There was heavy security outside the hotel where U.S. President Joe Biden will be staying in Saudi Arabia on Friday.
Near the hotel, which is located on the shores of the city of Jeddah, there are quite a few police vehicles on every corner. They patrol the entire area and the police presence throughout the city is particularly heavy.
The entire parking lot was full of black cars with tinted winodws, and a peek from a distance reveals that a group of men dressed as chefs patrolling the entrance to the hotel, apparently ahead of the arrival of the American president, but here in Jeddah, there is nothing to expect for a reception à la Jerusalem.
However, not a single U.S. flag in sight, but the reason is quite clear: the Saudis are angry with him, and this is evident on the face of every Saudi I have talked to.
After months of bashing the Gulf kingdom and its leadership, one should not expect to see the same media bonanza like in Israel. Most of the locals in Jeddah are not even aware that Biden is coming.
At the second day of my visit to Jeddah, I decided to tell people I’m an Israeli. I was curious to see the reactions of the locals who never met an Israeli before.
I went to the Red Sea shopping mall, one of the largest in the Middle East, after a morning trip to Jeddah’s ancient quarter. The mall was a sharp contrast to my experience from earlier in the day: A dialogue, or clash if you will, between modernity and tradition, religion and consumerism, as if they were each part of a different city.
Saudi Arabia wants to progress, and Jeddah is a prime example for that, unlike Riyadh, which locals call more conservative. Jeddah is a city that wishes to attract people from all over the world, as is clear by its relative modernity.
As I walk around the mall, a secular-seeming woman approaches me, with short hair, without a hijab or niqab, wearing pants. This would be a rare sight outside the shopping mall.
“Can I interest you in a streaming service?” she asks, and I immediately reply “I’m a tourist, I don’t think I’ll be able to use the service where I come from.” She smiles and she and the booth owner she works at ask me where I’m from. After a few guesses that included the UK, Spain and the U.S., I reply.
“I’m from Israel.” They stare at me, shocked, and respond with: “Welcome to Saudi Arabia.” I try to keep the conversation going but notice the distance between us grew. It isn’t easy to convince the locals to talk about Israel, and taking pictures is out of the question.
When I ask for permission to take a photo of the booth they agree but step away from it. It seems that if there’s any change in Saudi's relations with Israel it seems to be only at the government level. The locals are still hesitant, and perhaps fearful to talk about Israel
The warm welcome in the United Arab Emirates is still far off in Saudi Arabia, we’re not there yet, and it’s best to still be cautious with disclosing your country of origin.
Luai, a local living in Jeddah, says there's a shift in relations with Israel, but makes clear that without a solution to the Palestinian issue, peace can’t be fully achieved.
“Saudi views of Israel had changed,” he said. “Things changed over the last few years and some Saudi people accept the peace with Israel and the Jewish people. However, some are still rejecting peace with Israel because they oppose Judaism and the Jewish people. Things change, but you have to know some Saudis still don’t accept Jews, or Israelis.”
“Saudi Arabia is a safe place for Israelis and combats extremist and terrorist organizations. I don’t recommend identifying as Israelis, but they can as Jewish. Israelis arouse unwanted, and unneeded suspicion.”