Following the announcement of the peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Saudi royal family is divided on the potential embrace of Israel.
On one side, King Salman seems to maintain the Saudi traditional pro-Palestinian posture; on the other, ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is eager to reform Saudi foreign policy. Earlier this month, the crown prince received a boost from the shrewdest diplomat in the kingdom. In a three-part explosive interview aired on the Saudi network Al Arabiya, Saudi Arabia’s pillar of diplomacy Prince Bandar bin Sultan opened up about the disappointments of the Palestinian cause and its leadership. Prince Bandar openly called their leaders a “failure” only a few weeks following the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, constituting a significant indication of the direction to which Saudi Arabia wants to push the domestic public opinion. But the affairs of the Saudi royal family are less straightforward than they may seem.
For nearly three decades, Prince Bandar (known in Washington, D.C., as “Bandar Bush”) served as the Saudi royal family’s link to U.S. government leaders—one of the most strategically important relationships in the Middle East. During his tenure as Saudi ambassador to the United States, and later as chief of Saudi intelligence, Prince Bandar shaped Saudi-U.S. relations, as well as Saudi foreign policy, when it came to the major issues of Iraq, Iran and Syria. An astute diplomat, he was the architect of the stable foundation on which the relations between the two countries are built and was able to navigate them through the turbulence of 9/11, advising both Saudi kings and American presidents. Today, Bandar’s house still forms Saudi foreign relations through his daughter, Princess Reema bint Bandar, the current Saudi ambassador to the United States; and his son, Khalid bin Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom. This is why for Prince Bandar to be invited out of his retirement and chosen to deliver the royal polemic against the Palestinian leadership marks an important moment.
In the interview, Prince Bandar gave a survey for the history of Saudi support for the Palestinians, as well as the history of the failures of the Palestinian leadership. He spoke of how the Palestinian leadership grew to become experts in making wrong bets—from siding with Adolf Hitler to supporting Saddam Hussein and Iran. He reminded the audience how Palestinians sided with Hussein as he invaded Kuwait and bombed Riyad. He counted the times which the kingdom attempted to secure peace offers from different American presidents, only to be rejected by the Palestinians. At the conclusion of the interview, Prince Bandar said his words were meant for the Saudi citizens so they may appreciate the extent to which their government went in order to support an incompetent Palestinian leadership and to know that “we are at a stage in which rather than being concerned with how to face the Israeli challenges in order to serve the Palestinian cause, we have to pay attention to our national security and interests.”
In other words, he is calling the Saudi public to reorient their attention from the Palestinians to the emerging threats and interests of the kingdom.
The powerful polemic provoked strongly mixed reactions from different Arab media outlets in accordance with their political alignment. The Palestinian Authority instructed its personnel and ambassadors all over the world to abstain from commenting on the interview. But whether the P.A. responds or not, the message is clear: Saudi Arabia is showing its public it no longer can afford to stand idle.
The last segment of the interview was dedicated to the rising threats of Turkey and Iran, and their exploitation of the Palestinian cause. Prince Bandar mocked both countries’ claims to want to liberate Jerusalem by dominating Arab countries. But for Prince Bandar, this is not a new position, nor is it representative of the position of the entire Saudi family. In a classified U.S. telegram dated back to 2007 and published by Wikileaks, it was reported that the Saudi royal family is split on the issue of Israel as Prince Bandar, then serving as Saudi National Security Secretary, headed the faction wanting to reconcile with the Jewish state in order to focus on the emerging Iranian threat. On the other side, there were the princes that see the Saudi commitment to the Palestinians as paramount. But during 2007, the Saudis were still hoping they could keep Sunni Hamas close to Saudi Arabia and prevent the Islamic Resistance from entering into their then-nascent alliance with nuclear-ambitious Iran.
Prince Bandar’s own explanation of his appearance might as well be completely accurate, an attempt to show the Saudi public that the royal family brought the Palestinians to the river so many times, but the Palestinians could not be made to drink from it. His message is enforced through the inflammatory utterances of Palestinian leaders condemning the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia because of their new position on Israel. On social media, Palestinian activists hurled curses at Arab royal families, calling them traitors. Needless to say, such insults do not sit well with Arab audiences. The message of Prince Bandar is especially important as Saudi Arabia decided to officially allow Israeli flights to go through its airspace on their way to Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Manama.
One salient message from Prince Bandar’s exposé is that he—and presumably an entire Saudi establishment of foreign relations behind him—sees no possible hope for the Palestinians under their current leadership. This damning judgment, in effect, puts the Palestinian leadership on notice: The days of Saudi unconditional support are over. However, another important implication for Prince Bandar’s interview has less to do with Israel and more to do with the divide inside the royal family itself. As Bandar came to the aid of the crown prince, it has shown that bin Salman is able to win the support of some of the most powerful royal figures and the chief Saudi foreign-relations veteran.
Meanwhile, the traditional pro-Palestinian position of his father, King Salman, remains unchanged as the official position of the Saudi foreign ministry as repeated many times by the kingdom’s foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan. That is the commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state prior to any normalization effort with Israel. If one must speculate, it seems that the Saudi-Israeli agreement is both a matter of time and a changing of the guard, as it is a cooling-off of old enmities.
Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is director of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET) Program for Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.