Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, has somewhat surprisingly attacked Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over the Palestinian issue. He accused the Saudis of pressuring the Palestinian Authority not to take action against Israeli violations in Jerusalem, and accused the UAE of plotting to appoint Mohammed Dahlan — an “Israeli agent” — as Palestinian President instead of Mahmoud Abbas. This will have repercussions.
Çavuşoğlu criticised the Saudi position on Palestine, especially with regard to Jerusalem. US and Israeli pressure, he said, is being applied on the Saudis, who are in turn applying it to Jordan and the Palestinians to keep silent about the situation in Jerusalem. Turkey’s accusations coincide with what can be described as the neglect of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and Islamic sanctuaries in the holy city. Ankara is raising the banner in defence of the city, with special events including an international conference — “Jerusalem: The city sanctified by revelation” — with participants from 20 countries and Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister and Head of Religious Affairs, as well as the Palestinian Minister of Religious Endowments. The conference recommended including Jerusalem on school curricula across the Islamic world, and rejecting the US decision to recognise it as the capital of Israel and transfer its embassy there.
Turkey does not hide its historical commitment to Jerusalem. Arguably, its previous presidency of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has made it more concerned about the Palestinian cause. This is reflected in increased religious tourism and the number of Turkish visitors going to Jerusalem (around 100,000 a year).
The Turkish-Palestinian Parliamentary Friendship Group was formed to discuss joint cooperation between Palestine and Turkey to confront Israeli and American policies in Jerusalem. This has strengthened Turkey’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority; Saudi Arabia did not express as much opposition to Washington’s move as Turkey did.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has gained popularity among Palestinians for holding an extraordinary summit in Istanbul in response to Washington’s decision on Jerusalem. He also announced that Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu would open the Turkish Embassy to the Palestinian Authority in East Jerusalem.
Turkish accusations against Saudi Arabia coincide with US-Israeli attempts to strengthen Saudi influence in Jerusalem at the expense of the Palestinians and Jordanians. This has raised concerns in Ramallah and Amman, because the rapprochement between Tel Aviv and Riyadh makes the Saudi-Jerusalem link more beneficial to Israel than the Kingdom.
The general Palestinian belief is that Washington will announce the establishment of an Islamic administration under Saudi supervision through the deal of the century. With responsibility for Islamic holy sites, this would eliminate the role of Jordan and the PA. This will be a problem for the Jordanians and the Palestinians, who will not recognise this administration. The fear that Saudi Arabia will enter the fray as the guardian of the religious sites in Jerusalem and become Jordan’s adversary may force Amman to reconsider its regional alliances. This would include a rapprochement with Turkey, which has increasing influence in Jerusalem.
Turkish civil society and charities are engaged directly in the holy city, with tens of thousands of dollars being used to fund their Palestinian counterparts. Exchange visits see thousands of people displaying Turkish flags and pictures of Erdoğan around Islamic sites under threat from Judaisation, including the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa.
Projects funded by Turkey in Jerusalem include sports facilities, student accommodation, support for the Shari’ah Court archive, a retirement home and thousands of meals to break the fast during Ramadan. Schools also get support, including equipment, new classrooms and computers.
Turkey’s presence in Jerusalem contrasts sharply with Saudi Arabia’s virtual absence from the holy city. This increases Palestinian anger against the Kingdom, which stands accused of coordinating its steps with Tel Aviv and Washington.
Çavuşoğlu’s attack on the UAE is about Dahlan, who the minister accused of being a “terrorist” and an “agent of Israel”; he is being hosted by the government in the Emirates. This is not the first time that Dahlan has attracted such attention. Turkey has already alleged that he had a role in the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last year, and the failed coup against Erdoğan in 2016, primarily through his close relationship with the UAE.
In response, Dahlan has made harsh accusations against Erdoğan, claiming that he has illusions about restoring the Ottoman Empire to the Arab world. The former Fatah official’s supporters launched a sweeping attack on Turkey, accusing it of sabotaging Palestinian relations.
Some Palestinians think that Turkey is exaggerating about Dahlan. They could be right. He has little potential to create a regional effort to confront Turkey, despite his dependence on the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The emphasis on his alleged role and resultant publicity may be more than he deserves, to his benefit.
It is noteworthy that the Palestinian Authority, which is in almost permanent conflict with Dahlan, has not addressed the Turkish accusations, although the prevailing thought in Ramallah is that he is linked to a regional axis rather than a Palestinian one. This puts him closer to a political agenda that has nothing to do with Palestine-Israel, and is sometimes anti-Palestinian. His chances of returning to the Palestinian political arena are thus very low.
The Turkish reasoning behind the accusations against Dahlan is that his regional and international political activity is not only because he is Palestinian, but also because he is close to the UAE. That makes him of interest to regional security agencies and ensures that he gets VIP treatment when he travels. This, though, will not necessarily mean that he is an automatic choice for Palestinian leadership positions any time soon, not least because he was formally dismissed from Fatah.
As the security adviser to the Crown Prince of the UAE and being very close to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Dahlan has top connections in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, with more authority than many UAE and Egyptian officials. Nevertheless, Turkey regards him as the weakest link in the Saudi-Egypt-UAE alliance. That is why it may increase the pressure and make more accusations against Dahlan to force these countries to sacrifice him in return for improved relations with Ankara.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.