Amid mounting tensions between the Palestinians and Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian Authority is considering dispatching a senior delegation to Riyadh for urgent talks with members of the Saudi royal family and government officials on ways to avert a further deterioration.
There seems to be one problem, however: the Saudis are not responding to Palestinian requests to arrange such a visit.
“We’re in the midst of a real crisis with Saudi Arabia,” a PA official told The Jerusalem Post. “They seem to be very angry with us.”
Palestinian-Saudi relations hit a snag about two years ago, mainly over the kingdom’s close ties with US President Donald Trump’s administration and Riyadh’s apparent rapprochement with Israel.
At several demonstrations in the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinians have burned posters of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdel Aziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, alongside those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump.
“We are seriously studying the possibility of sending a delegation of senior Palestinian officials to Riyadh to prevent the crisis from escalating,” the official told the Post. “We see Saudi Arabia as a key player in the region, and its support for the Palestinian people and cause has long been highly appreciated.”
The crisis between the two sides reached its peak last June, when Saudi Arabia was among the first Arab states to confirm its participation in the US-led economic workshop in Manama, Bahrain, notwithstanding Palestinian calls for boycotting the conference.
At the conference, the Trump administration unveiled the economic portion of its Middle East peace plan.
Palestinian officials and political activists accused the Arab countries that participated in the Bahrain workshop of “stabbing” the Palestinians in the back.
A public opinion poll published by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Research Survey immediately after the workshop found that 80% of Palestinians view the participation of Arab countries as an “abandonment” of the Palestinian cause.
In addition, Palestinians have accused Saudi Arabia and some Arab states of promoting normalization with Israel – in violation of Arab League resolutions and initiatives, including the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which states that the Arabs would establish normal relations with Israel only after a full withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.
Reports about tensions between Ramallah and Riyadh surfaced in late 2017, when Palestinian officials were quoted as saying that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, colloquially known as MbS, had threatened Abbas during a meeting that he will be removed from power if he does not cooperate with the kingdom.
The reports, which have not been denied by the Palestinians and Saudis, also claimed that the crown prince has been trying to pressure Abbas to work with the Trump administration and accept its upcoming peace plan.
Another Palestinian official later complained that the 33-year-old crown prince was “very rude” to Abbas during their meeting.
“We left under the impression that we were sitting with an uneducated thug who was trying to dictate things to us,” the official told the Post.
Earlier this year, a Hezbollah-affiliated newspaper in Lebanon, Al-Akhbar, claimed that the Crown Prince has offered Abbas $10 billion to accept Trump’s peace deal. Abbas reportedly rejected the offer, saying it would “mean the end of my political life.”
Despite the tensions, PA and Saudi officials and spokesmen have been careful not to wash their dirty linen public.
That, however, has not stopped ordinary Palestinians and Saudis from engaging in mutual smear campaigns on social media.
The assault on July 23 by Palestinians on a Saudi blogger during a visit to Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount has further aggravated tensions between Ramallah and Riyadh. The blogger, Mohammed Saud, was part of an Arab journalist delegation invited by the Foreign Ministry to visit Israel.
The PA leadership has refrained from commenting on the incident - a move that has been interpreted by some Palestinians and Saudis as tacit approval of the assault on the Saudi visitor.
Palestinians accused the blogger and his colleagues of engaging in normalization with Israel and violating Arab and Palestinian resolutions calling for boycotting Israel.
Videos of Palestinians spitting in the face of the blogger and throwing plastic chairs and hurling insults at him were deemed so humiliating that even Saudis opposed to normalization with Israel have come out against the Palestinians.
Many Saudi social media users accused the Palestinians of being “ungrateful” toward the kingdom and other Arab countries after decades of financial aid to the PLO (before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords).
They further accused the Palestinians of hypocrisy and claimed that Palestinian leaders had “sold out” to Israel many years ago. Others accused the Palestinians, particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad, of aligning themselves with Iran and “conspiring” against Saudi Arabia and the Arab world.
“They [Palestinians] say that Jerusalem is for all Muslims, but they were the first to sell Jerusalem [to Israel],” commented prominent Saudi women’s rights activist and blogger Souad al-Shammary. “Hamas has betrayed Saudi Arabia and the Arabs, and is supporting Iran, the source of terrorism.”
In the past few months, several Saudis have posted videos and comments on social media denouncing in the strongest possible terms the Palestinians. Some have called the Palestinians “beggars” and “honorless” people.
Rawafed bin Saeed, a Saudi national who described himself as a poet, author and journalist, posted a video on social media sites in which he launched a scathing attack on the Palestinians. “The Palestinians are not Arabs,” he said. “They are cowards and unscrupulous. They are remnants of other peoples. The Jews are closer to us. The Jews are more honorable than you.”
Expressing outrage over the burning of photos of the Saudi monarch and crown prince by Palestinians, the Saudi man pointed out that the PA and Hamas have been blaming each other for the anti-Saudi protests. “Why don’t the Palestinians demonstrate against Iran, Hezbollah and Turkey?” he asked. “They are the ones trampling the Palestinians. Instead, the Palestinians are demonstrating against Saudi Arabia, which has been helping them. We give the Palestinians, and in return they curse us.”
The Palestinians, for their part, have also resorted to social media to express their disgust with the pro-US policies of Saudi Arabia and its purported rapprochement with Israel.
Scores of videos and comments ridiculing the Saudis and denouncing the royal family as “traitors” and “puppets” in the hands of the US and Israel have filled Facebook and Twitter in the past few months.
One of the popular anti-Saudi posts: “When the barefoot members of the House of Saud were grazing their camels, Hebron was manufacturing shoes.”
Shoemaking has long been a thriving industry in Hebron.
Another video that has gone viral on social media features a woman, believed to be Palestinian, stomping a Saudi flag. Adding insult to injury, the flag is inscribed with the Islamic creed, or shahada: “There is no god but Allah; Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”
More recently, another video featuring Palestinian singers mocking the Saudi royal family drew strong condemnations from many Saudis. “Damn Saudi Arabia, and may God burn the brain of [Crown Prince] bin Salman,” the Palestinians sang. They also denounced Bahrain as an “agent” of the US.
In response, Saudi and other Gulf state nationals launched an unprecedented anti-Palestinian campaign titled, “They sold their cause and cursed us” – reference to decades-old allegations by Arabs that the Palestinians were the first to give up their rights and make concessions to Israel.
In an attempt to ease tensions between the two sides and distance itself from the smear campaign against Saudi Arabia, the PA leadership in Ramallah issued a statement rejecting “dissonant voices” targeting the Saudis and other Arab countries. The statement condemned the attacks on the Arab countries and expressed “appreciation” for the positions of the Saudi king and his crown prince in supporting the Palestinians.
The PA’s effort to end the crisis with Saudi Arabia, however, has thus far been unsuccessful. Last weekend, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV network interviewed Fadi Elsalameen, a US-based Palestinian political activist and longtime critic of Abbas and the Palestinian leadership.
The decision to interview a Palestinian and provide him with a platform to talk about corruption and poor government in the Palestinian Authority was most likely the result of instructions from senior members of the Saudi royal family.
On Saturday, Abbas’s ruling Fatah faction condemned the pan-Arab Saudi news channel for interviewing a “dubious character” and allowing him to attack the Palestinian leadership. In a statement, Fatah accused the network of “casting doubt on the position of the Palestinian leadership, which is confronting the conspiracy of the Deal of the Century,” and demanded that Al-Arabiya publicly apologize for its “immoral error.”
Palestinians said on Saturday that the Fatah attack on Al-Arabiya was mostly directed against the Saudi royal family.
“Obviously, we are headed toward a major crisis between Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians,” said a retired Palestinian academic who worked for more than three decades in various Gulf states.
“There’s a feeling that things are quickly spiraling out of control. If we don’t fix the situation, the Palestinians in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries will pay a heavy price. We must not forget what happened after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait,” he said, referring to the 200,000 Palestinians who fled or were driven out of Kuwait in 1990-1991. “We paid a heavy price after Kuwait was liberated because of our support for the invasion. Let’s make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.”