An Israeli delegation of nine staffers is currently in Saudi Arabia as observers to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Sunday.
The delegation is led by the head of Israel’s Antiquities Authority and includes diplomats, a different Israeli official said. It is not a bilateral visit, and it was unclear whether the group would meet with Saudi officials.
Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have diplomatic relations, though the White House has been pushing them toward normalizing relations.
Last week, Israel reportedly backed off its attempts to have two ministers publicly enter the kingdom for the UN meeting.
After pressure from the US, Israel decided not to push for visas for Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Education Minister Yoav Kisch, Channel 13 reported. The Saudis had been introducing obstacles during the visa process, according to the report.
American officials advised Israel not to put Riyadh in an uncomfortable position while a far more significant bilateral normalization deal was in the works.
The bureaucrats attended the conference instead.
In July, Saudi Arabia signed the “host country agreement,” in which it commits to allowing all signatories to the World Heritage Convention — which includes Israel — to freely enter the country for the event, according to a report by Axios, which cited two sources with knowledge of the issue.
The Saudis had reportedly refused to sign the agreement in June, protesting Israel’s participation in the conference.
But UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay was said to insist that Israeli representatives be granted entry into the country and that official invites will be sent in the coming days, according to the report.
The Foreign Ministry, the Saudi embassy in Washington, and UNESCO officials did not offer a comment on the report.
Israel officially left the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2019, over alleged anti-Israel bias. Sites in the country remain listed on the World Heritage List, and Israel still sends representatives to the World Heritage Committee, which is in charge of designating those sites.
During the meeting between Cohen and Azoulay in July, the UNESCO chief said she is working to depoliticize the body and sees Israel’s return as holding great importance, according to the Foreign Ministry.