OpinionMiddle East

Arab leaders’ secret condemnation of the Palestinians

“We would never criticize our brothers in public,” they always told me.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in November 2018. Source: Spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency/Facebook.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in November 2018. Source: Spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency/Facebook.
Richard Pollock
Richard Pollock
Richard Pollock is a retired national reporter. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Egypt’s continued closure of the only exit point for Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip is a wakeup call for the world regarding the attitudes of moderate Arab leaders towards Hamas and radical Palestinian Islamic jihadists.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi personally knows Hamas. The Palestinian group is a long-standing member of the radical Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have labeled a terrorist organization.

The Brotherhood briefly ruled Egypt after coming to power following the Arab Spring in 2011. El-Sisi then launched a coup against it when the Brotherhood tried to impose a strict and unpopular Islamic constitution on the Egyptian populace.

It should not be a surprise, then, that Egyptians don’t want hundreds of thousands of radical Palestinians pouring into their country. They’ve encountered many armed conflicts with Islamic jihadists coming from the Gaza Strip.

As the BBC reported on Oct. 17, Egypt’s restrictions on Palestinian movement “have mostly been about security concerns in North Sinai where the Egyptian authorities have long been involved in a deadly conflict with jihadists.”

Cairo’s anti-Palestinian policy is only the latest example of the disdain with which moderate Arab leaders view the Palestinians and their cause.

It’s significant that the savage Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel came as Israel and Saudi Arabia were moving towards full diplomatic relations. Various Israeli cabinet members visited Riyadh just weeks before the assault. Behind the scenes and in very private moments, many Gulf State leaders express dislike for the Palestinian people and their leaders.

Indeed, on Oct. 19, Emir Turki al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence, condemned Hamas for “its attempt to prevent normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.”

I personally encountered these same anti-Palestinian views back in 1991 when ABC’s “Good Morning America” sent me to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield, the U.S.-led military coalition buildup that followed Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

At the time, I was “GMA”’s Washington-based White House and Pentagon producer. My assignment was to prepare five days of live coverage from five U.S. military bases for a Thanksgiving special.

As American forces surged into Saudi Arabia, I stayed in Dharan, a city overlooking the Persian Gulf, for about four months.

Saudis were curious about the flood of Americans into their country and, until the Gulf War, no American television network had been permitted to enter and broadcast from the country. My job was to negotiate with various Saudi officials in order to receive permission to broadcast our live “GMA” show from Saudi Arabia via satellite back to our studios in New York. At that time, such an arrangement was unheard of.

I also traveled to Bahrain to meet with members of the royal family in order to arrange a live “GMA” broadcast from the deck of the USS Blueridge, the command-and-control ship for the Persian Gulf.

Over the course of these negotiations, I had many dinners and meetings with officials and citizens of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In their private, off the record statements, I was surprised by their utter disdain for the Palestinians. Saudis repeatedly told me that, in the Arab world, there is a pecking order. The Palestinians, they said, sat at the lowest possible rung of respectability.

Saudi officials carefully explained that they regarded the Palestinians as “shiftless, lazy and untrustworthy” and “the lowest of the low.” All said they would never do business with them.

Their candor was especially surprising because they knew I was Jewish.

Even back then in 1991, the Saudis outlined for me their vision of what would later materialize as the historic Abraham Accords, in which Arab nations began to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The Saudis enthusiastically spoke of a Middle East alliance with Israel’s technological prowess and Gulf petrodollars. They privately imagined such an alliance could transform the Middle East into a real superpower.

Of course, in 1991, Saudi disdain for the Palestinians was somewhat understandable. Immediately after the invasion of Kuwait, the PLO and ordinary Palestinians flooded the streets to joyfully celebrate. I know this privately sickened most Gulf leaders.

The Gulf states’ continuing aloofness towards the Palestinians can be seen in their ongoing and steadfast refusal to invest their huge sovereign wealth funds in Palestinian-controlled territories According to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, these funds collectively manage around $3.7 trillion.

A 2023 U.S. State Department report on the investment climate in Palestinian-controlled territories showed that “Ninety-nine percent of firms in the West Bank and Gaza are family-owned small and medium-sized enterprises employing fewer than 20 people.” It also found that these territories compared unfavorably to other middle-income countries, even as their neighbors boasted large sovereign wealth funds.

“Private investment levels, averaging about 15-16 percent of GDP in recent years, have been low compared with rates of over 25 percent in middle-income economies,” the State Department reported.

Instead of the Palestinian territories, Gulf wealth funds eagerly invest in Western enterprises like Space X, Uber, Live Nation and many others.

Yes, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have contributed aid to the Palestinians. But interestingly, 77% of these donor funds come from non-Arab sources, according to the non-profit group the Arab Center. The E.U. and the U.S. alone contribute 33% of the funds, double the contributions made by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The one exception is Qatar, which has been a major financial supporter of Hamas and other radical Islamic causes. Qatar is also close to Iran, the chief sponsor of both Hamas and Hezbollah.

There is only one reason the Gulf states do not speak publicly about their views of the Palestinians. As Ronni Shaked of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Truman Institute recently told the Jewish News Syndicate, many moderate Arab leaders are still afraid of their citizenry.

According to Shaked, “All the Arab countries are afraid of their public opinions.” Thus, there is a huge gap between Arab leaders, whose interests are aligned with those of Israel, and their publics, whose actions are guided by emotion and concepts such as “Arab unity.”

However, Shaked was hopeful that moderate Arab states would eventually act favorably towards Israel.

“In the end, the Saudis’ own interests will supersede those of the Arab world, even if it takes time to rehabilitate the normalization deal,” he said.

During my face-to-face discussions with Gulf leaders over the years, I pointedly asked them why they never publicly expressed their distaste for radical Palestinians. They always replied, “We would never criticize our brothers in public.” Nonetheless, their silent condemnation has been consistent for decades and will likely remain so.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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