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President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s July tour of the Middle East prompted speculation that the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel or, at least, an air defense alliance might be in the cards. There have certainly been gestures illustrating a thawing of Saudi-Israeli relations, such as Saudi Arabia allowing Israel flyover rights over Saudi airspace. However, this may have been more of a gesture toward the Biden administration, on the eve of the July visit, and reflective of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the United States rather than with Israel. Despite such gestures, the potential of imminent Saudi-Israeli normalization of relations has been overblown, and may appear even more so with the advent of a new, far-right leaning government in Israel, as the entrenchment of the Palestinian cause in Saudi identity continues to slow the Saudi-Israeli thawing process.
A recent Washington Institute survey suggests that most Saudis and other Arab citizens continue to oppose the normalization of relations with Israel, despite the Abraham Accords. Saudi identity and the kingdom’s history with the Palestinians is a major reason preventing the Saudi ruling elite from jumping on the Abraham Accords wagon, as the role of the Palestinian cause in Saudi identity is deep and complex. What is more, there are elements within Saudi social and political discourses that have further entrenched the Palestinian cause in Saudi identity. Saudi projection of the kingdom’s service to Islam, sociopolitical narratives championing Saudi kings, and commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative embed the Palestinian cause in Saudi identity and help explain why Saudis may not be in favor of embracing Israel – at least in public.
Universal Islamic Projection
Despite moves in the past few years to develop and appeal to heightened Saudi nationalist sentiment, the Saudi ruling elite has traditionally based its legitimacy on Islam and continues to do so in key ways. This stems back to the meeting between Mohammed ibn Saud (the great ancestor of the current Saudi dynasty) and Muhammed ibn Abdul-Wahab, which then led to the establishment of a religious-political covenant in Saudi Arabia today. The Saudi ruling elites almost always incorporate Islam in their expressions of identity. The title of the king is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” which are in Mecca and Medina. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law states that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a sovereign Arab Islamic State,” and its constitution is “the Holy Quran and the prophet’s Sunnah.” Furthermore, Saudi leaders find it crucial to demonstrate their service to Islam. For example, recently the Saudi Press Agency reported that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “had the honor of washing the Holy Kaaba.”
The Palestinian cause, and in particular Jerusalem, is an important aspect of Saudi identity through the kingdom’s identification as a Muslim state. Saudi Arabia’s universal Islamic projection communicates that the Saudi ruling elites’ service is not just to Saudi society, but they are leaders and servants of the global Muslim Ummah (nation). This universal aspect of Saudi Islamic identity means that Jerusalem, and, in turn, the Palestinian cause, cannot easily be divorced from Saudi identity.
The primacy of Jerusalem and the Palestinian cause for Saudi Arabia and the projection of Saudi Islamic leadership go back to the early days of the Saudi kingdom. In his correspondence with U.S. officials, King Abdulaziz al-Saud communicated that “I occupy a position of preeminence in the Arab world. In the case of Palestine I have to make common cause with other Arab states.”
The website of the Saudi Embassy in Washington DC states: “Saudi Arabia is the home of two of Islam’s holy sanctuaries: Makkah the Blessed and Madinah the Radiant. The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, enclosing the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven, completes the trio of venerated shrines in the Islamic world.” Jerusalem’s centrality for Muslims and their Islamic identity makes it integral to Saudi Arabia’s global Islamic projection. In response to former President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, King Salman bin Abdulaziz hosted an Arab summit, which he renamed the “Jerusalem Summit,” in Dharan, Saudi Arabia. The move spoke to the responsibility the Saudi ruling elites perceive to have, at least symbolically, toward Islam and Jerusalem.
Legacies of Kings and Sociopolitical Discourse
The Palestinian cause and Jerusalem are also prominent in Saudi discourse (official, media, and among the public) as an amplification of kings’ legacies. The championing, and praising, of Saudi kings is sometimes done by discussing their stances toward the Palestinian cause, and subsequently entrenching it further into Saudi identity. Each Saudi king has had a unique role in Arab-Israeli relations, and the stance they each have taken on Palestinian issues has been used as an illustration of their piety, bravery, and leadership.
The Palestinian role in King Abdulaziz’s legacy is amplified by his refusal to back partition and his move to send Saudi troops to fight, and ultimately die, in the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. To this day, Saudi discourse romanticizes King Abdulaziz’s heroic Palestinian stance. Saudi-owned Al Riyadh newspaper posthumously published an essay by Saeb Erekat in September 2021, only four months after an uptick in violence in Gaza. Alongside the essay was a picture of King Salman photoshopped behind the Dome of the Rock, and the piece included a plethora of statements made by King Abdulaziz, such as how “Arabs would choose death rather than surrender their lands.” Such quotes in Saudi media demonstrate how Saudi leaders have worked to cement King Abdulaziz’s legacy as a Muslim and Arab leader.
King Faisal bin Abdulaziz perhaps took the most recognized heroic pro-Palestinian stance. King Faisal is lionized globally by Saudis and Muslims alike for his position during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. His oil embargo reflected not just a pro-Palestinian stance but also his stalwart position in the face of U.S. demands and pressure. The Saudi discourse elevates the legacy of King Faisal into the upper echelon of modern Arab and Islamic leaders. As King Khalid bin Abdulaziz noted in his speech to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation just a few months after King Faisal’s assassination in 1975, “the best way to honor the memory of Faisal is for all of us to accomplish his goals to ensure the solidarity and unity of all Muslims and to strive to achieve the greatness of the Muslim Ummah. Above all, it is his greatest hope to pray, by God’s grace and will, in Al-Aqsa Mosque, the first of the two qiblas and the third-holiest shrine, with Jerusalem once again Arab.”
Instrumentalizing the Arab Peace Initiative
While Saudi Arabia and Israel have developed gradual, low-level, tacit relations, Saudi Arabia has remained committed to the Arab Peace Initiative. Saudi peace initiatives are perhaps the most prominent projection of Saudi foreign policy achievements, and, as such, they are highlighted in their respective kings’ legacies. As Saudi kings began brokering such agreements, the narrative around their legacies shifted from a framing of being heroic and confrontational to being heroic and savvy diplomatically. This, likewise, has been a feature of the discourse around King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Around the Biden visit to Jeddah, speculation in the media, predominantly Western and Israeli, regarding Saudi-Israeli normalization only intensified – despite Israeli officials acknowledging it wouldn’t happen. However, during the Jeddah summit, Mohammed bin Salman’s indirect response regarding the prospects of Saudi-Israeli normalization was that Saudi Arabia affirmed that “well-being and prosperity in the region requires accelerating a just solution to the Palestinian cause in accordance with the … Arab Peace Initiative.”
Biden reconfirmed the Saudis’ leading role in the peace process by claiming he was visiting the region to bring peace to Arab states and Israel. Meanwhile, Saudi discourse on traditional and social media tried to take control of the narrative to assert that Biden was visiting on Saudi terms, and it instrumentalized the Arab Peace Initiative as a rejection of Biden’s claim he was going to bring about peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel. This, in turn, rejuvenated the Palestinian cause in Saudi discourse.
Moreover, Saudi leaders pragmatically utilize the Arab Peace Initiative when they wish to cool ties. They simultaneously communicate to Israel the willingness to cooperate openly, yet resort to the Arab Peace Initiative, and the need for a settlement to be reached with the Palestinians, to slow down moves toward a normalization process. The Saudi projection of the Arab Peace Initiative is a communication to Israel but through the Palestinian prism, which in effect legitimizes a Saudi dialogue with Israel but from a safe distance preferred by the Saudi ruling elites.
The general Western discourse around the prospects of the normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel has overlooked the depth of the Palestinian cause in Saudi identity. At times, inter-Arab social antagonism, in tandem with a rise in Saudi nationalism calling for a Saudi-first foreign policy, may suggest the emergence of a pro-Palestinian fatigue within Saudi society and policymaking. While there might be an element of this, it is incorrect to assume that the Palestinian cause is no longer important to Saudis. In order to generate real momentum toward Saudi-Israeli normalization, the Palestinian issue must be addressed in some form.
is a Saudi researcher and fellow with the Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation project.
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