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Feature Article

War, Peace and Politics - The Royal Family and Palestine (Part III)

While each Saudi monarch has had a unique role in Arab-Israeli relations, King Faysal can be singled out for the legacy of his confrontation with the West over the issue of Palestine. His reign, coinciding with a series of upheavals in the region, spanned the Saudi transition from a defensive stand against pan-Arab nationalism to prioritizing support for Palestinian statehood as the main foreign policy objective of the Kingdom.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Even before the outbreak of violence in Gaza in October, which derailed the latest diplomatic efforts to normalize relations with Israel, the Kingdom's long history of involvement with the Palestinian cause complicated ambitions to sell the Abraham Accords to a domestic audience. Since the royal family's claim to political legitimacy is tied to their religious credentials and, specifically, their custodianship of the two Holy Places (Makkah and Madinah), their service is not just to Saudi society - they are both leaders and servants of the global Muslim "ummah" (nation). Through the Kingdom's identification as a Muslim state, this universal aspect of the country's Islamic identity means that the Palestinian cause, and the status of Jerusalem, in particular, is an important component of national identity.

Faysal, taking the throne after his brother Saud, was determined, as a pious Muslim, to protect the sacred sites of Islam. Infuriated by the loss of East Jerusalem by Jordan in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Faysal tried to impress upon the Americans that their continued support for Israel would have negative consequences; later, the 1973 regional conflict, and US involvement, led to Faysal's embargo on the export of oil to the West. The "Oil Shock", and its cataclysmic effects, elevated the Kingdom from a poor backwater to the leading state in the region and a global economic player. From then on, the Palestinian cause became the main priority of Saudi diplomacy.

The second son of the founder Ibn Saud, Faysal had religious credentials second to none. His mother was a member of the Al al-Shaykh family, a direct descendant of the imam Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab, and the future king grew up in his maternal grandfather's house, where he had a religious upbringing. By the age of 12 he had traveled extensively across Europe, including trips to Britain and France where he acted as his father's unofficial envoy at the end of World War I. In March 1939 Faysal attended the London Conference (St. James Palace Conference) which attempted to negotiate an agreement between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, though it ended in failure, unable to resolve the matter of Jewish immigration. During the war, he met with President Roosevelt in Washington.

In 1947, Faysal was in New York for the UN vote on the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The Kingdom was strongly opposed to the proposal, but Faysal was privately assured by General Marshall, one of President Truman's top aides, that the US would vote against it. In the end, however, the Americans supported the partition, and Faysal, outraged, took it as a personal affront. He called on his father, the king, to break relations with the US, but he was overruled.

After succeeding his brother Saud, who was deposed in 1964, Faysal was on cordial, if somewhat frosty, terms with Washington. He continued to press the Americans on the issue of Palestinian statehood, assuring them that while "all of the Arab states desire the establishment of permanent peace throughout the region based upon right and justice", he was "likewise certain that there will be no final solution so long as Israel does not withdraw from all of the occupied territories, and so long as the Palestinian people are not given the right to return to their land and (enjoy) the right of self determination." In a letter to President Ford, he reiterated that it "remains our firm policy that no settlement is possible without taking into account the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people."

Still, correspondence from the time reveals that the Americans looked at the relationship mainly through the prism of regional Arab fundamentalism: Faysal aimed to prevent "at any cost" the radicalization of the Arab world, and favored a "settlement with Israel as the surest means of immunizing the Arabian peninsula against radical contamination", according to diplomatic cables.

Related articles: War, Peace and Politics - The Royal Family and Palestine (Part II)
War, Peace and Politics - The Royal Family and Palestine (Part I)
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Past Feature Articles
War, Peace and Politics - The Royal Family and Palestine (Part II)

After the death of the first Saudi king, Abd al-Aziz, his son Saud took the throne. Despite taking the Palestinian issue to heart, the new monarch was unable to ever fully comprehend the depth of American support for Israel. In the end, Saud's weak leadership, disinterest, and lack of regional clout frustrated his scattered and unfocused efforts at resolution.

War, Peace and Politics - The Royal Family and Palestine (Part I)

The October 7 surprise attack on Israel by Hamas, and the resulting war this precipitated, has exposed the shortcomings of the Abraham Accords. Further, the lack of available arrows in the Saudi diplomatic quiver highlights the failure of decades-long efforts to reach a meaningful consensus on the issue of Palestinian statehood. Yet, starting with the reign of the Kingdom's founder, Abd al-Aziz, solidarity with Palestine and opposition to the Zionist project has been a core tenet of the royal identity.

Stage Management: Spectacles, Sidelining And Dissent

Even as the Kingdom takes steps towards cultural liberalization, an intense crackdown on activists and political dissidents continues unabated. Can the attempt to change its international image be reconciled with the extraordinary sentences being handed down by the courts?

A Royal in Morocco: The Strange Case of Princess Fahda al-Hithlayn

News of the lavish Moroccan holiday of Fahda, the wife of Saudi King Salman, seems to fly in the face of widespread reports of her supposed captivity on the orders of her own son, the crown prince. Was the sensational allegation by foreign intelligence agencies flawed, or has a family reconciliation taken place?

Reform, Crackdown and Succession: Continuity or Disruption?

As the crown prince and de facto regent Muhammad bin Salman presses ahead with an ambitious program of social and structural reforms, it is often assumed that he is pursuing a radically vision than that preferred by his more conservative father, King Salman. A closer look, however, reveals that the two are in fact closely aligned.