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Feature Article

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.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Throughout his life, King Abd al-Aziz (known as Ibn Saud in the West) was consistent in his fervent opposition to Jewish claims on Palestine. While such concerns were mostly expressed to the Americans through diplomatic backchannels, he did speak out publicly on occasion. In a Life magazine interview in 1943, for example, he stated his view that Jewish designs with regard to Palestine were an "error", and that demands for a separate state would "involve the Allies and the Muslims in a problem void of good". He emphasized that "Europe and America, as well as other lands, are larger and more fertile than Palestine", and more suitable for Jewish settlement. This, rather than the current proposal, would constitute real justice.

But however strong his beliefs, Ibn Saud had to walk a fine line. The Kingdom's new relationship with the United States, with its security guarantees and the provision of a steady oil income, had brought unprecedented changes to the fledgling nation, which had been until then a poor desert backwater. An enhanced regional position, the laissez-faire American approach to domestic affairs, and the wealth from lucrative oil deals gave Ibn Saud a free hand to consolidate his rule and squash any dissent, at a time when royal leadership still faced challenges from within. Any assessment of his legacy in response to the question of a Jewish homeland must also take into account Ibn Saud's practical need for continuing American diplomatic and financial support. Indeed, his repeated public condemnation of the United States for their "betrayal" of the promise of a Palestinian state was tempered by a notable lack of significant, long-lasting measures. While the king's support for the Arab position was anything but superficial, he did pointedly refuse to contemplate the possible use of oil to pressure the Americans into a more even-handed Palestinian policy, famously stating that "oil should not be mixed with politics".

Still, when the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine, calling for separate Arab and Jewish states operating under economic union, was eventually passed in November, 1947, in spite of intense Arab pressure, he was furious. The king wired President Truman, warning prophetically that "the dispute between Arab and Jew will be violent, long-lasting, and will lead to the shedding of much blood".

When Crown Prince Saud became king in 1953, his focus was more on acquiring a collection of palaces and wives than on taking an interest in foreign policy, and the Kingdom began to feel adrift politically and religiously. The leadership of regional Arab and Islamic identities, to which his father had lain claim, was slipping away: Egypt's Nasser had stepped into the void, and Saud was urged by his advisors to respond to what was fast becoming an existential challenge. The king needed to reclaim the Saudi identity, threatened by Nasser's appeal to pan-Arabism, and end the country's regional isolation. But first, he needed to engage once more with the Americans.

Saud had first become emotionally invested in the Palestinian issue while crown prince, when as part of an official tour in 1935 which took him to Egypt, Transjordan and Palestine, he visited al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The trip had been organized as part of his father's directive to inspect the area and provide aid to the needy, and the experience affected him deeply. After praying at al-Aqsa, he is said to have pledged, "by Allah, we will never bid Palestine farewell as long as blood is throbbing in our veins."

In 1947, Saud was invited to Washington for talks on the Palestinian issue by President Truman, and the two had discussions at the White House. After the meeting, he told the press that Truman had promised to be impartial and not to show bias to the Jews, and had been reminded of Roosevelt's pledge regarding Palestine. In reality, it was a failure; Truman never understood the gravity of the issue.

Related articles: 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 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.

The Qur'anic Vision of Muhammad bin Salman: Conviction or Politics?

Behind the spate of reforms introduced by the crown prince is an influential group of Islamic scholars holding that only the Qur'an is the source of divine law, while much of the literature of 'hadith' is suspect. So far, the younger generation has embraced his reforms, but the change in outlook represents a profound rift with the Kingdom's past.