Israel envisions common Mideast market with Saudis amid Biden visit

Tel Aviv (Reuters) – Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Monday he hoped a regional visit by U.S. President Joe Biden this week will lead to a common Middle East market that includes Saudi Arabia.

Biden arrives in Israel on Wednesday and continues to Saudi Arabia on Friday. The White House has said the visit’s aims include expanding regional economic and security cooperation.

Asked at an economic conference hosted by the Calcalist newspaper what he expects to arise from Biden’s visit, Lieberman said: “It is time to create a new, common market in the Middle East – Israel, Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries and Jordan. That’s the big challenge.”

“It will change the reality here from end to end, in both the fields of security and of economics. Therefore, I hope the emphasis during Biden’s visit will be on creating this new market in the Middle East.”

Israel normalised relations with four Arab countries under a 2020 U.S. diplomatic drive that received Riyadh’s blessing. But Saudi Arabia has stopped short of formally recognising Israel in the absence of a resolution to Palestinian statehood goals.

In separate remarks to the conference, Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata said that within the framework of Biden’s visit “it is certainly possible to begin talking about the potential expansion of our markets in the region”.

“It’s no coincidence that Biden is coming here on Wednesday and continuing on Friday from here to Saudi Arabia by direct flight,” Haluta added. “The ability to attend to these things carefully, step by step, can bring about breakthroughs.”

Lieberman said his regional vision would include “a kind of trans-Middle East highway” and rail network linking up partner countries such as Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said cultivating potential ties with the Saudis was a slow and gradual process.

“We are witnessing that we have a lot in common and that there are many benefits,” Roll told reporters.

“We have been working … towards expanding the circle of peace and normalisation and I think that the past year and a half have demonstrated in a very convincing way that there are new opportunities and that moderate forces have new opportunities to work together, he said.

Asked whether Biden would be announcing direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia, Roll said: “As far as flights, you know, President Biden will visit Saudi after he visits here and we sure hope he will bring some news regarding normalisation with the Saudis. But … I anticipate it will happen in steps. We will have to wait, all of us, until President Biden’s visit to Saudi.”