Rivals With Benefits

Israel and Saudi Arabia's Secret History of Cooperation

An Israeli fighter jet takes off at Hatzerim air base in southern Israel, December 2013. Nir Elias / Courtesy Reuters

Those following the turmoil in the Middle East might be surprised to hear of increasingly friendly relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, longtime rivals that now face the shared threats posed by Iran’s nuclear program and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

Last November, Saudi Arabia’s petroleum minister, Ali al-Naimi, expressed a willingness to sell oil to Israel, which it still does not formally recognize. “His Majesty King Abdullah has always been a model for good relations between Saudi Arabia and other states,” Naimi told reporters in Vienna, “and the Jewish state is no exception.” Just months earlier, former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal published an op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Although al-Faisal did little more than reiterate the Arab League’s traditional position on the peace process—namely that Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 borders—publishing in an Israeli newspaper represented a significant overture. These gestures followed years of speculation that Israel and Saudi Arabia might coordinate an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. 

However notable these developments are, unofficial cooperation between the two countries is hardly unprecedented. As early as the 1960s, Israel and Saudi Arabia found common ground when it came to countries or movements that explicitly threatened both of their existences. The two countries didn’t merely align their strategies, however; they collaborated on a tactical level, too.

During the 1960s, that threat emanated from Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of the Arab Nationalist movement and the most popular figure in the Middle East. His political speeches and radio broadcasts reached millions across the Arab world, and Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom were its frequent targets.

When a cadre of Yemeni officers with Arab-nationalist sympathies toppled Yemen’s theocratic monarchy in 1962, Nasser dispatched some 70,000 Egyptian troops to support the new republic’s war against old-regime loyalists. Nasser also declared his intention to carry the revolution even further, to Saudi Arabia, on Yemen’s northern border, and to the British

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