There are opposing views inside the kingdom towards normalisation with Israel, revealing fault lines among different political clans.
Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman latched onto power with a late night palace coup in June 2017. In an unexpected move, his father King Salman installed him as the first in line to assume the top post, removing Mohammed bin Nayef from the heirdom to the throne.
Since then, MBS has courted several controversies stemming from a range of issues such as the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul’s consulate, and the smouldering revolt growing against his policies from inside the ruling family.
Among all, a continuing trend of Arab normalisations with Israel might be the biggest test the neophyte prince needs to address quickly in the face of opposing voices from the Saudi ruling family as well as the approaching reality of the incoming Biden administration, which appears to not be as friendly to MBS as the outgoing president Donald Trump.
According to various sources, MBS met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month in Neom, the kingdom’s new futuristic city, which is located on the coast of the Red Sea, an hour’s drive from the Israeli border, triggering a furious debate that Riyadh will also normalise relations with Tel Aviv.
While the Israelis confirmed the meeting, the Saudis refused to accept that it took place, dismissing media reports. But no matter what happened in Neom, MBS’s alleged normalisation efforts with Israel have come under intense criticism from within the kingdom.
"You cannot treat an open wound with palliatives and painkillers; the Abraham Accords can only succeed if the Arab Peace Initiative is revived," said Prince Turki al-Faisal, a powerful insider, who had been the kingdom’s former intelligence chief for more than two decades, referring to recent normalisation deals between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel under the mediation of Washington.
Prince Turki: a prominent figure
In the past, Prince Turki, a close royal member to King Salman, has represented the kingdom as an ambassador to the UK and the US, continuing to be a prominent voice of the custodian of Islam’s two holiest mosques on important outstanding issues.
Prince Turki was also the one who wrote an article in a Saudi-owned newspaper apparently at the behest of the king, to state that Riyadh will not recognise Israel as long as Tel Aviv pays “a high price” following the announcement of the UAE-Bahrain normalisation.
In his recent remarks, which came on Sunday during a security meeting in Bahrain, the prince shocked not only the participating Israeli foreign minister, but also Tel Aviv’s new Gulf friends.
Since the late-night coup, the crown prince has emerged as a "de facto" leader, shaping up the kingdom’s key policies - be it the disastrous Yemen war or the killing of dissidents like Jamal Khashoggi.
For regional observers, Prince Turki's disapproval of Israel and its allies is a deliberate attempt coming from within the Saudi establishment to tell the world that MBS does not hold absolute power in the kingdom.
Prince Turki described the Israeli invasion as “a Western colonising” power, which was propped up in the Middle East following World War I as many Arab-populated territories became colonies of European powers like the UK, France and Italy.
“They are demolishing homes as they wish and they assassinate whomever they want,” the prince said, referring to various murders of the Zionist state in Palestine and other countries.
Most recently, in Iran, the archenemy of Saudi Arabia, Israelis killed Al Qaeda’s second-in-command in a high-profile assassination plot, according to the country’s security officials. Israelis also appeared to be the real force behind the murder of the top Iranian scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, on a highway close to Tehran last month.
Traditionalists versus MBS
Prince Turki’s anti-Israeli comments are seen as a red line of sorts set by the kingdom’s traditionalist policymakers against MBS-style politics. Their refusal to recognise Israel is based on Tel Aviv’s rejection of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Many think King Salman is also a member of that traditionalist thinking club.
In his latest speech, Prince Turki evoked the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which pledged the recognition of Israel in return for its acceptance of the Palestinian state with the 1967 borders.
But MBS is reportedly not keen on the 2002 Arab peace offer, as he sees the Israel-Palestine issue as a “protracted conflict” and wants to “move past it” to establish an anti-Iran alliance with Israel.
“He sees it as what’s practical and needed,” said Joseph Westphal, the former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, referring to MBS’s efforts to come to a certain understanding with the Zionist state.
MBS's haste in moving close to Israel, however, is out of step with Saudi Arabia's long standing positions on various issues affecting Muslims of the world. The country, which is the birthplace of Islam, continues to support various Islamic foundations, causes and groups across the world.
The kingdom's symbolic significance across the Muslim world, and a section of leadership wary of abandoning Muslim causes, seem to have watered down the attempts made by another faction of leadership purportedly led by MBS to publicly embrace Israel.
From Israel, the signs of enthusiasm towards such an embrace were clearly visible. Yoav Galant, Israel’s education minister, praised the alleged meeting between MBS and Netanyahu in a recent interview.
“The fact that the meeting took place and was made public — even if it was in only a semiofficial way — is something of great importance,” Galant said.
“This is something our ancestors dreamed about,” the minister added.
But Israel's soaring excitement came crashing down with Prince Turki’s recent comments suggesting that the dream of Galant’s ancestors may end in a nightmare for MBS if he did not drift away from Tel Aviv.
“If any Arab state will follow the United Arab Emirates, it should demand in return a price, and it should be a high price,” wrote Prince Turki, in September months before his latest remarks.