While the king sees his realm as the guardian of the whole Arab world, his son backs a Saudi-first approach. This debate will be key in relations with Israel, Iran and the new U.S. administration
Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi was shocked by Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal’s tirade against Israel during a virtual security conference in Bahrain. After all, just a few days earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a meeting whose existence Prince Turki vehemently denied).
Granted, Netanyahu didn’t return with a new normalization deal, but the very fact that the meeting took place could be viewed as a step toward it.
Now along comes the man who spent years as Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States and declares that Israel keeps the Palestinians in concentration camps, that it’s a colonialist country and that normalization with it is conditional on establishing a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.
But there was nothing surprising about his remarks. Anyone who has followed Turki’s statements over the past year could have figured out that he hadn’t changed his views.
He has presented a consistent position in media interviews, including one with Barak Ravid of Israel’s Channel 13 a year ago, and in public appearances: The Arab Peace Initiative, which Turki notes the Arab League adopted at its 2002 summit, is the basis for any diplomatic solution.
Nor is he alone in this view. It’s also Saudi King Salman’s stated policy, and was reaffirmed in a statement by the Saudi government this week.
According to the statement, the Palestinian problem is the fundamental Arab problem and heads the list of problems for which the kingdom supports a solution. King Salman, who chaired the meeting at which the statement was released, told the participants that “it’s important to stop the occupation from building settlements, both because this violates international law and because the Arab initiative is the basis for a solution.”
Some people argue that there’s an ideological or strategic disagreement between Prince Turki and the crown prince, or more accurately between King Salman and his son. The conservative, pan-Arab view, to which Salman subscribes, still sees Saudi Arabia as the custodian not only of Islam’s holy sites but of Arab identity in general, and the focus of this identity is the Palestinian problem. The individualist view, represented by the crown prince, takes a “Saudi-first” approach in which solving regional conflicts shouldn’t take priority over the kingdom’s welfare.
This week, an opposition website even reported, citing “Saudi sources,” that Prince Mohammed had put Turki under house arrest and stripped him of the funding he’s entitled to as a prince. The site added that following Turki’s remarks, Netanyahu sent a protest letter to the crown prince and demanded an explanation, prompting Mohammed to apologize and say it was a misunderstanding.
So far, there has been no confirmation of this report, and the site has a reputation for making up news. Three months ago, for instance, it reported that King Salman had died.
Saudi policy debate
This doesn’t mean there are no disagreements in the Saudi court or that the report of Turki’s arrest may not prove true; such things have happened before in Saudi Arabia. A good example is the former crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, who indeed is under house arrest and hasn’t been seen in public since March.
Mohammed bin Salman’s associates say Mohammed bin Nayef is suspected of plotting a palace coup, and social media has been filled with claims that he even tried to have the current crown prince assassinated. The Guardian recently reported that around 40 percent of these social media reports come from bots. It’s not certain who’s operating them, but it’s not hard to guess.
The thesis that normalization talks with the current crown prince are progressing has been reinforced by U.S. President Donald Trump and his son-in-law adviser Jared Kushner, both of whom have said that following the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the Saudis will be next to normalize relations with Israel. But given that King Salman adamantly opposes the idea, proponents of this thesis have some questions to answer.
For instance, if Crown Prince Mohammed is the kingdom’s ultimate policymaker, why did he subordinate his own views to those of his father on the normalization issue? Did Prince Turki’s remarks surprise Mohammed, or were they coordinated with him?
And is there really a disagreement over normalization with Israel? Because if there is, shouldn’t Mohammed have also fired Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, who said three weeks ago that Saudi Arabia would be willing to normalize relations with Israel after the latter signs a peace agreement with the Palestinians that creates an independent Palestinian state?
The minister, who was born in Germany 46 years ago and has served as both the Saudi ambassador to Germany and an attache at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, was appointed just a year ago with Mohammed’s blessing. Ever since, he has been viewed as Mohammed’s spokesman in addition to his job as foreign minister.
King Salman and his son presumably at least agree on the goal of normalization: It must produce suitable rewards for the kingdom. If there’s any disagreement between them, it’s on how they interpret these rewards.
Riyadh’s goal is to repair its relationship with Washington, which has been seriously damaged by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a war in Yemen that has dragged on for five years with no solution in sight. Prince Mohammed is personally responsible for both issues. To this must be added his serious violations of human rights, including the continued detention of political rivals and 13 women. All this accounts for the West’s anger at Saudi Arabia.
Normalization with Israel was ostensibly supposed to be the dowry Mohammed would give the United States to rehabilitate his kingdom’s standing. But Trump apparently said he couldn’t supply the goods from Congress, which is the main source of the fury at the crown prince.
The latest theory – that Riyadh will want to give normalization as a housewarming gift to President-elect Joe Biden – also isn’t a sure thing. Biden is arriving with a brimful of anger and even loathing for Prince Mohammed. He wants to bring America back into the Iranian nuclear deal, end the war in Yemen and scrutinize Mohammed’s human rights policy. He has no obligation to Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, and any normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia will have to be preceded by a normalization between Israel’s prime minister and America’s new president.
Mohammed – and many other Saudis – is waiting for the day when he becomes king and can run the country as he pleases. He continues to purge his rivals and opponents, including senior army officers like Fahd bin Turki, who is both a general and a prince. Fahd commanded the Arab coalition forces in Yemen but was pensioned off in August amid corruption allegations.
Saudi analysts in the West have speculated that Mohammed might even carry out a soft coup and oust his father, just as he didn’t hesitate to put his mother under house arrest. But such a coup could severely undermine his legitimacy not just in Saudi Arabia but also in the West and especially in the United States, which is already threatening to stop selling arms to Riyadh. With these countries, he’ll have to dance a tango that he isn’t leading.
Mohammed can only look enviously at his colleague, UAE ruler Mohammed bin Zayed, who read the American political map correctly and in a timely manner. The latter’s decision to withdraw the UAE from the fighting in Yemen gave him lots of brownie points in Congress and saddled his Saudi counterpart with full responsibility for the failed war.
Normalization with Israel alone might not have been enough to get Trump to approve sales of F-35 fighter planes to the Emirates. Had the UAE not left the bloody battlefield in Yemen, Congress might have very strongly opposed the use of American planes to kill civilians there, just as it has with Saudi Arabia.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed managed to normalize relations with Israel without a lot of backlash either in his own country or in the broader Arab world partly because the UAE isn’t considered an Islamic icon, but also because he isn’t embroiled in a domestic war against rivals who threaten his standing. Thus while Saudi Arabia has been wavering between its internal pressures and the benefits of normalization, Mohammed bin Zayed has stabilized his position as a groundbreaking regional leader and begun to overshadow his Saudi counterpart.
According to American media reports, he was smart enough to consult with Biden before signing the agreement with Israel. But his ties with the president-elect might be tested by growing tensions over Biden’s policy on the Iranian nuclear deal.
One key question is what will become of the anti-Iranian coalition that Saudi Arabia forged and in which Israel has a place of honor. Will the UAE, which has some 3,000 Iranian companies operating in its territory and has signed an agreement with Iran to secure shipping in the Gulf, support America’s return to the nuclear deal, or will it stand with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain against it?
If the UAE chooses the first option, Israel, which is spearheading the war against the nuclear agreement, could find itself in a diplomatic war with its new ally. And it would be with Saudi Arabia in facing off against the U.S. administration.