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Abbas, Siniora and Haniyeh in Riyadh
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'Welcome to Riyadh'
Saudi Arabia officially opens its doors to Israeli journalist for first time
Riyadh: I wrapped by head in a scarf as did all the other women who arrived on the Qatari aircraft that flew us to Riyadh. I  hesitantly presented my passport. "You are on the list," said the Saudi press officer who welcomed us warmly. "Welcome to the Saudi kingdom."

 

I marched on the gleaming marble floor and couldn't quite believe it: Long days of uncertainty had elapsed with a diplomatic incident looming in the background until finally receiving authorization to be the only Israeli journalist present at the Arab summit in Riyadh.

 

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is currently engaged in promoting the Saudi peace initiative between Israel and the Arab states, wanted to convey a placating message: He believed that if he brought a joint delegation comprising Arab journalists and an Israeli media representative on the same plane, he would succeed in partially breaking the ice.

 

This is my only diplomatic achievement during the three months I have been in office, the secretary general told me with a broad smile on his face while on board the flight to Riyadh. There are many things I am handling that have yet to mature. In this case I succeeded and I am happy, he said. I told him that I was too.

 

When I discovered that the UN secretary general was planning a tour to the Middle East I asked to join his delegation. Within two days I received a positive and welcoming response: "You are on the plane," his office informed me. I handed over my passport to apply for a visa along with the other journalists.

 

All their passports were handed back in time, but my application was rejected. The Saudi representative in the UN made it clear to the secretary general that my presence was not quite welcomed. The secretary general didn't give up. I was invited to board the plane with an assurance that he would try to exert pressure on the Saudis during the trip in a bid to allow my entry. The Saudis were not quick to respond.

 

Last Sunday, while still in Jerusalem, the secretary general called the Saudi Foreign Minister, Saud Al-Faisal. Ban told me that he had asked him to grant me a permit because I was part of the delegation, and that he was coming with many journalists. The minister assured him that he would consider this. Warren Hoge of the New York Times, who is also a member of the delegation, published an extensive report on the efforts involved in obtaining the visa.

 

During his meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Ban told him about the efforts to take me to Riyadh. He said he had tried everything, but had not received an answer and therefore was not very optimistic.

 

'V' for victory

Just a few hours prior to departure an email arrived from the Saudi minister's office with the announcement: I was invited to the summit. The secretary general received the notice and made the "V" sign to his aides.

 

On Tuesday afternoon we landed in Riyadh. The route leading to the congress center was decorated with the flags of all the Arab states participating in the summit. Four thousand people and an additional one thousand journalists arrived at the city, which became crowded and jammed.

 

The representative of the Saudi Information Ministry, who picked us up in his car, asked one of the journalists if he knew anything about an Israeli journalist that was due to arrive.

 

"She very much wanted to but was not granted a visa," the representative said. The journalist burst into laughter: "She received a visa and an invitation from the Saudi foreign minister." The official opened his eyes widely and went on to ask when the journalist would arrive and where she was. "Here she is sitting in your car," the journalist pointed to me.

 

Had his seat not had a backrest he would have fallen over. He looked at me, remained silent for a moment and then said: Welcome to Riyadh. Welcome, you have nothing to worry about; we shall all look after you. You are our guest.

 

The official showed me the list of journalists who had received entry permits to the conference: My name and the name of the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth appeared on the list. Saudi Arabia has for the first time officially opened its doors to an Israeli journalist. The Saudis are attributing great importance to the summit, during which their peace initiative is due to be reaffirmed.

 

Saudi Arabia wants to become major player

The Saudis are seeking to become major players in the Mideast arena and recently conducted covert talks with senior officials in the Israeli government. On Tuesday they opened the door just a little more and invited an Israeli journalist to cover the conference, which they regard as an historic event.

 

"It's good that you are here," a senior local journalist whom I met at the press center near the congress center told me. "As soon as the Arab world understands that we have a real desire to bring about peace, it would advance the process," he said, and added that the fact I was there symbolizes a new era for many people.

 

"Inshallah" I said. Before leaving he wished me "Salam Aleikum" twice.

 

Despite the warm welcome on the first day in Riyadh, my hosts hinted that I should initially keep a low profile. Security measures in the Saudi capital are unprecedented: The congress hall is surrounded by concrete roadblocks, and every vehicle entering the parking lot - even if it has a government tag – undergoes a scrupulous security check.

 

Not everyone partaking in the conference likes the openness that the Saudis are trying to show towards the peace process, and radical elements in the kingdom may try to sabotage the process by carrying out a terror attack. Despite this I was provided with all the means to report from the conference, and UN Secretary General Ban said that my presence would undoubtedly serve to bring Israel and Saudi Arabia closer.

 

For years he has reiterated that enemies should engage in talks, and during this trip he proved that he is prepared to do whatever it takes to make this happen.

 

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