First published on Al Jazeeara.net aje.me/1sgTl1V
In 2006 Saudi Arabia’s leadership broke with convention in Arab politics by publicly blaming a self-proclaimed “resistance” force for provoking Israel to unleash a war. Rather than hold Israel to account for targeting civilians, ground invasion, air and sea blockade, Saudi Arabia took aim at Hizbullah for what it called “irresponsible adventurism” in kidnapping two Israeli soldiers. This set the tone for a number of Arab governments during a month of war during which it became clear they hoped Israel would “finish off” Hizbullah, a nuisance that inflamed popular passions, leading to impossible demands on regimes who relied on Western support to survive. Hosni Mubarak couldn’t even bring himself to call Hizbullah by its name, referring to it famously during the Lebanon war as “thingy”. Add to that, especially for Saudi Arabia, the fact that Hizbullah was an extension of Iranian power.
It was a risky game, however, since the longer the war went on, the more those Arab regimes were exposed as ineffective and collaborationist. A US diplomatic document published by Wikileaks shows a panicked Saud al-Faisal, the perennial Saudi foreign minister, summoning then US ambassador James Oberwetter mid-way through the war to demand that Washington order a ceasefire, since the plans to squash resistance had failed and the resisters were becoming regional heroes. In 2008, the same scenario played out: Egypt and Saudi Arabia blamed Hamas for Israel’s month-long assault on Gaza and hoped that Israel would finish Hamas off. Egypt’s Foreign Minister at the time Ahmed Abu al-Gheit even said that Palestinians had no need for armed resistance and weapons – another striking departure in the lexicon of not just Arab politics but post-colonial struggle generally.
Today we are witness to another episode in this new turn. Egypt under coup president Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi has kept the Gaza border closed and media have adopted the Israeli line that Hamas is a force of evil. Saudi Arabia, led by a man whose media machine has presented him as Arab nationalist (“falcon of Arabism”) and leader of Islam (champion of wasatiyya, or religious moderation), went silent. Last week former intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal was the channel for the first confirmation of the Saudi position in an article in Asharq al-Awsat that attacked Hamas as “arrogant” and conniving with Qatar and Turkey to embarrass Sisi’s Egypt by rejecting a ceasefire proposal that would leave the crushing and illegal Israeli-Egyptian siege of Gaza intact.
King Abdullah, whose alleged tears over Palestine were marketed to media during the last Intifida, finally broke his silence on Friday. In an extraordinary speech which began by attacking unnamed “traitor terrorists” who sully the name of Islam, he equated the terrorism of “groups and states” in Gaza, avoiding direct mention of Israel by name while leaving the implication that he viewed Hamas as much as the Islamic State as a terrorist group. Hamas members were, of course, feted in Riyadh and Jeddah in January 2006 after the group’s Palestinian election victory, and the subsequent Saudi position towards the group is directly correlated to that of its US patron. The speech was designed to appease the Arab and Muslim street the king pretends to lead, while not offending Washington or Al Saud’s new friend of recent years (at least in public), Israel.
What is interesting about the position of the so-called “Arab moderates” is that they have become even more blatant in their US-Israeli alignment than before, to the extent that their policies during Gaza 2014 are a grotesque caricature of what they were before, particularly in Egypt’s case with the vulgar anti-Palestinianism promoted by the state. The uprisings of 2011 have clearly not by any means met the hopes of those who engaged in them, to the degree that it has become fashionable to rue the day they started. But it would be wrong to imagine that the political arena has not been fundamentally altered by those momentous events, when ordinary people dared to challenge a regional order that had created what was assumed to be an almost perfect, fool-proof system of security, media and ideological control, with the acquiescence of Western powers. The arrogance of those entrenched regimes in challenging basic tenets of decades of anti-imperial struggle was misplaced: Egypt’s dissonant foreign policy was one more factor that played into the resentment that brought people onto the streets in January and February three years ago. Claims that foreign policy and Palestine specifically had nothing to do with the protests – which writers like Thomas Friedman love to bandy around – are absolutely wrong.
The ancien regime struck back ferociously in Egypt, and its policy on Gaza is as almost as manically distorted as the revenge brutality of its security forces: there is a link between the two. As for Saudi Arabia, it’s time has not come: Al Saud have numerous factors in their favour and tools in their box to avoid mass dissent. But if and when that day arrives, foreign policy stances such as these on Gaza will be one of the many elements moving the people to reject and defy.