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Feature Article

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.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Palestine remains an important symbolic issue in Saudi Arabia, but one with even more significance for the royal family, whose domestic political legitimacy is founded, in part, on the claim that the ruling monarch is uniquely qualified to act as the steward of Islam's holy places - that includes Jerusalem, the heart of what would be an eventual Palestinian state. Yet, uncritical American support for Israel, through successive administrations dating back to President Truman, has left the Saudi public angry and frustrated, further adding to the pressure on the royals to take an active lead. Within the family, too, there are sharp disagreements over policy, aggravated by a generational divide. The king, Salman, holds steadfast to the idea of a two-state solution, much like his predecessors, while the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), favors a more pragmatic approach: rapprochement with Israel, and a shift in focus to containment of regional rival Iran, even if that means coming to terms with the de facto situation in the disputed territories; the consequence, however, is the virtual abandonment of any pretense to guardianship of the Islamic "ummah", or community, and perhaps even the pursuit of a roadmap for Palestinian statehood itself.

Still, the widespread assumption that the Kingdom would stand unequivocally with the Palestinian cause was shaken by the very public outburst of senior royal Turki al-Faysal, a former intelligence chief, ambassador and unofficial family mouthpiece, who resoundingly blasted the group Hamas for the October 7 attacks on Israel. In unvarnished remarks criticizing both Hamas and Israel for the hostilities, he said that "there are no heroes in this conflict, only victims". Any observer thinking the royals would reflexively condemn Israel aggression (the Kingdom has gone so far as to host Hamas leadership in the past), was quickly disabused of the notion. Speaking at Rice University in Houston on October 17, Turki slammed Hamas for "gifting the high moral ground to an Israeli government that is universally shunned", though he did concede that the attack was a "provocation" of the ill-treatment of "Palestinian people for three-quarters of a century". But then, he cut to the chase - Hamas had "sabotaged" the attempts by Saudi to reach a peaceful resolution with Israel.

Though he no longer serves in an official capacity, Turki's remarks have the presumed backing of Saudi leadership; within this context, his comments can be taken as an articulation of Riyadh's position on the ongoing war. The royals have been encouraged by the success of the so-called Abraham Accords, which have seen normalization deals involving Bahrain, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates. When Turki slammed Hamas for sabotaging any Saudi Arabia-Israel peaceful resolution to the Palestine issue, it seemed to confirm what many experts believe, that the attack (likely encouraged by Iran, potentially a real loser under the Accords) was intended to interrupt and prevent such an agreement. Indeed, it was reported on October 14 that normalization talks between Saudi and Israel had been 'frozen', and would remain so for the duration of the Gaza conflict.

The foundational basis for the Abraham Accords has been criticized, however, for simply sidelining the difficult question of Palestinian statehood, rather than finding an actual solution. The working assumption seems to have been that the plight of the Palestinians could be safely ignored and forgotten about, both by the region's Arab governments and the wider international community. And if the long-standing preconditions are dropped, the Accords would effectively supplant the Saudi's own Arab Peace Initiative, to say nothing of its professed commitment to ideals of Islamic brotherhood. Given the royal family's decades-long advocacy for a viable Palestinian state, their sudden enthusiasm for the Abraham Accords was a rather surprising turn of events.

Related articles: Succession In A Time Of Uncertainty: Revisiting The Past? (Part I)
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Page 2: personal or political?
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Past Feature Articles
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.

Spectacle and Ceremony: Honoring Tradition or Managing Expectation?

Bursting with pomp and circumstance, the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II, and later the coronation of her heir, King Charles III, were monumental productions involving the full apparatus of state, broadcast live to the world (with the taxpayer footing the bill). In contrast, the funeral of Saudi kings and the accession of a new monarch are swift and simple affairs, grounded in the Kingdom's austere brand of Islam and the royal family's tribal roots.