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How Upset Are Trump’s Saudi Friends, Really, About His Jerusalem Move?

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz (R) reviews the honour guard with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a welcoming ceremony for the latter held at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, on Nov. 10, 2015. Arab leaders and top officials from South America are converging on Saudi Arabia for a summit aiming to strengthen ties between the geographically distant but economically powerful regions. AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE        (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi King Salman Bin Abdulaziz reviews the honor guard with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a welcoming ceremony for the latter held at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 10, 2015. FAYEZ NURELDINE/Getty Images

Virtually every country in the Middle East, except for Israel, has condemned President Trump’s planned announcement that he is recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, including Saudi Arabia’s King Salman:

“The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques asserted to His Excellency the U.S. president that any American announcement regarding the situation of Jerusalem prior to reaching a permanent settlement will harm peace talks and increase tensions in the area,” state news agency SPA said.
It quoted King Salman as saying that Saudi Arabia supported the Palestinian people and their historic rights and asserted that “such a dangerous step is likely to inflame the passions of Muslims around the world due to the great status of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa mosque … ”

But it’s worth speculating just how deep this support goes. The New York Times reported last week that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had made a low-key visit to Riyadh in November where he was presented with a draft Israeli-Palestinian peace plan with terms seen as deeply unfavorable to the Palestinians. Notable, under the plan, “[t]he Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital,” the Times reported. Given the close Saudi–U.S. ties under the Trump administration and particularly the close relationship between Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Trump’s designated Mideast peacemaker, Jared Kushner, the plan was seen as a preview of the one Kushner and his team are working on. (The White House denied this, and Kushner declined to present any details of his plan in an appearance at a Mideast policy forum in Washington on Sunday.)

While Saudi Arabia has no official diplomatic relations with Israel, they have covertly cooperated in the past, and there are signs that this cooperation may be increasing in order to counter their shared enemy, Iran. Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said in an interview last month that Israel has “ties that are indeed partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries,” specifically mentioning Saudi Arabia. CIA Director Mike Pompeo said at a defense policy forum earlier this month, “We’ve seen them [the Saudis] work with the Israelis to push back against terrorism throughout the Middle East, to the extent we can continue to develop those relationships and work alongside them.”

Saudi leaders will doubtlessly continue to publicly condemn Trump’s move and deny any acquiescence to Israeli claims on Jerusalem. They could hardly do otherwise given public sympathy for the Palestinian cause and how quick their enemies will be to portray them as tools of the Americans and the Zionists. (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said this morning that certain leaders in the region, a clear reference to the Saudis, are “dancing to America’s tune … Whatever America wants, they’ll work against Islam to accomplish it.”) But it will be worth watching what form this response takes for clues on both Saudi Arabia’s current priorities and how the Trump administration is conducting U.S. foreign policy.

America’s support for Israel has long been the sore spot in the otherwise pretty chummy U.S.–Saudi relationship, the 1973 oil embargo during the Arab–Israeli War being the most dramatic example.

Given the friendly relationship between the Trump and Saud families these days—and the extent to which Trump appears to have bought the Saudis’ Iran-centric view of the Middle East, hook, line, and sinker—Prince Mohammed could certainly have made his strong opposition to recognizing Jerusalem known as this date has approached. And yet, Trump is doing it.

So if there’s an aggressive Saudi response to this move that appears to damage relations between the two countries, it could be a sign that Trump’s foreign policy, rather than being Saudi-centric, is simply incoherent, willing to woo and dump allies at the drop of a hat with no discernable strategic purpose. If the Saudis and their Gulf allies make perfunctory statements of opposition but are fairly muted in their response, it could be a sign that they’ve essentially given up on the Palestinian cause to focus on Iran.

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