Why you should care

Because senior Arab leaders rarely recognize Israel’s right to exist.

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WHAT TO KNOW

What happened? Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, told The Atlantic in an interview published on Monday that Riyadh recognizes the right of Israel to its own land and sees many areas of convergence with Israel. The prince, in effect the day-to-day ruler of Saudi Arabia, also indicated a willingness to explore diplomatic relations with Israel even though his nation has refused to accept formal ties with the world’s only Jewish state for more than half a century.

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A Palestinian protester takes part in a demonstration demanding the right of return and removal of the blockade in Gaza on April 05, 2018.

Source Mustafa Hassona/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Why does it matter? The prince’s comments, which coincide with a fresh Palestinian uprising in the Gaza Strip against Israel, represent the most significant public indication of Saudi Arabia’s new strategic direction in the Middle East. The Saudi king is officially the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina, and consequently, Riyadh enjoys unparalleled authority in the Muslim world. So for the Saudi Crown Prince to publicly speak of reconciliation with Israel marks a bold shift.

HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT

A common enemy. Saudi Arabia and Israel aren’t exactly friends, but their mutual distaste for Iran has created room for cooperation — even if it’s often unspoken and highly sensitive. For the Saudis, the Islamic Republic’s Shia leadership represents a regional rival, while the Israelis see it as an existential threat. Regional tensions still remain high: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned that negotiating with Israel would be an “unforgivable mistake” for Saudi Arabia.

Why now? Part of what’s drawn Saudi Arabia and Israel together was the Obama administration’s engagement with Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have been the most vocal opponent of the nuclear deal with Iran, but Saudi Arabia was no less upset. Then it saw Iranian-backed rebels overthrow a Saudi-supported regime in Yemen and other nations like Iraq, Syria and Qatar drift closer still to Iran. This all helped align Saudi strategic interests closer with Israel’s than ever before. Now, with U.S. President Donald Trump contemplating pulling out of the Iran deal, the moment may have arrived for a more public partnership with Israel.

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U.S. President Donald Trump makes a statement on the administration’s strategy for dealing with Iran on Oct. 13, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Source Drew Angerer/Getty

Kingdom makeover. The prince’s public outreach to Israel could upset sections of the religious clergy in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Muslim world. And his geopolitical gamble also comes after some major shake-ups at home over the past year. Over one weekend, 11 princes and dozens of officials and businessmen were rounded up by police at the behest of the prince as part of an anti-corruption sting that also happened to take care of many of his rivals.

Party like it’s 2030. At the same time, the prince has aggressively worked to end the kingdom’s reliance on oil before low prices crash its economy. His Vision 2030 plan has already opened a wide net for investment from the world’s business elite, from a $200 billion solar power project with SoftBank Group to a possible deal that could partially privatize Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil-producing company. In the past year, women in the kingdom have also been granted rights to drive, join the military and visit sports arenas.

WHAT TO READ

A Saudi Prince’s Quest to Remake the Middle East, by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker.

“The question for many analysts around the world was whether he represented genuine reform or was merely using the language of reform to consolidate power.”

Can Mohammed bin Salman Really Save Saudi Arabia? by Jane Kinninmont in Prospect.

“MBS is trying to replace the traditional pillars of support for the Saudi regime with a new popular youth constituency. … But this constituency too will have complaints as the shift away from oil messes with the living standards they have grown to expect.”

WHAT TO WATCH

The 32-year-old Prince Who’s Shaking Up Saudi Arabia

“He’s consolidated power so swiftly and so thoroughly that in Saudi Arabia, they just know him as Mr. Everything.”

Watch on Vox on YouTube:

Saudi Arabia’s Heir to the Throne Talks to 60 Minutes

“Today Saudi women still have not received their full rights. There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don’t have. We have come a very long way, and have a short way to go.”

Watch an extract from CBS News on YouTube below, or the full interview here.

WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER

Changes in Saudi Arabia’s high-level diplomacy have also been accompanied by significant changes in society. The country’s first movie theater in 35 years is expected to open later this month, potentially screening the superhero flick “Black Panther” to a mixed-gender audience.

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