By Haisam Hassanein
Aug 05, 2018
That there is a wide gap between the position of Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdel Aziz, endorsing full rights for Palestinians, as opposed to his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS) should come as no surprise to Western policymakers.
There have been clear recent indications of this difference. The Crown Prince has recognized Israel's right to exist and was reported as saying the Palestinians should either "shut up" or make peace with Israel.
Pushing back, King Salman reiterated "the kingdom's steadfast position towards the Palestinian issue and the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people to an independent state," and lately declared that U.S. President Trump's peace plan had to include East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital.
The Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are experiencing tremendous socio-political change that has accelerated a generation gap that has been widening for some time. One particular divergence in the thinking between the younger generations and the older ones is what approach to adopt towards the Palestinians.
Older Saudis grew up in the 1950s and 1960s during the heyday of Arab nationalism, and its embrace of the Palestinian cause as the main driver for all events in the region. While the Saudis never fully embraced Arab nationalism, they adopted the Palestinian cause to preempt attacks based on a lack of solidarity from their arch-opponents, Arab nationalists.
Thus, the older generation in the Gulf that Saudi King Salman embodies believes deeply in the Palestinian cause, whatever political complexion the Palestinian leadership exhibits.
However, the younger generations, characterized and led by MBS and his close ally Mohamed bin Zayed (MBZ), the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and primary driver of the UAE's foreign policy, display far less political equanimity; they prioritize realpolitik over political nostalgia. They long ago stopped overlooking what they consider problematic political biases within the West Bank, Gaza, and even among the Palestinian diaspora around the world.
They realize that Palestinians in general are not enthusiastic toward or supporters of Saudi and Emirati interests in checking the power of political Shia Islamists, most notably Iran, and Sunni political Islamists, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood.
There has long been a school of thought in the Gulf that called for a separation between Gulf states' national interests and the Palestinian cause, but this was still an unpopular position among the general public. But over the last few years, this position has been increasingly adopted, first by younger elites and then more broadly, not least as Saudi Arabia itself has come under missile attack from Iranian proxies.
The younger Gulf generation has seen for itself the attacks launched by Palestinians against their countries on social media, including the burning of MBS’ pictures in Gaza. During the soccer World Cup, many Palestinians rushed to root for Iran against its Western opponents, while supporting Western countries against the Saudi national team. This immediate, visceral experience differentiates the younger Gulf generation from its elders.
The older generation of Saudi and Emirati policymakers have known these Palestinian political tendencies for years, but they overlooked them in the hope that once a Palestinian state is established, local actors sympathetic to Iran would have an incentive to moderate their positions, providing the Saudis offer generous financial contributions. The general prognosis was that the emergence of other moderate groups would counterbalance the radicals.
However, the younger Gulf generations are now unconvinced that moderation would follow the establishment of a Palestinian state. They believe it is more likely that a fully independent Palestinian state would itself be hostage to radical forces, and would in fact become an extreme source of instability in the region.
MBS and MBZ believe that establishing a Palestinian state would mean handing Iran and Sunni political Islamists another Arab capital to control and influence. Iranian influence among Palestinian groups has solidified over the years, and the two crown princes' assessment is that it is irreversible.
They are fortified in that position by the example of Gaza. Sunni political Islamists have run the Strip disastrously for over a decade, opening the door for Qatar and Turkey to project influence there. That this is also leading to conflict in Egypt further reinforces the belief that an independent Palestine would be a source of instability.
MBS and MBZ are certainly not foolish enough to lobby for and fund the establishment of a state that would most certainly be an Iranian client state, analogous to a Soviet-era satellite state.
Despite this, many Western policymakers still fantasize about the idea that the Gulf countries could provide money to birth and develop a Palestinian state – indeed, this is reportedly one of the founding principles of the Trump-Kushner peace plan.
That is never going to happen. Those who actively dictate policy in the Gulf are convinced that every dollar the Saudis give to the Palestinians means handing it to Iran. The Saudis and Emirates are likely to promise to provide financial assistance in public, but U.S. policymakers should not believe that they would ever deliver when push really comes to shove.
For those in Washington dreaming of another peace process breakthrough, another Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn, this time midwifed by the Gulf – there is little chance this will become anything more than a mirage.
The Middle East has moved on from the 1990s, and just like the Saudis and Emirates have woken up to the facts of the Palestinians' political biases, policymakers in D.C. must keep up and evolve their thinking to better serve American interests, and not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Haisam Hassanein is a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University and a former Glazer Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.