Israeli delegation attends UN heritage conference in Saudi Arabia in first public visit by officials

This is a locator map for Saudi Arabia with its capital, Riyadh. (AP Photo)

JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli delegation arrived in Saudi Arabia on Sunday to attend a U.N. conference on world heritage sites, in the first public visit by government officials to the kingdom, an Israeli official said.

The delegation is led by the head of Israel's Antiquities Authority, Eli Escusido, and includes diplomats, the official said. It is not a bilateral visit, and it was unclear whether they would meet with Saudi officials.

The official was not authorized to discuss the matter with media and spoke on condition of anonymity. The official noted that Israel took part in a video game competition in Saudi Arabia earlier this year.

The visit comes as Washington is pushing to broker normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which are believed to have quietly cultivated ties in recent years over their shared suspicion of Iran. A formal agreement would be a historic step toward integrating Israel into the wider region, but it faces major challenges.

The Saudis are reportedly demanding significant progress on resolving the conflict with the Palestinians — a hard sell for the most right-wing government in Israel's history — as well as U.S. defense guarantees and aid in establishing a civilian nuclear program.

The 45th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee is being held in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, from Sunday through Sept. 25. The committee determines which sites are added to the World Heritage List and supervises their conservation.

Israel announced it was quitting UNESCO in 2017, accusing the international body of being biased against it and diminishing its historical connection to the Holy Land. But Israel remains a party to the World Heritage Convention.

Saudi Arabia has been developing and promoting its own heritage sites in recent years as the kingdom seeks to transform itself into a prime destination for tourists and investment.