January 18, 2019

Saudi Prince Doesn’t Talk About Jerusalem — Unless He’s Asked

Saudi Arabia, the protector of Islam and home to Islam’s two holiest sites, is a good place to judge the impact that President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital has had on U.S. interests in the region.

Set aside the reaction of terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah and their state sponsors in Tehran and Damascus, as well as the angry responses from the Palestinian Authority and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, with its large and boisterous Palestinian population. Those were to be expected. The real issue is the reaction of America’s friends who are one step removed from the circle of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If there were a place one might reasonably expect to hear Muslims expressing thunderous outrage at the handing of Jerusalem to the Jews, it would be in the corridors of power in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

It hasn’t happened.

The week of Dec. 4, I was in Riyadh leading a delegation of more than 50 supporters and fellows of the Middle East think tank I direct. On Dec. 6, just hours before the president made his Jerusalem announcement, we spent five hours in meetings with three Saudi ministers, discussing everything from crises with Yemen, Qatar and Lebanon to the kingdom’s ambitious “Vision 2030” reform program, to the possible public offering of the state oil company Aramco.

By this time, the White House had delivered numerous background briefings to foreign diplomats and the media, so the essence of the impending declaration was well known. But despite many opportunities, the word “Jerusalem” was never uttered.

At the time, I thought that perhaps the Saudis were waiting to unload in our final meeting of the day, during a conversation with the secretary-general of the Muslim World League (MWL). For decades, this organization has been notorious for propagating an extreme version of Islam — funding schools, mosques and religious institutions that have served as incubators for Sunni jihadis. Surely, the head of the MWL would denounce America’s assault on the sanctity of Muslim control of Jerusalem.

To my amazement, the relatively new MWL head, Muhammad al-Issa, had a very different message. Mention of Jerusalem never passed his lips. Instead, he noted with pride the friendships he has built with rabbis in Europe and America, the visit he recently made to a synagogue in Paris, and the interfaith dialogue to which he said he was now committed. This was not your father’s Saudi Arabia.

Then, it dawned on me: Maybe the Saudis are waiting to hear precisely what Trump says in his statement, hoping that last-minute entreaties would convince him to change course. Since the president didn’t speak until 9 p.m. Riyadh time, I went to bed that night confident we would soon see the fire and brimstone of the “old” Saudi Arabia. When we received confirmation the following morning that we would have an audience with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — deputy prime minister, minister of defense, president of the council of economic and development affairs, and favorite son of the king — we expected we would get an authoritative answer.

Mohammed bin Salman has promised fast, revolutionary change in a country where, historically, nothing moves fast and “revolutionary” is a dirty word. And he has already shown he is a doer, not just a talker, by successfully concentrating virtually all the kingdom’s political, military and economic power in his own hands. He is where the buck stops in Saudi Arabia these days.

Though he clearly speaks and understands English, he chose to address us in Arabic. After a few sentences, I understood why. When he opened his mouth, words flowed out in a torrent. Mohammed bin Salman has a lot to say — about jettisoning entrenched but non-Islamic ideas about separating women and men, about containing Iran now or fighting it later, and about a hundred other topics — and doesn’t seem to have a lot of time to say it all. It was not apparent that Jerusalem was one of those topics. If we hadn’t asked him directly about Trump’s announcement, it may never have come up. He certainly didn’t come to the meeting to vent.

He limited himself to a single word of disappointment about the president’s decision.

But we wanted to leave Riyadh with a clear sense of his view on the issue, so we asked him. To maintain a measure of confidentiality, I won’t quote him directly, but I can say this: He limited himself to a single word of disappointment about the president’s decision — literally — and then quickly turned to where Riyadh and Washington could work together to limit the fallout and restore hope to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

He didn’t stop there. On a day widely characterized as one of the darkest for U.S. relations with the Arab world in decades, Mohammed bin Salman offered a very different vision for both the Saudi-American relationship and a potential for Saudi-Israeli partnership.

On the former, he repeatedly affirmed the strength of the security partnership, which he proudly noted was the oldest in the region — even older than the one between the United States and Israel. And on Israel itself, he struck an unusually positive note. Unlike what I heard from Saudi leaders on past visits, he said nothing about Israeli expansionism, Israeli arrogance, Israeli unfairness, or Israeli encroachment on Muslim rights in Jerusalem. Instead, he spoke of the promising future that awaited Saudi-Israeli relations once peace was reached and, operationally, he committed himself to bringing that about.

That was it: the official Saudi view. Expecting a stern critique of the United States and a visceral denunciation of Trump, we heard instead a mild rebuke of the president’s Jerusalem shift and a hopeful vision of Saudi-Israeli partnership.

Was Mohammed bin Salman merely delivering what his audience wanted to hear? Perhaps. But if Mohammed bin Salman did say what we wanted to hear, so what? The opposite could just have easily been the case — namely, that he could have used the occasion to send a piercing message through us to American leaders and to friends of the U.S.-Israel relationship about the high costs of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He didn’t, and that matters a great deal.

Those who prophesied that the Arab and Muslim response to recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital would be apocalyptic — waves of anti-American demonstrations, mass violence against U.S. citizens, institutions and interests, and the final and irrevocable end of American influence in the region — seem to have been totally wrong. Among the Arabs that count — America’s allies — the reaction has generally been sober, measured and mature. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is the case in point.

Robert Satloff is executive director of The Washington Institute.