Saudi Arabia has long been accused of ignoring Palestine, and even working with Israel, to the detriment of the Palestinian struggle. A look at Saudi Arabia’s history shows that this accusation is not without merit.
The Middle East has a long tradition of being awash with conspiracy theories from the sublime to the ridiculous – so much so that long held perceptions have become a reality on the ground.
One such assumption on the Arab street has been that Saudi Arabia has never really pulled its weight behind the Palestinian cause. Some have gone even further to suggest that Saudi Arabia is in bed with Israel: this was a claim held by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein when he threatened to attack both the Saudis and Israelis in the first Gulf war.
The streets of Cairo and the souks of Damascus have been abuzz since the announcement of President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to announce Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by moving the US Embassy there.
There were not many things that the secular Saddam Hussein agreed on with the radical Osama bin Laden – so what is it that unites these two worldviews in alleging Saudi support for Israel?
Two of the greatest authorities on the last days of the Ottoman Empire and the struggle for control of the Hejaz have unanimously concluded that the founder of the Saudi Kingdom, Ibn Saud’s power relied first and foremost on his British protectors who financed all his moves and used him against the Ottomans and Hashemites.
Sean McMeekin in his books, The Berlin-Baghdad Express and The Ottoman Endgame argues that while fighting the retreating Ottoman Army, the British made sure Ibn Saud kept attacking them, ensuring that Palestine was eventually lost.
The legendary Ottoman General, Fakhri Pasha, who was defending Medina and the supply lines to Palestine, faced Ibn Saud and his marauding gangs on a daily basis for more than a year after the official surrender of the Ottoman forces. He wrote in detail about the collusion between Ibn Saud, the Wahhabis and their British overlords.
Efraim Karsh wrote in Empires of the Sand and Palestine Betrayed that the British used Ibn Saud carefully so that he would not demand Palestine or Jerusalem which was in stark contrast to Emir Faisal of Transjordan who wanted no compromise on the status of Jerusalem.
Dr. Askar el Enazy in his PhD thesis went into some detail like Karsh in arguing that whilst the British bribes to the Hashemites failed in the final status of Jerusalem, Ibn Saud was both a willing participant and that “the Saudis were at the beck and call of the British” to fight not only the Bani Hashem but also the Ottomans, thereby forfeiting Jerusalem and Palestine. The accusation thus stands not so much that Ibn Saud sold Jerusalem, but rather that in his greed for power in the Hejaz, he ignored Palestine.
This seems eerily similar to the current situation where the Saudis would do anything to fight Iran, Qatar and Yemen rather than focus on the core crisis of the Arab world i.e. Palestine.
Like the charges against Ibn Saud – the same are now being levelled at the Saudis under the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Indeed one of the most popular contemporary Arab films by a renowned Syrian director focused on the greed and collusion between Ibn Saud and the early Zionists.
Arab – Israel wars, whither Saudi Arabia?
Of course since the creation of Israel, the Arabs have fought three comprehensive wars against Israel all led by Egypt and Syria. In 1967 – Nasser and the most powerful Arab army in the shape of Egypt made open accusations against the Saudis for bleeding them dry in Yemen prior to the war against Israel.
The war in Yemen, which pitched the Arab nationalist forces of Nasser, Syria and Algeria against the Saudis, bled the Egyptian army to the extent that they were no longer capable of fighting Israel. The Saudis were once again ably supported by the British and the Israelis, thereby undermining the real burning cause of Jerusalem and Palestine that had been led by Gamal Abdel Nasser.
In the 1973 war, whilst a joint Egyptian and Syrian attack was on the brink of defeating Israel – the Egyptians were forced under heavy pressure of the Saudis and Americans to abandon the attack just when the Syrian military was breaking through on the Golan Heights. The two leading Egyptian Generals of the time, Mohamed Abdel el Gamasy and Saad el Shazly wrote in their memoirs how the Israeli lobby convinced the Saudis to make the Egyptian president back down so as to not let Israel be defeated.
In the first Gulf War again the Saudis and Israelis were on the same side against Saddam whilst Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians supported Baghdad against the Saudis after which thousands of Palestinians were kicked out by the Saudis and Kuwaitis.
In recent times, in what was hailed as a victory by much of the Arab world, the Saudis stood alone in criticizing Hezbollah in their war against Israel in the summer of 2006. Similarly the Saudis have consistently accused Hamas and Hezbollah of being war mongers in their fight against Israel. It has long been argued that rather than put a united front on the issue of Palestine, the Saudis have seen the sectarian proxy war against Iran as more important. Saudis have even sanctioned Sunni Qatar in their effort to further the blockade against Gaza, accusing Qatar of backing terrorists in Palestine.
An assessment at one of the world’s leading military think tanks explores the Israeli-Saudi alliance – however there is nothing new here. Of course the Jerusalem announcement by Trump has caused much anger in the Arab and Islamic world from Istanbul to Jakarta – but the Saudi response has been muted once again.
In fact, the Saudis have publicly announced since the Jerusalem move that the Trump plan for Palestine is positive. In this the Saudis stand alone in praising Trump at a time when the whole Islamic world vents in fury. They are busier causing the world’s worst unfolding humanitarian disaster in Yemen – just as they fought in Yemen in the 1960s while the Egyptian and Syrian armies were fighting Israel. Even then the Israelis were supporting the Saudis in Yemen – now again the Israeli and Saudi officials are openly discussing an alliance. The Israel Saudi cooperation against Iran is now an open secret.
Op-eds are being written by both Saudi and Israeli officials in support of the other’s policy with regards to Iran. The head of the Israeli army gave an official interview to a Saudi newspaper. There have been meetings between the former heads of intelligence of the two countries; the island deal with Egypt had Israeli involvement. There is talk that the island deal allows Saudi Arabia and Israel to hold discrete military drills and intelligence cooperation – this follows a first Saudi military trip to Israel a couple of years ago.
In fact Israeli media has commented on the fact that Saudis gave a green light for Trump’s Jerusalem move and a leading Turkish journalist has said that there was Israeli collusion in the recent crackdown of Saudi princes by the Crown Prince.
The media and intelligence chatter had been that the Saudis called Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh and said that he should accept a suburb of Jerusalem, Abu Dis as Palestine’s administrative capital.
One of President Trump’s long time Middle East advisors, Walid Phares also backed the Abu Dis story and mentioned that the Saudis often in public have a different line than in reality. This was in line with the story that the New York Times broke a few days earlier.
Jerusalem has never been a priority for the Saudis – it never was for Ibn Saud as proved by leading historians, and they certainly did not support Nasser and Hafez al Assad in the 1960s and 1970s in the wars against Israel. They have on the other hand forged discrete alliances with Israeli causes in the Middle East either directly or in directly.
The Saudis since the fall of Saddam have been feeling insecure and their power and influence has been on the wane for more than a decade. They have abandoned a cautious foreign policy with an aggressive approach which involves war, extortion, and the blackmailing of other nations that do not toe their line.
The current Saudi leadership’s quest for complete obedience trumps any concern for Palestine. They have made no major announcements on the Palestine peace process or Netanyahu’s aggressive settlement activities (at the time of writing this, Israel approved 1,100 more settlement homes).
There have also been reports that they have sought to buy Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defence capability to beef up their borders against Yemen. Netanyahu’s former top advisor confirmed that the Saudis do not care about the Palestinians as long as Israel can help them knock out Iran.
At the moment, as for much of history, Saudi and Israeli interests are convergent – which means Palestine shall not figure high on Riyadh’s agenda.