The semi-secret security alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel may be expanding into the sphere of ideology and street politics, but Riyadh may be at risk of tripping a conservative Islamist backlash.
The existence of some form of security and intelligence cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Israel is hardly news for Middle East observers. United by their mutual opposition to Iran and strong ties with the US, the two countries have plenty of things in common. Whatever differences people in the two countries may have over issues like the treatment of Palestinians by Israel, or of gay people by Saudi Arabia, their governments seem to stick to pragmatism in their relations.
This policy goes against the long history of animosity between Arabs and Jews, but is hardly unique for Riyadh. Egypt is another example – while its leaders publicly decry Israel’s policies, they are reportedly all too eager to get a bit of Israeli help to fight Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. The New York Times described it last week as a two-year-long bombing campaign that allowed Israeli officials to dismiss Egypt behind closed doors for not being able to defend its own territory.
There are some signs that Saudi Arabia may be prepared to expand on its ties with Israel, however, bringing it from a limited tactical union that common Arabs should better not think about, to something bigger. For instance, last month, the head of an influential Saudi-based religious organization sent a letter to a Holocaust museum in Washington, decrying the mass killing of Jews by Nazi Germany and blasting those who would deny those crimes.
The letter was sent by Dr Mohammed Al Issa, secretary general of the Muslim World League, and addressed to Sara Bloomfield, director of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, on the occasion of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The letter’s focus was on criticism of people, who would distort history and deny the gravity of the Holocaust for political reasons – which it compared to distorting religious text to justify terrorism.
Al Issa is a former Saudi justice minister who was appointed to his current position in 2016 by Mohammad bin Salman, the current crown prince and, by many accounts, the de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia. The organization he now leads has been for decades perceived as the main vehicle for a Saudi campaign to spread Wahhabism, a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that, many critics believe, is bent on hatred of non-Wahhabis and violence towards them.
According to Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute and the person who apparently inspired Al Issa to write the letter, the cleric’s appointment is meant to transform the league “from an organization synonymous with extremism to one that preaches tolerance.”
The attitude towards the Holocaust in the Arab world is affected by the conflict with Israel. Many Arabs don’t really know much (or anything) about its history, since the topic is mostly absent from the school curriculum. Those who do know about it often see it as a tool used by the Jews to justify coming to Palestine, grabbing lands from the Arabs and suppressing anyone who would object to it. Some insist the scale of the mass killings was exaggerated to promote the Zionist cause or even that the entire narrative is a total fabrication.
Certain circles in the Arab world are certain to blast Riyadh for the letter, which would probably be interpreted as a sign of betrayal of the Palestinian cause, Grigory Lukyanov, professor of the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics, told RT.
“The left-leaning part of the intellectuals… will certainly have a word to say about it and subject the Saudis to scolding criticism. I believe this news will be featured prominently in respectable newspapers in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and possibly Algeria – even Al Jazeera may get involved,” he said. “But this will not affect the actual policies of the governments and the ruling elites of those Arab countries.”
The analyst warned against interpreting the letter as a sign of a major regional change. “Officials in the kingdom as well as politicians and leaders in many Arab nations made statements rejecting anti-Semitism as a practice of hatred. But this didn’t make them abandon their rejection of Zionism, which they consider an equally criminal political ideology, which not only resulted in the creation of Israel but also denied the human rights of thousands and millions of Muslims, including Arabs.”
Both of these statements are considered false (and offensive) by many people on the other side of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For many Jews, the sheer enormity and industrialized ruthlessness of the Nazi extermination program are enough to set the Holocaust apart from every other case of genocide. And a causal link between it and the creation of Israel is rejected because there seems to be no record showing that the killings were used by the Zionists to further their cause during the deliberations over the fate of Palestine in the 1940s.
“How to explain this kind of reticence, so soon after the greatest disaster in the history of the Jewish diaspora? It seems that, for a time, Jews and Zionists were unable to react to the catastrophe beyond the basic level of shock and grief,” suggested Holocaust researcher Evyatar Friesel in an essay on the issue. Arguably, he said, the Zionist cause was undermined by the killings in Europe, since it was born from the European Jewish diaspora’s despair after centuries of being unable to live peacefully next to their non-Jewish neighbors. The skills and talents and passion of those killed by the Nazis were no longer available for the newborn Jewish state.
But there is also no denying that the pressure put on Britain by thousands of Jewish refugees, who were barred from going to Palestine by the British administration, played its part. Or that the US and Britain were prepared not to let acts of terrorism by extremist supporters of Zionism affect their decision-making on Palestine because of the Holocaust. At least that’s what one may read from a letter sent by British PM Clement Attlee to US President Harry Truman three days after the bombing of the King David hotel in 1946.
Regardless of historical accuracy, the fact is that even such a symbolic gesture as the letter by the Muslim World League chair carries a risk of backlash from the Arabs. As do reform plans announced by the ambitious crown prince, who says he wants to modernize his country both economically and socially.
“Some people are skeptical about the reforms and his call to modernize Islam or the move to give more rights to women. The path he laid for the Saudis would be long and painful. He should be careful not to trigger a reactionary backlash, as was the case with Iran in 1979,” Marianna Belenkaya, a Middle East analyst and columnist for the daily Kommersant, told RT.
The Islamic revolution in Iran turned the country from a close non-Arab ally of Israel and a foothold for the US in the Middle East into a regional nemesis for both. The public rose against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi over many grudges, ranging from his being a brutal dictator who colluded with foreign powers to oust his democratically elected prime minister, to his westernization policies. Mohammad bin Salman would be right to take his fate into account.
“A royal power is to a large extent a product of compromise of the groups supporting it. A careless king may end up like King Faisal did,” said Sergey Balmasov, a senior analyst at the Center for Crisis Society, a Moscow-based think tank.
King Faisal was assassinated by his nephew in 1975. The exact motive for the killing remains disputed and could have been personal, but some theories suggest it was revenge for the king’s coup against his predecessor a decade earlier. Incidentally, King Faisal was the founder of the Muslim World League – and considered the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion an authentic document.
The Saudi crown prince says his country went the wrong way in 1979, when the royal dynasty – fearing a conservative Muslim uprising – chose to become a bulwark of ultraconservative Islam. He points the finger to Iran, although the same year was marked by another pivotal event, the infamous siege of the Grand Mosque. The perpetrators were religious fanatics, who wanted to topple the House Saud, which, they claimed, was betraying true Islam and had no apparent ties to Iran. So, Mohammad bin Salman’s modernization plans may require more than just pointing the finger at Tehran and saying, “Let’s not be like them.”
By Alexandre Antonov