Saudi bluster on war and peace

Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal recently declared in the Washington Post that he would “hate to be around” when the Israelis “face their comeuppance” for allegedly saying no to peace. He also threatened “disastrous consequences for US-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes UN recognition of a Palestinian state.” The prince seemed to hint darkly at a “clash of civilizations” when he predicted that the “ideological distance between the Muslim world and the West in general would widen.” Yet another grim prediction offered by the Saudi royal was that while American leaders might still regard Israel as an “indispensable ally,” they “will soon learn that there are other players in the region — not least the Arab street — who are as, if not more, ‘indispensable’.”
Considering this rhetoric, it’s easy to see why Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen felt that Turki’s op-ed “read like a declaration of war.”
However, analyst Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued that Turki’s threats shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Satloff dismissed Turki’s outburst as “false bravado” that should be seen as “a sad and ultimately pathetic attempt to scare Washington into choosing between its partnerships with Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
Interestingly, this is not the first time the Saudi prince moonlights as an op-ed writer in order to address the Obama administration with some “tough talk.” If President Obama happened to read the Financial Times on his second day in office, back in January 2009, he would have come across an article where Prince Turki declared in no uncertain terms that “Saudi patience is running out.” (A reprint of the article in Gulf News is easier to access.)
Against the backdrop of Israel’s campaign against Hamas in Gaza, Turki urged the new US president to take into account that there was a “worldwide revolt against Israel.” According to the Saudi prince, Israel’s campaign had also united the Muslim world, “both Shia and Sunni;” as proof, Turki touted a letter from Iran’s president to the Saudi king that called on Saudi Arabia “to lead a jihad against Israel.” The prince noted that such a “jihad” would “create unprecedented chaos and bloodshed in the region,” adding darkly: “So far, the kingdom has resisted these calls, but every day this restraint becomes more difficult to maintain.”
It is noteworthy that in both articles, Turki’s threats are combined with explicit references to the so-called “Arab Peace Initiative” that was first suggested by Saudi King Abdullah in 2002 – arguably as part of a PR campaign to burnish the “moderate” image of the kingdom in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
In the decade that has passed since Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah first presented the initiative to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, the Saudis certainly haven’t done much to promote peace with Israel, though Prince Turki has claimed that just by adopting the Saudi initiative, the Arab world “has crossed the Rubicon from hostility towards Israel to peace with Israel and has extended the hand of peace to Israel.”
Nice words, to be sure, but when President Obama requested in the early days of his administration that Arab states support his vision of a comprehensive Mideast peace by offering some goodwill gestures to Israel, the response from Saudi Arabia and most other Arab states was a firm no.
Yet there are commentators and analysts who believe that the Saudis are almost desperate for peace with Israel.
In a recent Jerusalem Post article, Alon Ben-Meir argued:
“The Saudis have had and continue to have a vested interest in peace with Israel, knowing full well that the country is here to stay. Moreover, the Saudis’ arch-enemy is Tehran, not Jerusalem, and nothing will change the nature of these relationships because of the inherent rivalry between Shi’ite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia.”
“In fact, Saudi Arabia views Israel as its partner in its battle against Iran, and thus feels a greater urgency to advance the peace initiative than ever before. As the ‘Arab Spring’ has unleashed a torrent of democratic uprisings throughout the broader Middle East, the undemocratic Saudi Arabia must show that it can still play a leadership role in the region, and particularly in relation to Tehran.”
Perhaps Ben-Meir is right when he claims that the Saudi rulers know full well that Israel is here to stay, but the fact of the matter is that the kingdom’s generous funding for the export of Wahhabi fundamentalism has done a great deal to radicalize Muslims everywhere by spreading an intolerant form of Islam that regards a Jewish state in the Middle East as anathema. And while few will doubt Ben-Meir’s assertion that Saudi Arabia is eager to “play a leadership role in the region,” there is precious little evidence to support the idea that pushing for peace with Israel will help the Saudis to assert their leadership claim in a Middle East rattled by popular uprisings against authoritarian rulers and demands for democracy.
Indeed, by now it should be abundantly clear that the “Arab street” -- touted by Prince Turki as a perhaps more “indispensable” ally for America than Israel -- is eager to get rid of their authoritarian rulers, but so far nobody seems to think that it might also be time to get rid of the hostile sentiments toward Israel, Jews, and the West in general, that have always served Arab dictators well to deflect popular discontent.
Saudi leaders like Prince Turki may say all sorts of nice things during international meetings and conferences, but when they also flirt with calls for “jihad” against Israel simply because Israel exercises its right to self defense, or when they insist that the world must support unilateral Palestinian steps that are in clear breach of numerous agreements and commitments the Palestinians have pledged to honor, there is precious little reason for Israelis to believe that the Saudi initiative is meant to provide a reliable land-for-peace deal.