham Accords may eventually help eradicate some negative attitudes toward the Jewish state.
“All sides have a long way to go to stamp out hatred,” she said. “But promoting opportunities for encounters and supporting educational initiatives will be key to promoting tolerance between countries in the region.”