Oil jumps almost 4% as output slow to recover from Texas storms

By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Oil prices rose nearly 4% on Monday, boosted by the expected slow return of U.S. crude output after last week’s deep freeze in Texas shut in production.

U.S. producers shut anywhere from 2 million to 4 million barrels per day of oil output due to cold weather in Texas and other oil producing states, and the unusually cold conditions may have damaged installations that could keep output offline longer than expected.

Brent crude settled at $65.24 a barrel, rising $2.33, or 3.7%, while U.S. oil settled at $61.49 a barrel, jumping $2.25, or 3.8%. The U.S. benchmark crude contract for March delivery expires on Monday, and the more widely-traded April contract was up $2.44, or 4.1%, at 61.70 a barrel.

Shale oil producers in the region could take at least two weeks to fully restart normal output, sources said, as damage assessments and power disruptions slow their recovery.

“The significant loss of both crude and gasoline production suggests more upside and likelihood of new highs possibly within a one-week time frame,” said Jim Ritterbusch of consultancy Ritterbusch and Associates. But he cautioned that with limited refining capacity, price could under pressure if refiners take weeks to return to normal.

“The market is behaving as if the refiners are going to come online quicker than the headlines would lead you to believe,” said Yawger. Gasoline crackspreads, an indicator of refiners’ margins have dropped by 5%.

For the first time since November, U.S. drilling companies cut the number of oil rigs operating due to the cold and snow enveloping Texas, New Mexico and other energy-producing centers, signaling even tighter supplies ahead.

OPEC+ oil producers are set to meet on March 4, with sources saying the group is likely to ease curbs on supply after April given a recovery in prices, although any increase in output will likely be modest given lingering uncertainty over the pandemic.

“Saudi Arabia is eager to pursue yet higher prices in order to cover its social break-even expenses at around $80 a barrel while Russia is strongly focused on unwinding current cuts and getting back to normal production,” said SEB chief commodity analyst Bjarne Schieldrop.

(Additional reporting by Noah Browning and Aaron Sheldrick in London and Jessica Resnick-Ault in New York; Editing by Jason Neely and Emelia Sithole-Matarise, David Gregorio and Jane Merriman)

Yemen famine could threaten opportunity for peace, U.N. warns

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A massive famine could wipe out a new opportunity, created by renewed U.S. engagement, to end the war in Yemen, top U.N. officials told the Security Council on Thursday.

U.N. Yemen mediator Martin Griffiths also called for a stop to an offensive by the Houthi movement on the government-held city of Marib, warning “the quest for territorial gain by force threatens all of the prospects of the peace process.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has made ending the conflict in Yemen a priority since taking office last month, appointing a special envoy and ending U.S. support for offensive operations by Saudi Arabia in neighboring Yemen.

“International support for ending the conflict is indispensable, and this offers us a new opportunity to reopen space for a negotiated solution,” Griffiths told the 15-member Security Council.

However, U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock then warned: “There’s an important opportunity right now to help Yemen move towards lasting peace … but that opportunity will disappear, it will be wasted, if Yemen tips into a massive famine.”

The United Nations describes Yemen as the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 80% of the people in need of help.

A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015, backing government forces fighting the Iran-aligned Houthis. The more than six-year-long conflict is widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Griffiths visited Tehran this month for the first time since becoming the U.N. envoy three years ago. He made no reference to his visit during his public Security Council statement.

He said the warring parties needed to immediately agree to a nationwide ceasefire, allow the unhindered flow of fuel and other commodities into Hodeidah port and permit international commercial traffic to use Sanaa airport. Griffiths said these issues had been discussed regularly for the past year.

“What is needed is simply and fundamentally the political will to end this conflict. We know need a decision,” he said.

Lowcock said some $4 billion was needed in 2021 to fund humanitarian operations as “Yemen is speeding towards the worst famine the world has seen in decades.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Switzerland and Sweden plan to convene a pledging conference on March 1 to raise funds for Yemen.

When famine loomed in 2019, Lowcock said it was averted after the United Nations received about 90 percent of the $4 billion it requested. But last year the world body only received about $1.9 billion, about half of what it needed.

Lowcock said some 16 million people in Yemen were going hungry and 5 million of those people are “just one step away from famine.”

Some 400,000 children under the age of 5 are severely malnourished, he said. “Those children are in their last weeks and months,” he warned. “They are starving to death.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Cynthia Osterman)

Oil jumps 2%, hits highest in year as producers limit supply

By Jessica Resnick-Ault

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Oil prices rose more than 2% on Tuesday, reaching their highest in 12 months after major producers showed they were reining in output roughly in line with their commitments.

The U.S. and global benchmarks rallied as optimism about more U.S. economic stimulus added to market bullishness from supply cuts.

Brent crude was up $1.22, or 2.2%, at $57.57 a barrel by 12:03 EST (1703 GMT) for its third straight day of gains, touching $58.05, the highest levels since January last year.

U.S. oil gained $1.26, or 2.3%, to $54.81, after touching a session high of $55.26, the highest in a year.

The rally began as OPEC production increases were less than expected.

OPEC crude production rose for a seventh month in January but the increase was smaller than expected, a Reuters survey found.

Voluntary cuts of 1 million bpd by OPEC’s de facto leader, Saudi Arabia, are set to be implemented from the beginning of February through March.

Russian output increased in January but is in line with the supply pact, while in Kazakhstan oil volumes fell for the month.

The rally picked up steam as the U.S. Congress looked ready to adopt an economic stimulus package, and as cold U.S. weather boosted heating oil demand.

“You got the U.S. economic stimulus package that no one thought we would get,” said Bob Yawger, director of energy futures at Mizuho in New York.

A cold snap and heavy snow in the U.S. northeast drove the margin for heating oil to an 8-month high of $15.88, lending further support to crude.

However, energy giant BP flagged a difficult start to 2021 amid declining product demand, noting that January retail volumes were down about 20% year on year, compared with a decline of 11% in the fourth quarter.

Oil demand is nevertheless expected to recover in 2021, BP said, with global inventories seen returning to their five-year average by the middle of the year.

(Additional reporting by Noah Browning and Aaron Sheldrick; Editing by David Evans, David Goodman and David Gregorio)

Oil hits 11-month high near $57 on tight supply expectations

By Laura Sanicola

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Oil hit an 11-month high just below $57 a barrel on Tuesday, bolstered by Saudi Arabia’s plans to limit supply, offsetting worries that rising coronavirus cases globally would curtail fuel demand.

Brent crude was up 90 cents, or 1.6%, at $56.56 a barrel by 1118 EST (1618 GMT) after touching its highest since last February at $56.75. U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) gained 82 cents, or 1.6%, to $53.07.

Saudi Arabia plans to cut output by an extra 1 million barrels per day (bpd) in February and March to keep inventories in check.

The Saudi cut is part of an OPEC-led deal in which most producers will hold output steady in February. Last year’s record cuts from OPEC and its allies helped oil recover from historic lows reached in April. Some analysts believe the oil complex is underestimating supply levels.

“Storage at Cushing is only 10.2 million barrels below the all-time record high, so there is no problem with supply here in the U.S., but the complex is responding positively to this chatter about undersupply,” said Bob Yawger, director of energy futures at Mizuho.

Oil also gained on expectations for a drop in U.S. crude stockpiles. Analysts expect crude inventories to fall by 2.7 million barrels for a fifth straight week of declines.

The first of this week’s two supply reports, from the American Petroleum Institute, is due at 4:30 p.m. EST (2130 GMT).

The market is also being supported by the prospect of increased economic stimulus in the United States. President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20, has promised “trillions” in extra pandemic-relief spending.

However, oil price gains were capped by demand concerns as coronavirus cases rise around the world.

Chinese authorities introduced new curbs in areas surrounding Beijing on Tuesday and Japan is to widen a state of emergency beyond Tokyo.

(Additional reporting by Alex Lawler and Jessica Jaganathan; Editing by Kirsten Donovan, David Goodman and David Gregorio)

Breakthrough reached in Gulf dispute with Qatar: senior Trump administration official

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A breakthrough has been reached in Qatar’s three-year-old dispute with Saudi Arabia and three other Arab countries and an agreement to end their rift is to be signed in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, a senior Trump administration official said.

“We’ve had a breakthrough in the Gulf Cooperation Council rift,” said the official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The development is the latest in a series of Middle East deals sought by Washington – the others involving Israel and Arab states – aimed at building a united front against Iran. All of the countries involved in the deals are U.S. allies.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, assigned to work on the dispute by U.S. President Donald Trump, helped negotiate the deal and was working the phones on it until the wee hours of Monday morning, the official said.

When in December, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said a resolution to the dispute seemed within reach, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in a Twitter post said he hoped Gulf reconciliation “contributes to stability and political and economic development for all peoples of our region.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt have imposed a diplomatic, trade and travel embargo on Qatar since mid-2017 accusing it of supporting terrorism. Qatar denies it and says the embargo aims to undermine its sovereignty.

Kushner, joined by Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook, a special State Department adviser, were flying to the Saudi Arabian city of al-Ula to attend the ceremony, the official said.

Gulf Arab leaders are expected to gather in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for an annual summit that is expected to announce a deal towards ending the rift.

Under the emerging agreement, the four countries will end the blockade of Qatar, and in exchange, Qatar will not pursue lawsuits related to the blockade, the official said.

“At the signing on the 5th, leadership from the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt will be coming together to sign an agreement that will end the blockade and put an end to the Qatari lawsuits,” the official said.

If the deal holds, the Gulf dispute will be added to a string of diplomatic victories achieved by the Kushner team, a list that includes normalization deals last year between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

“It’s just a massive breakthrough,” the official said. “The blockade will be lifted. It will allow for travel amongst the countries as well as goods. It will lead to more stability in the region.”

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller)

Saudi Arabia agrees to allow Israeli commercial planes to cross its airspace: senior Trump official

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia agreed on Monday to let Israeli airliners cross its airspace en route to the United Arab Emirates after talks between Saudi officials and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, a senior Trump administration official said.

Kushner and Middle East envoys Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook raised the issue shortly after they arrived in Saudi Arabia for talks. “We were able to reconcile the issue,” the official told Reuters.

The agreement was hammered out just hours before Israel’s first commercial flight to the UAE was planned on Tuesday morning. The Israir flight was at risk of being canceled with no overflight agreement.

The direct flights are an offshoot of normalization deals Israel reached this year with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.

“This should resolve any issues that should occur with Israeli carriers taking people from Israel to the UAE and back and to Bahrain,” the official said.

Kushner and his team were to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman later this week, as well as the emir of Kuwait. One goal of the trip is to try to persuade Gulf Cooperation Council countries to end a three-year blockade of Qatar.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

Saudis seek buffer zone with Yemen in return for ceasefire, sources say

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has told Yemen’s Houthis in high-level back channel talks it would sign a UN proposal for a nationwide ceasefire if the Iran-aligned group agrees to a buffer zone along the kingdom’s borders, three sources familiar with the matter said.

If a deal is struck, it would mark the biggest breakthrough in efforts to reach a political settlement since the conflict – widely seen as a proxy war between arch-enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran – began in 2014.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden pledged in his election campaign to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s biggest buyer of American weapons, to pressure Riyadh to end the war that has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

But the Houthis, who control northern Yemen and its biggest populated areas, may be less willing to cooperate with Saudi Arabia if President Donald Trump carries out threats to designate them as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) before leaving office, the sources said.

Washington and Riyadh see the Yemeni group as an extension of Iranian influence in the region.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis’ spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Recently the two parties, holding virtual discussions, raised the level of representation in the talks, with Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, and a more senior Saudi official, two of the sources said.

Riyadh has demanded more security assurances from the Houthis, including a buffer zone along the borders with northern Yemen until a U.N.-backed transitional government is formed, the sources said.

Riyadh wants Houthi forces to leave a corridor along the Saudi borders to prevent incursions and artillery fire.

In exchange, the kingdom would ease an air and sea blockade as part of the U.N. proposal for a ceasefire, which already includes an end to cross-border attacks.

Last year, Riyadh launched indirect talks with the Houthis, as it seeks a way out of the conflict that has drawn criticism from Biden, killed tens of thousands of people and tarnished the reputation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The talks have stalled over the last two months, the sources said, as fighting escalated in the gas-rich region of Marib, where the Houthis have launched an offensive to drive out Saudi-backed forces.

Marib is the last stronghold of the internationally-recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which was ousted from power in the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis in late 2014.

That prompted the Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, to intervene.

Complicating matters, the fighting fragmented, spawning a multi-layered war that has lasted nearly six years.

‘CONSULTATIONS ON IRAN’

Trump’s administration, to support the Saudis, has exerted pressure on the Houthis by threatening to designate the group as a terrorist organization, said two of the three sources, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Any decision by Washington to blacklist the Houthis, part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, would be “devastating” after years of peace efforts led by U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and other Western ambassadors, they added.

One of the sources said that experts in the U.S. administration have advised Trump against an FTO designation.

The State Department did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The discreet talks between the kingdom and the Houthis have dragged on for more than a year, in parallel with Griffiths’ efforts to reach an agreement on a ceasefire.

The U.N. is working to secure a face-to-face meeting before the end of the year, as well as an agreement on a joint declaration that would halt all air, ground and naval hostilities, two of the sources said.

Europe would be a logical venue for them to meet, one of the sources said, as the U.N. seeks neutral grounds for the talks. Griffith’s office declined to comment.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Israeli minister says normalization deals need U.S. president tough on Iran

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among countries slated to establish relations with Israel under a regional rapprochement launched by U.S. President Donald Trump, an Israeli official said on Monday.

Straying from Israel’s reticence about Tuesday’s U.S. election, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said implementing further normalization deals could depend on the next president displaying continued “resolve” against Iran.

Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden wants to rejoin the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal that the Republican incumbent quit, to the satisfaction of Israel and some Gulf Arabs.

Trump, who has played up his Middle East policy while campaigning, was asked last week which countries might follow the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in normalizing ties with Israel. “We have five definites,” he responded.

Cohen said Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Morocco and Niger were “on the agenda”.

“These are the five countries,” he told Ynet TV. “And if the Trump policy continues, we will be able to reach additional agreements.”

While not explicitly favoring either U.S. candidate, Cohen argued that Trump’s policy had prompted Arab and Muslim countries to seek accommodation with Israel.

If the next president “does not show resolve vis-a-vis Iran, then what will happen is that they will take their time, will not rush, will not choose a side,” Cohen said. “A concessionary policy will gets the peace deals stuck.”

Saudi Arabia, the Gulf powerhouse and Islam’s birthplace, quietly acquiesced to the UAE and Bahrain deals with Israel, signed on Sept. 15. But Riyadh has stopped short of endorsing them, and signaled it is not ready to follow suit.

The Saudis were the architects of a 2002 Israeli-Arab peace proposal that called for Israeli withdrawal from occupied land to make way for a Palestinian state.

Qatar, which has links to Iran and Hamas, has ruled out normalization before Palestinians achieve statehood.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Kuwait bids farewell to late ruler and pillar of Arab diplomacy as new emir takes over

By Ahmed Hagagy

KUWAIT (Reuters) – Kuwait on Wednesday laid to rest late ruler Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, a Gulf Arab elder statesman who helped steer his nation through some of the region’s most turbulent decades, in funeral rites closed to the public due to COVID-19 concerns.

The only leader of fellow Gulf Arab states in attendance was the emir of Qatar, which has been boycotted by Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates, in a dispute that Sheikh Sabah, 91, tried until his death to resolve.

His successor and brother, Emir Sheikh Nawaf al-Ahmad al-Sabah, 83, headed the rites after being sworn in at parliament, pledging to work for the OPEC member state’s prosperity, stability and security.

“Our dear nation today faces difficult situations and dangerous challenges that can only be overcome … by unifying ranks and working hard together,” he told the National Assembly.

Sheikh Nawaf takes the reins of the small wealthy nation, which holds the world’s seventh-largest oil reserves, at a time when low crude prices and the coronavirus have strained the finances of a country with a cradle-to-grave welfare system.

His succession is not expected to change oil or investment policy and he is seen maintaining a foreign policy that saw Kuwait balance ties with larger neighbors Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran.

Dignitaries from around the world paid respects to Sheikh Sabah, a seasoned diplomat and savvy politician widely respected as a humanitarian who strove to heal rifts in the Middle East, mending ties with former occupier Iraq and championing the Palestinian cause.

“He will be long remembered by all who work for regional stability, understanding between nations and between faiths, and for the humanitarian cause,” Britain’s Queen Elizabeth said in a statement tweeted by Buckingham Palace.

“DIFFICULT TIMES”

Sheikh Sabah, who died on Tuesday in the United States were he was hospitalized since July, had ruled the U.S.-allied country since 2006, and steered its foreign policy for over 50 years.

Sheikh Nawaf was at the airport when the plane brought the body back home, wrapped in a white shroud and the Kuwaiti flag.

Sheikh Sabah was buried in Sulaibikhat cemetery alongside his kin, after prayers at Bilal bin Rabah mosque where mourners, including Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, all wore face masks.

The UAE said it was represented by its deputy premier, who is also interior minister, and the minister of tolerance and coexistence, both members of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family.

When Kuwait’s previous emir, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah, died in 2006, thousands of Kuwaitis attended the funeral and many, along with expatriates, lined the streets.

“I am sure all the men would have loved to go … and we as women would have loved to somehow pay tribute to our emir,” Khadija, a Kuwaiti fitness instructor, told Reuters.

“I wish we could have young leadership and new visions … I want to see change in our economy, education, and implementation of many promises that didn’t take place,” she said, adding that other Gulf states saw change under a new generation of leaders.

Sheikh Nawaf, who lacks the diplomatic skills of his predecessor, is likely to focus on domestic matters such as naming a crown prince who would manage ties with a parliament that has often clashed with the government and hindered economic reform efforts, diplomats and analysts say.

Under the constitution, the emir chooses the crown prince but traditionally the ruling family, some of whose senior members have been jostling for the position, convenes a meeting to build consensus. Parliament also has to approve the choice.

“I don’t expect big change under Sheikh Nawaf. We have big problems and some may be resolved but I’m not very optimistic,” said Mohammed Abu Ghanem, a 45-year-old Kuwaiti.

(Reporting by Ahmed Hagagy, Dahlia Nehme, Lisa Barrington, Aziz El Yaakoubi and Nafisa Eltahir; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

After UAE and Bahrain deals, is Saudi Arabia softening its stance on Israel?

By Marwa Rashad and Aziz El Yaakoubi

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – When one of Saudi Arabia’s leading clerics called this month for Muslims to avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” towards Jews, it was a marked change in tone for someone who has shed tears preaching about Palestine in the past.

The sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, broadcast on Saudi state television on Sept. 5, came three weeks after the United Arab Emirates agreed a historic deal to normalize relations with Israel and days before the Gulf state of Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, followed suit.

Sudais, who in past sermons prayed for Palestinians to have victory over the “invader and aggressor” Jews, spoke about how the Prophet Mohammad was good to his Jewish neighbor and argued the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well”.

While Saudi Arabia is not expected to follow the example of its Gulf allies any time soon, Sudais’ remarks could be a clue to how the kingdom approaches the sensitive subject of warming to Israel – a once inconceivable prospect. Appointed by the king, he is one of the country’s most influential figures, reflecting the views of its conservative religious establishment as well as the Royal Court.

The dramatic agreements with the UAE and Bahrain were a coup for Israel and U.S. President Donald Trump.  But the big diplomatic prize for an Israel deal would be Saudi Arabia, whose king is the Custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and rules the world’s largest oil exporter.

Marc Owen Jones, an academic from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, said the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization has allowed Saudi Arabia to test public opinion, but a formal deal with Israel would be a “large task” for the kingdom.

“Giving the Saudis a ‘nudge’ via an influential imam is obviously one step in trying to test the public reaction and to encourage the notion of normalization,” Jones added.

In Washington, a State Department official said the United States was encouraged by warming ties between Israel and Gulf Arab countries, viewed this trend as a positive development and “we are engaging to build on it.”

There was no immediate response to a request by Reuters for comment from the Saudi government’s media office.

Sudais’ plea to shun intense feelings is a far cry from his past when he wept dozens of times while praying for Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque – Islam’s third-holiest site.

The Sept. 5 sermon drew a mixed reaction, with some Saudis defending him as simply communicating the teachings of Islam. Others on Twitter, mostly Saudis abroad and apparently critical of the government, called it “the normalization sermon”.

Ali al-Suliman, one of several Saudis interviewed at one of Riyadh’s malls by Reuters TV, said in reaction to the Bahrain deal that normalization with Israel by other Gulf states or in the wider Middle East was hard to get used to, as “Israel is an occupying nation and drove Palestinians out of their homes”.

MUTUAL FEAR OF IRAN

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler often referred to as MbS, has promised to promote interfaith dialogue as part of his domestic reform. The young prince previously stated that Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land on condition of a peace agreement that assures stability for all sides.

Saudi Arabia and Israel’s mutual fear of Iran may be a key driver for the development of ties.

There have been other signs that Saudi Arabia, one of the most influential countries in the Middle East, is preparing its people to eventually warm to Israel.

A period drama, “Umm Haroun” that aired during Ramadan in April on Saudi-controlled MBC television, a time when viewership typically spikes, centered around the trials of a Jewish midwife.

The fictional series was about a multi-religious community in an unspecified Gulf Arab state in the 1930’s to 1950’s. The show drew criticism from the Palestinian Hamas group, saying it portrayed Jews in a sympathetic light.

At the time, MBC said that the show was the top-rated Gulf drama in Saudi Arabia in Ramadan. The show’s writers, both Bahraini, told Reuters it had no political message.

But experts and diplomats said it was another indication of shifting public discourse on Israel.

Earlier this year, Mohammed al-Aissa, a former Saudi minister and the general secretary of the Muslim World League, visited Auschwitz. In June, he took part in a conference organised by the American Jewish Committee, where he called for a world without “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism”.

“Certainly, MbS is intent on moderating state-sanctioned messages shared by the clerical establishment and part of that will likely work towards justifying any future deal with Israel, which would have seemed unthinkable before,” said Neil Quilliam, associate fellow with Chatham House.

ISOLATED PALESTINIANS

Normalization between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, which will be signed at the White House on Tuesday, has further isolated the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has not directly addressed Israel’s deals with the UAE and Bahrain, but said it remains committed to peace on the basis of the long-standing Arab Peace Initiative.

How, or whether, the kingdom would seek to exchange normalization for a deal on those terms remains unclear.

That initiative offers normalized ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

However, in another eye-catching gesture of goodwill, the kingdom has allowed Israel-UAE flights to use its airspace. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who has a close relationship with MbS, praised the move last week.

A diplomat in the Gulf said that for Saudi Arabia, the issue is more related to what he called its religious position as the leader of the Muslim world, and that a formal deal with Israel would take time and is unlikely to happen while King Salman is still in power.

“Any normalization by Saudi will open doors for Iran, Qatar and Turkey to call for internationalizing the two holy mosques,” he said, referring to periodic calls by critics of Riyadh to have Mecca and Medina placed under international supervision.

(Additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia, Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; editing by Maha El Dahan, Michael Georgy and William Maclean)