international analysis and commentary

The Saudi factor in Palestine’s future

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Framed as an act of goodwill and regional support, the June 10th renewal of the Gulf aid package to Jordan – after new economic austerity measures ignited mass protests – may finally spell trouble for the kingdom. In fact, it is likely that this most recent infusion of aid will come with political strings attached as the Gulf countries see Jordan as a lynchpin in their Israel–Palestine strategy and as a potential ally in the ongoing Gulf crisis with Qatar.

In 2017, at the end of the 2012 five-year Gulf aid package, Saudi Arabia decided not to renew it despite Jordan’s continued financial need. The decision was perceived by Jordanian authorities as a punishment for taking positions inconsistent with those of Saudi Arabia. In fact, Jordan neither banned the Muslim Brotherhood nor severed diplomatic ties with Doha. Qatar, a popular work location for Jordanian nationals, is the third-largest investor in Jordan, with an estimated $2 billion in investments, and the volume of trade between the two countries is valued at more than $400 million. Following the most recent protests, Qatar also extended its own financial support package, pledging $500 million in economic aid, including 10,000 job openings for Jordanian nationals in Qatar and investments in infrastructure and tourism in Jordan. Severing financial ties with Amman would have cut Jordan off from one of its most consistent donors.

Arab map of the Mid East (1950)

 

But the relationship with Doha is not the biggest issue on the table. Palestine and, above all, the custodian of Jerusalem’s Islamic holy sites are even more important for Saudi Arabia. Last January, during a meeting with a group of students of the Prince Hussein bin Abdullah II College for International Studies, the Jordanian King said  that Amman has been financially pressured to mute its opposition to the US decision to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – a part of the Trump administration’s peace deal. For Jordan – which has been outspokenly divergent from US policy decisions on the matter – acquiescing to the rumored Israel–Palestine peace agreement would, most notably, eliminate the right of Palestinian refugees to return to the Palestinian territories. This would likely ignite anger among East Bank Jordanians who see the government as allowing Jordan to become an alternative country for Palestinians.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia is eyeing taking over Jordan’s custodianship of Jerusalem’s holy sites as a way to facilitate the Trump administration’s peace deal. Jordan’s guardianship on the holy sites has been granted by several peace agreements such as the Jordan-Israel peace treaty of 1994. In addition, in March 2013, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian King Abdullah II signed the Convention on the Defense of Jerusalem and the Holy Sites with the aim of entrenching Jordanian guardianship over these sites. Jordanian guardianship means Jordan’s administrative and security supervision of these places. Al-Aqsa Mosque Directorate, affiliated with the Jordanian Ministry of Awqaf, or charitable endowments, supervises 1,000 employees whose work is related to the management and guardianship of the 144-dunam (36-acre) Al-Aqsa Mosque complex.

Saudi Arabia is currently investing a great deal of behind-the-scenes effort into taking this guardianship away from Jordan. The pressure seems linked to the Saudis friendly relations with the United States, and with President Donald Trump’s desire to win Arab support for his Middle East peace plan, which Jordan has not backed.

According to a senior official in the Palestinian Authority, who spoke on a condition of anonymity, Saudi officials contacted influential Palestinian Authority figures and expressed their desire to have Saudi clerics and media figures visit Jerusalem to strengthen relations with the residents there. While the source refused to name those officials, he said the Saudis have yet to explain the goal behind building such relations.

Raed Daana, one of the most important religious authorities in Jerusalem and former Director of Preaching and Guidance at the Al-Aqsa Mosque Directorate, told webzine Al-Monitor that Saudi efforts to take over the sites’ administration are “serious and real.” He pointed out that such efforts emerged following Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May 2017. According to him, last January, Saudi Arabia invited a [Muslim] religious delegation from Jerusalem to visit Saudi Arabia in a bid to convince them to recognize Saudi guardianship of these sites, but several members of the delegation refused to visit Saudi Arabia.

In addition, last December, the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper revealed that there were behind-the-scenes differences between the Jordanian and Saudi delegations during the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union, which took place in Morocco. Saudi Arabia rejected Jordan’s assertion of its guardianship of Jerusalem’s holy sites, the paper said. Four months later, Saudi Arabia announced a donation of $150 million in support of Jerusalem’s Islamic holy sites.

Although decision-makers in Saudi Arabia did not publicly announce their desire to manage the holy sites in Jerusalem, several Saudi media circles have called for such a scenario. Abdul Hamid al-Hakim, a Saudi media figure close to the Saudi ruling family, called during the BBC’s “Talking Point” program on May 16th for the holy sites in Jerusalem to be under Saudi administration.

And more, according to the Egyptian Arabi 21 news website, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia sought to purchase a house in occupied Jerusalem next to the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque to serve as a Saudi-Emirati headquarters and to conduct activities and play a parallel role to that of the Islamic Endowments Authority in Jerusalem, which is affiliated with the Jordanian Ministry of Endowments. The attempt to ensure a Saudi-Emirati presence in occupied Jerusalem could be a prelude for playing an advanced role in the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the remaining Islamic endowments in the city.

But all these Saudi attempts to advance, would require the support of Jerusalem’s religious figures as well as that of the Arab world’s heads of states. In this regard, Saudi Arabia still has a long way to go.

All this considered, even if Jordan may have few options other than to make Saudi Arabia political concessions in exchange for the much-needed financial relief, giving in to such blackmail could even add to the turmoil. And this may force a complete re-evaluation of Jordanian foreign relations in the region, and especially the neutrality that has allowed the small kingdom to withstand a tumultuous regional political environment.