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The road to Jerusalem’s freedom starts in Riyadh

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Picture: Mohammed Huwais / AFP / Taken on January 5, 2024 – Yemeni Houthi-affiliated security forces stand guard during a protest in solidarity with the Palestinian people in the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital Sanaa in January, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the militant Hamas group in Gaza. Heavy air strikes pounded rebel-held cities in Yemen early on January 12, 2024, the Houthi rebels’ official media and AFP correspondents said. The capital Sanaa, Hodeida and Saada were all targeted, the Houthis’ official media said, blaming “American aggression with British participation”.

By Wesley Seale

Writing this weekend, 21 years ago in the Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Ahram, prolific Palestinian author Edward Said describes the horrendous conditions in which Palestinians live.

Said wrote: “The Palestinian territories are witnessing the onset of a mass famine; there is a health crisis of catastrophic proportions; there is a civilian death toll that totals at least a dozen to 20 people a week; the economy has collapsed; hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians are unable to work, study or move about as curfews and at least 300 barricades impede their daily lives; and houses are blown up or bulldozed on a mass daily basis.”

These words should remind us that the conflict in Palestine did not start on October 7 last year. Sadly, the lives of Palestinians have only worsened since. Yet, Said’s criticism was also directed at neighbouring Arab countries.

Continuing his column titled A Monument to Hypocrisy, Said writes that “… so craven and so ineffective are the Arab regimes today that they don’t dare say any of these things publicly. Many of them need US economic aid. Many of them fear their own people and need US support to prop up their regimes. Many of them could be accused of some of the same crimes against humanity. So they say nothing, and just hope and pray that the war will pass, allowing them to stay in power as they are.”

Sadly, Said’s words still ring true of much of the Arab world today, but it is a different world from the time of his writing. One of the greatest turning points in the contemporary political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa (Mena), and since Said’s demise was the so-called Arab Spring.

Current conflicts in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and Libya have their roots in these protests which broke out across the Mena region during late 2010 and 2011, and while these countries focus on these civil conflicts, Arab regimes remain fearful of another wave of protests.

Western meddling in the Mena continues unabated and, as Said suggested, continues to “prop up their regimes”, whereas like Africa, which is endowed with so many natural resources, in this case oil, the Middle East has been plagued for decades with interference by the West.

The rise of Muhammad bin Salman, or MbS as he is more commonly known, has had an unsettling effect not only in the House of Saud, the royal family governing the kingdom, but also in his country’s policy towards the Palestinians because of his closeness to the former US president Donald Trump.

By 2018, reports suggested that the Saudi crown prince was assisting Jared Krushner, Trump’s son-in-law and advisor, to develop the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian policy; a policy that clearly favoured Israel and that would controversially see the US embassy in Israel move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

In return, MbS would have more access to deals with American companies, which was critical in his modernisation process of Saudi Arabia.

Even later that year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would defend MbS against the allegation of his involvement in the death of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

At the same time, while moving towards normalisation of diplomatic ties with Israel, MbS was also solidifying Saudi relations with the United Arab Emirates, a country which has become a powerhouse of its own in the past decade, and in particular the current president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Muhammad bin Zayed, or MbZ.

Despite the Chinese deal between the Iranians and the Saudis, MbS, Trump and Israel all have a common enemy: Iran.

It is for this reason that MbS started bombing Yemen and fighting the Houthis, assisted Bahrain in suppressing the Shia community while also opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a known ally of Tehran.

While the Qataris have hitherto been ardent supporters of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, MbS considers the latter a terrorist organisation, thus earning his rebuke of Doha. These sentiments towards Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood have made a friend for him in Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, because el-Sisi himself came to power by deposing his predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Muhammad Morsi, and therefore is himself wary of Hamas.

The Nakba, or catastrophe of the displacement of the Palestinian people, has always influenced the politics of every single country in the Mena region. Most of these countries have large Palestinian populations and many have actively supported the Palestinian cause.

In fact, none of these MbS-sponsored alliances prevent people in these countries from rising up again and protesting their governments’ tardiness in supporting the Palestinians, as the Moroccans have recently done.

Yet, the rise of MbS specifically over the past decade and his posture towards Palestine have played a pivotal role in positioning the Palestinian question throughout much of the Mena. As the saying goes, the road to freedom for Jerusalem starts in Riyadh.

With a Trump administration in the US likely again by the end of this year, MbS will simply argue that he is engaging in “realpolitik” and being pragmatic about the reality in which the Middle East and the world find themselves.

Suppose then it is for Palestinians, groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis as well as supporters of the Palestinian cause across the globe to change their perception about what is real.

Dr Wesley Seale holds a PhD in international relations