South Africa and Saudi Arabia represent two distinctly different countries, populations and regions. Much can be written and said about the huge chasms that separate the two “SAs”, not only ideologically but also in terms of governance.
One SA is located in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula while the other is at the southernmost tip of Africa. Economically, the former is dependent on petro-dollars sourced from massive oil reserves while the latter was once a major gold producer.
Being an absolute monarchy, Saudi Arabia is unaccountable to its citizens, no matter what grievances they may have. It remains hungover from the days when the British Empire established the Kingdom, and continues to display an utter disregard for fundamental human rights. South Africa, on the other hand, has — since the end of white minority rule — embraced a democratic path in which a bill of rights underpins a constitution.
Today, though, the biggest difference lies in their respective political positions regarding Palestine. Paradoxically, the SA closest to the front line is the furthest away in terms of solidarity with the Palestinians. Africa’s SA, however, despite being geographically disconnected, is much closer to what is happening in the Israeli-occupied land.
For almost 90 years, Saudi Arabia has used its “custodianship” of the two Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah to claim the leadership of Islam and Muslims. This artificially imposed hegemony, which in effect has been a dictatorship based on patronage, is now being exposed as a sham.
Decades of rule by successive hereditary chiefs – the self-styled kings — has seen Saudi Arabia exploit worldwide Muslim concerns about the occupation of Jerusalem, by pretending to lead the charge for the freedom of Palestine. Apart from brief intervals during which the Kingdom did intervene, though, such as the 1970s oil embargo led by King Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s primary role followed that of other contending Arab powers, in that it was manipulating the leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
It is indeed shameful that Palestine’s freedom struggle was reduced by the Arab world led by Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia to one of pulling the strings of the PLO under the leadership of Yasser Arafat. Control of the Palestinian narrative via the PLO was seen by the dictators in charge of those states as a means to claim legitimacy in the eyes of the Arab public and, thereby, leadership of the Muslim world.
It is ironic that it is the issue of Palestine which has unmasked such despots, particularly in Saudi Arabia. For many Muslims around the world who unwittingly identified with the Kingdom as the global representative of Islam, it’s been a rude shock, albeit a timely wake-up call.
Strangely enough, many who were in denial about this have Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu to thank for alerting the Muslim world that Saudi Arabia under King Salman and his warmonger son, Mohammad Bin Salman, is in the pockets of America and Israel, not in the service of Palestine. The current unravelling of Saudi Arabia’s hypocritical stance on Palestine is evidenced by a series of unprecedented policies which have been pursued quite shamelessly.
The dispute with Qatar, for example, is formulated around thirteen key demands. Fundamentally these centre on Palestine and require the small Gulf State to outlaw Hamas; halt the funding of “terrorism”, which is a euphemism for the legitimate resistance to the Israeli occupation; break all ties with Iran; close Al-Jazeera; and relinquish its sovereign independence.
In Yemen, the Saudi-led war on the impoverished nation has not only resulted in a failure to yield any of its goals — which include the imposition of a Saudi-client regime — but has also, in effect, caused a catastrophic humanitarian crisis and turned public opinion against the irrational logic of Bin Salman.
What’s more, hostile campaigns to cast Iran as a malignant presence by exploiting sectarianism have failed to gain traction despite vast expenditure and the deployment of paid agents masquerading as religious scholars. Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel form an unholy trinity in opposition to Iran’s regional influence and rational pursuit of political engagement.
Saudi’s summoning of Lebanon’s Saad Hariri to Riyadh, detaining him and forcing him to resign as Prime Minister has backfired. Bin Salman was again exposed as an ambitious idiot willing to do Israel’s bidding by using a protégé to dismantle Hezbollah as a formidable resistance movement within Lebanon’s political structure.
Of course, the prime hypocrisy has been Saudi allying itself openly with Israel. Secret meetings between high profile Saudi personnel and Netanyahu’s agents, talks of normalisation supported by key Bin Salman people within the Kingdom, including religious figures, and public expressions of Iran as the enemy rather than Israel, make it patently clear that the House of Saud is in bed with the Zionists. To bolster this unambiguous stance on normalisation, demands have been made on President Mahmoud Abbas to forego Palestinian claims to Jerusalem, which further underline Saudi Arabia’s treachery.
Amidst the worldwide protests and anger at Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, the Saudi Crown Prince wants Abbas to capitulate. Reports of a meeting between King Salman, his son and the Palestinian Authority leader reveal that Abbas has yet again been pressured to accept Trump’s non-existent “deal of the century” in exchange for billions of dollars.
The biggest problem with all of this is the demand that Palestinian claims to Jerusalem as the capital of an independent State of Palestine be relinquished entirely. In return, the Palestinians are being offered Abu Dis, a village close by. This offer has been made by Bin Salman who has, as far as I am aware, no right to make such an outrageous gesture in any case.
Saudi Arabia’s strangulation of Palestine has unmasked Mohammad Bin Salman as a political liability for the resistance. This comes at a time when solidarity against the Israeli occupation has gained momentum to the point that even erstwhile allies of the US, such as Britain and France, opted to support a UN General Assembly Resolution against Trump’s declaration on Jerusalem.
South Africa has also come out fighting on behalf of Palestinian rights. In contrast to the dismal track record of Saudi Arabia, the ANC-led government has repeatedly expressed its dismay about Israeli injustice and inhumane treatment of the indigenous Palestinians.
Some may argue, perhaps correctly, that these are mere words meant to appease ANC cadres. I have been a vociferous critic of South Africa’s dual approach which displays sympathy to the Palestinian cause while enjoying full diplomatic relations with the former ally of apartheid, Israel.
It is nonetheless encouraging that at this crucial moment, when the US has made known that its patronage of Israel remains untouchable — even if it is in direct violation of international law — and Saudi Arabia has basically abandoned the Palestinian cause, South Africa’s ruling ANC has come to Palestine’s rescue. The ANC’s recent 54th leadership conference adopted the following ground-breaking resolution: “In order to give our practical expression of support to the oppressed people of Palestine, the ANC has unanimously resolved to direct the SA government to immediately and unconditionally downgrade the South African Embassy in Israel to a Liaison Office.”
Although the sceptic in me will say we must wait to see whether these words translate into action, in the context of the Saudia betrayal of Palestine the decision to downgrade diplomatic relations with Israel has profound implications for Africa, where the far-right Netanyahu regime is investing a great deal of political capital to gain acceptance. As the oldest liberation movement in the continent, the ANC is asking Africa, why are you opening doors to the oppressors of Palestine when we are shutting down our embassy?
Indeed, this is the demand that the Palestinians are making, and it cuts across all continents and the Middle East. It is reflective of a new generation of activists, the Ahed Tamimis of this world, whose fearless defiance of colonialism and single-minded determination to end the oppression, has shaken Israel’s colonial-settler foundations.
The message of defiance conveyed by 16-year-old Ahed as she sits in an Israeli jail facing torture and rape (as, astonishingly, advocated by a leading Israeli journalist), has inspired youth all over the world. A connection to her cause, which embodies the noble struggle of successive generations of Palestinians, is being made by millions of young people form Jakarta to Johannesburg, and from Kuala Lumpur to Kinshasa.
The ANC’s timing is spot on. Coinciding as it does with Mohammed Bin Salman’s push to normalise ties with Israel, the tale of the two SAs reveals some shocking truths about the heir to the Saudi throne and, indeed, the Kingdom itself.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.