His Royal Highness Nayef bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, the new Crown Prince and strongman of Saudi Arabia, has his work cut-out for him. He has to placate and buy-off his very many jealous cousins — more than 22,000 Saudi princes! All these royals expect princely perks, lifetime sinecures, preferred access to government jobs, and hefty commissions on government contracts. Saudi Arabia is a thoroughly medieval and corrupt country.
Nayef also has to ensure an equitable division of power among the more than two dozen clans and tribal-like royal factions that make up the Al Saud, the royal family. While not every faction can have a king, the Al Saud has been careful to distribute key ministries, control of the armed forces, and provincial governorships among the important family factions. Got to keep all the fat cats happy.
Nayef himself is one of the Sudairi Seven, the largest group of full brothers among the more than thirty sons of Ibn Saud, the kingdom’s founder, who have dominated the government for the past forty years.
You wouldn’t know any of this from global media coverage of Nayef’s accession to power last week, following the death of his half-brother Sultan. Mainly, the media has been desperately attempting to discern whether Nayef is a “flinty conservative firmly opposed to democracy and women’s rights” or a “conservative pragmatist” opposed to Al-Qaeda and open to reforms and who will ensure continued Western access to Saudi oil reserves. Either way, his starting reputation is of nasty tough guy.
There is one way in which Nayef can get good press and earn instant repute as a “moderate.” It is an old Saudi trick: Let loose a feeble – but tantalizing — hint about the remote possibility of a theoretical chance of peace with Israel.
It’s a soft lob, a pain-free ploy, Saudi sophistry at its best. Yet the ruse works wonders. Speak vaguely and indirectly about a chance of begrudging ties with Israel, and presto: You’re in the West’s good books! You’re now a peace process “leader” with a diplomatic “initiative” in your name. No concrete follow-up required. No need to put your money where your mouth is.
If Crown Prince Nayef really wanted to lead the Arab world towards peace with Israel, he could find a way or two to express his “moderation” clearly and make things happen. Unfortunately, the sanctimonious Saudis always seem to hew to the p.r. minimum.
When they had a 9/11 image problem (– 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, remember?) then-Crown Prince Abdullah nattered to The New York Times about “full normalization” with Israel in exchange for “full withdrawal” from the territories. It sounded pretty good. In a flash, Abdullah transformed the discourse from Saudi involvement in terrorism to Saudi peacemaking.
However, as Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies pointed out, by the time the Abdullah trial balloon reached the Arab summit in Beirut in March 2002, the initiative had been modified and its terms hardened. It watered down “full normalization,” rewarded Syria with a presence on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and enshrined a Palestinian “right of return” to Israel.
Since then, the sang-froid Saudis have not been willing to bat an eyelash at Israel. But the dodge worked so well that many in the West have touted the Saudi “Arab Peace Initiative” as a cornerstone of regional peace diplomacy.
The only problem is that the supercilious Saudis don’t really want to lead. They can’t even bring themselves to give the West some rope with which to entice, or hang, Israel. Washington hasn’t been able to squeeze any commitments about normalization with Israel from the Saudis, even if Israel were to freeze all settlement activity and paint the Jerusalem Old City walls in the Saudi national colors.
Of course, nobody expects a Saudi king or prince to come to Jerusalem, Heaven forbid, like Anwar Sadat did. Nor can we reasonably expect Nayef to offer cash for resettling Palestinian refugees outside of Israel. Nor will he likely curtail the vicious anti-Israel propaganda pumped out daily to the Arab world by his Middle East Broadcasting channel. That would be asking too much.
But Nayef could – if peace leadership truly was his goal – authorize a meeting of Israeli and Saudi academics on desertification and desalinization or some other non-political environmental matter. He could quietly allow the opening of a low-level Saudi commercial interest section in a Tel Aviv-based foreign embassy. He could allow El Al to fly over Saudi airspace en route to New Delhi and Beijing. He could send us a Channuka card.
After all, the Saudis know how to get their way when they want to. They hauled in truckloads of cash to buy the 2009 elections in Lebanon in order to ensure a Sunni victory. They’ve bankrolled Lashkar e-Taiba (of Mumbai infamy), Hamas, and other radical Islamic movements worldwide when it suited them, while brutally crushing other groups, like Al Qaeda, when these became a threat to them. They fund madrassas and mosques the world over to aggressively promote the purist Wahabi brand of Islam. They’ve openly embraced, then bluntly cold-shouldered, different Palestinian and American leaders, as per their changing interests. They hand-out fancy gold medals on thick gold chains to their favorites, including President Barak Hussein Obama.
Thus, the Saudis know how to make things happen, if they want to. When it comes to peace with Israel, they don’t really want to.
* Originally published in Israel Hayom, October 31, 2011.