Just hours after the White House announced the so-called "Deal of the Century," the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued this statement: "The kingdom appreciates the efforts of U.S. President Donald Trump's administration to develop a comprehensive peace plan between the Palestinian and the Israeli sides."
Unlike the firm opposition taken by Turkey, Algeria, Pakistan, Malaysia, Yemen and Tunisia, the Saudi stance was, to a big extent, lax and could be seen as implied consent to the terms of the deal which ignores the basic rights of the Palestinian people, most specifically, the right of return. The so-called peace deal deprives the Palestinian side of any right in the sacred city of Al-Quds (Jerusalem) after Trump asserted that "a unified Jerusalem will serve as the capital for Israel."
For many, the Saudi position was deplorable and shocking because the new plan not only targets Muslim rights in the holy city, it also undermines the Saudi-suggested Arab Peace Initiative, which was unveiled by then-King Abdullah in Beirut in 2002. According to the plan, any regional recognition for Israel would be subject to the establishment of a Palestinian state according to the 1967 borders, with east Jerusalem as its capital. The initiative also emphasized the necessity of Palestinian refugees returning home from where they were driven out in the 1948 war (Nakba).
However, the new plan calls for establishing a dismembered and disarmed Palestinian state, with a functional priority to maintain Israeli state security. It also called for resettling Palestinian refugees in the hosting countries without even mentioning the rights of these people, who have been languishing at refugee camps for decades.
Hence, how do we explain this shift in Riyadh's position toward the Palestinian cause? From a fully supportive position to a non-rejecting one and that for a plan, which most observers agree, aims at upending the Palestinian cause.
This, firstly, should not be isolated from the new era in Riyadh that accompanied the rise of Mohammed bin Salman to power in the middle of 2017. The sensitive causes of the Muslim world (Palestine, Kashmir and Uighurs) are not the priorities in the new era.
During his visit to China almost a year ago, Mohammed Bin Salman said he understood Beijing's detention camps for Uighurs and its oppressive policies against them. The stance was also clear after reports in Pakistani media revealed that Saudi Arabia vetoed an emergency meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on the Kashmir issue.
The declining Saudi role in favor of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the second dynamic. Because these policies have something to do with Saudi Arabia's declining role in the region. It has been clear since the crisis with Qatar broke out in 2017 and the killing of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
The Saudi declining role comes in favor of the Emirati soaring role which has been increasing in the latest years at the expense of the Saudi regional hegemony. Riyadh was intentionally turning a blind eye to the mounting role as was clear in Abu Dhabi's support for the separatist forces in Yemen against the Saudi-backed government forces. It is apparent that the UAE, for the last five years, is leading a U.S.-backed role for bridging the gap between Israel and the Arab states seeking for good ties with the U.S.
Thirdly, this also comes as a result of marginalizing the religious institution in the country which has been, for decades, a true supporter of the genuine right of Palestinians in the occupied lands. The religious institution was also the main mobilizer for Saudis to help the Palestinian people financially as many Saudi-backed charities worked in Palestine. According to people doing humanitarian work in the blockaded Gaza Strip, many Saudi-backed charities were entirely shut or downsized in the last two years.
The new Saudi era, culminated by Salman's rise, UAE's role in normalizing ties with Israel and curbing the influence of religious institutions in the kingdom, sums up why Riyadh did not condemn the U.S.' so-called peace deal.
* Ph.D. student in the Department of International Relations at Yıldırım Beyazıt University