By Dr. James M. Dorsey
July 8, 2018
The Saudi effort to take control of Islam’s
holy places in Jerusalem serves, among other things, to support President
Donald Trump’s plan for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – a
plan that has split the Muslim world even before it has officially been made
public, and that has been clouded by Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the
capital of Israel.
At the very least, Saudi Arabia hopes – at
the risk of destabilizing Jordan, where Palestinians account for at least half
the country’s almost ten million people – to drop its resistance to the Trump
Riyadh’s and the UAE’s focus on Jerusalem
has broad regional implications as they are battling Turkey for ownership of
the Jerusalem issue. Both countries have tried to downplay the significance of
two Islamic summits in Istanbul convened by Turkey to counter Trump’s moving of
the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Turkey and the Gulf states are also at odds
over the Saudi-UAE-led economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar and policy
The power- and geopolitics-driven effort
constitutes a marked shift in Saudi religious diplomacy, which, for much of the
past four decades, involved a $100 billion public diplomacy campaign to
globally promote Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism. More recently, Saudi Arabia
has sought to project itself as a beacon of tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and
an unidentified form of moderate Islam.
Riyadh has not officially announced its
quest to wrest control from Jordan of the Temple Mount, home to the al-Aqsa
Mosque, Islam’s third most holy site after Mecca and Medina, but evidence is
piling up against a backdrop of ever closer relations among Israel, Saudi
Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain.
Flexing the kingdom’s financial muscle,
Saudi King Salman told an Arab summit in Dhahran in April that he was donating
$150 million to support Islam’s holy places in Jerusalem. The donation counters
a multitude of Turkish bequests to Islamic organizations in Jerusalem and
efforts to acquire real estate.
But unlike Saudi Arabia, Turkey can
capitalize on the fact that it maintains diplomatic relations with Israel to organize
Islamist tours to the city. Thousands of Turkish supporters of President Recep
Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) visited the city in the past
year. Turkish activists allegedly participated in last year’s protests on the
Striking a different chord from that of his
powerful son, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who has been vocal in his
support for Trump and his empathy with Israeli positions, King Salman denounced
the “invalidity and illegality” of the US decision to recognize Jerusalem.
Saudi Arabia, in opposition to the
Jordanian endowment that administers the Temple Mount, last year backed
Israel’s installation of metal detectors following an attack that killed two
Some Jordanians saw the Saudi support as a
precursor to a US-backed agreement with Israel that would give the Gulf states
a foothold on the Temple Mount by allowing Saudi and UAE personnel to be posted
at its entrances.
According to Kamal Khatib, an Israeli Arab
Islamist leader, as well as Arab media reports, the UAE – in competition with
Turkey – is seeking to purchase real estate adjacent to the Temple Mount.
Khatib asserted that the UAE is operating through an associate of Muhammad
Dahlan, an Abu Dhabi-based former Palestinian security chief with presidential
Jordan and Saudi Arabia clashed in December
during a gathering of the Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union when the kingdom
attempted to challenge Jordan’s custodianship of holy places in Jerusalem.
Saudi Arabia, together with the UAE and
Kuwait, pledged US$2.5 billion to Jordan after mass anti-government protests
rocked the country earlier this year in a bid to gain leverage and prevent it
from turning to Turkey for help.
Al-Monitor quoted Raed Daana, a former
director of preaching and guidance at Al-Aqsa Mosque Directorate, as saying
that Saudi Arabia had secretly invited Palestinian Muslim dignitaries in a bid
to garner support for a Saudi power grab.
Saudi officials are further believed to be
pressuring Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to allow Saudi Islamic
scholars to visit Palestine. In a rare outreach, Iyad Madani, a Saudi national
and secretary-general of the Jeddah-based, 57-nation Organization of Islamic
Cooperation (OIC), visited the Temple Mount in January.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have used Bahrain,
a financially weak state whose ruling family was bolstered in 2011 by the
intervention of a Saudi-led military force to counter a popular revolt, as a
front for some of their overtures towards Israel.
Bahrain, which recently granted entry to an
Israeli delegation to participate in a UNESCO meeting, has been at the
forefront of the Gulf states’ religious diplomacy and propagation of interfaith
Israel’s only official presence in the Gulf
is its under-the-radar mission to the International Renewable Energy Agency in
Abu Dhabi, which is widely seen as the Jewish state’s embassy to the region.
A prominent American rabbi, Marc Shneier,
and evangelist Reverend Johnnie Moore, a member of Donald Trump’s faith advisory
board, keynoted at a dinner in Washington in May hosted by the Bahrain Embassy.
Reverend Moore led a delegation of Bahraini and expatriate civic and business
leaders on a visit to Israel last December, days after Trump had recognized
Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.
The delegation’s Palestinian reception
suggests that Saudi-UAE efforts to gain a geopolitics-driven religious foothold
in Jerusalem may not be straightforward. Palestinian guards barred the
delegation from entering the Temple Mount while protesters in Gaza blocked it
from visiting the Strip.
Said Palestine Liberation Organization
(PLO) executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi in a comment about the visit
that could have applied to the broader Saudi-UAE effort: “I don’t believe this
whole lovey-dovey approach of ‘we’re here to show tolerance’. Then go home and
show tolerance at home.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Centre,
is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at
Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University
of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.
Centre Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg