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What Bandar Bin Sultan did not tell the Saudi people

Prince Bandar, Former Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the US talks with a member of the audience September 20, 2001 after President George W. Bush addresses Congress on 20 September 2001 in Washington, DC. [David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images]
Prince Bandar, Former Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the US talks with a member of the audience September 20, 2001 after President George W. Bush addresses Congress on 20 September 2001 in Washington, DC. [David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images]

Would Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar Bin Sultan accept the following proposition, I wonder; and would he try to convince the Saudi people to accept it? I doubt it, but here goes: Iran occupies Saudi Arabia — God forbid — dominates the land and usurps its resources; the occupier then ethnically cleanses two-thirds of the Saudi population and destroys their homes and villages, turning the people into refugees scattered around the world; the Iranians then persuade them that such an occupation is an unchangeable reality, and that they should accept a state on 22 per cent of Saudi Arabian land, which Iran would return to them under humiliating conditions.

If he is able to persuade the Saudis to accept this by virtue of their weakness, what if Iran were then to insist on building settlements within the 22 per cent of land allocated to them, and then decide to annex one third of that area leaving the people with less than 15 per cent of the original area of their homeland? And even in that much reduced space, they would not enjoy any sovereignty over the borders, the land or the skies, because all sovereignty and security remains in the hands of the Iranians. If the Saudi people wouldn’t accept all of that and be practical and rational, according to Bin Sultan’s “logic” they would be losers, failures and traitors.

This all came to my mind while listening to the former Saudi ambassador’s brutal attack, not on Israel and its occupation, racism and colonialism, but on the Palestinians, the people under occupation. It has prompted me to strike a comparison of leadership and policies between the Palestinians and the Saudis. Perhaps the Saudi citizens addressed by Bin Sultan will take note.

To start with, there is no contest between any Palestinian or non-Palestinian discourse and the media arsenal that the Saudis have at their disposal, including satellite channels, social media armies, trans-border publications and troops of journalists who parrot government propaganda; it is all hugely skewed and unfair. We have seen how this arsenal swings into action whenever anyone says anything deemed to be incompatible with Riyadh’s official line, which has become almost sacred and above reproach.

However, it does not speak for the millions of Saudi citizens, who are meant to hear just one voice and see only one colour. If the people behind this media charade had an ounce of decency or the minimum of professionalism as journalists, or even a desire to ensure that the people in the Kingdom are told the truth, then Al-Arabiya TV channel would give a Palestinian or Arab historian the opportunity to present an alternative perspective over three episodes and for the same duration of time that Bin Sultan was given. This will not happen, of course, and we all know why. We also know that demonising the Palestinian is the shortest path to Tel Aviv and the most effective way to appease the White House. It isn’t particularly heroic or brave to shackle a Palestinian and then deliver blow after blow to which he cannot respond, but that’s the reality these days.

READ: Bandar Bin Sultan blamed the Palestinians, not Israel’s brutal occupation 

Despite the prejudicial nature of such a media contest, it is worth looking at what remained unspoken by Bandar Bin Sultan on Al-Arabiya. His vilification of the Palestinians ended with some clear conclusions: the Saudis should put their own political interests first, irrespective of any other considerations (such as commitments to Palestine or any other causes deemed by the prince and his ilk to be an obstacle to Riyadh’s political objectives); it is mandatory to be frank and to abandon pleasantries when digging into history and laying it bare before the public; and the process begins by focusing on the leadership and exposing its policies and failures.

So let’s follow his “guidance” and be frank about Saudi Arabia’s leaders and their failures. Bin Sultan has every right to put his own country first, but has no right whatsoever to misrepresent the facts, distort reality and exaggerate the Palestinian issue within the context of Riyadh’s agenda to make Palestine out to be the major obstacle frustrating Saudi progress politically, regionally and internationally. This is simply not true. This blatant falsehood has nothing to do with the political history of the region; it is there simply to pave the way to Tel Aviv, and nothing else.

There are scores of books by American and European politicians as well as doctoral theses which provide the evidence that successive US presidents and their European counterparts were astonished to see Saudi and other Gulf monarchs and princes, as well as Arab leaders in general, refrain from raising the issue of Palestine in the meetings they had with them. The passionate speeches intended for media and public consumption were noticeable by their absence during such official meetings.

You don’t have to be a genius to analyse the real objectives of Bin Sultan’s campaign against the Palestinians and their history. There is near consensus that it comes within the context of normalisation with Israel and the desire to forge an alliance against Iran. The voluble prince did not have the courage to tell the Saudi people the truth, and he never will.

By saying that it is necessary for Saudi Arabia to focus only on its own interests without linking them to Palestine or any other issue, the prince was letting us know that Riyadh wants to normalise relations with Israel and have its own strong relationship with the occupation state. That’s not a problem. Let the Kingdom do what it wants.

However, I want to ask Bandar Bin Sultan several questions within the context of disclosure and frankness, as he recommends. Why didn’t he tell the Saudi public the truth about the perspective that he represents and declare frankly that this was all about heading towards Israel? More importantly, why didn’t he explain to the Saudis the causes of the embarrassing predicament that they are in? To explain why, for example, the leaders of Saudi Arabia with its vast resources, huge area and profound Islamic symbolism feel compelled to grovel before Israel, a tiny country whose population is barely a sixth of the Kingdom’s; a colonial country created through force and ethnic cleansing just fifteen years or so after the founding of Saudi Arabia? Why does the prestigious Kingdom want to seek protection and empowerment from a state like Israel?

Tell the Saudi people, Mr Prince, who bears responsibility for weakening the Kingdom and squeezing it into this embarrassing corner? What about the responsibility of successive Saudi leaderships and, indeed, your own responsibility for the decline in the status of this genuine Arab country? We should lay bare for all to see every Palestinian, Saudi and Arab leader so that the people can understand where such men have been taking them.

In the background to UAE’s and Bahrain’s normalisation with Israel — and I hope that Saudi Arabia does not follow suit, despite all the indications to the contrary — there lies the issue of seeking help from Israel against the perceived threat of Iran. Why didn’t the prince explain to the Saudi people how Iran has become a threat to their country? And who is responsible for enabling it to seize control of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; and what role did he himself play in Washington as a tool in the hands of President George W Bush during the run up to the destruction of Iraq and its delivery to Iran gift-wrapped on a silver platter?

It was only after that invasion and occupation that Iran penetrated deep into the Levant, occupying and dominating, and subsequently besieging Saudi Arabia from the north. What was the responsibility of the Saudi leadership, of which he was part, in facilitating that war and paving the way for Iranian hegemony?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets Emir Bandar Bin Sultan on 9 February 2007 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. [Omar Rashidi-PPO via Getty Images]

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets Emir Bandar Bin Sultan on 9 February 2007 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. [Omar Rashidi-PPO via Getty Images]

Had there been a truly democratic government in Saudi Arabia, Bandar Bin Sultan and others would probably have ended up in prison for treason due to his role in this war while he was Saudi Ambassador in Washington; for failing to pass on accurate information to his government; for failing to assess correctly the ramifications of the war on Iraq; and for failing to recognise the likely scenario of Iranian hegemony over Iraq in the aftermath. For all of this he stands alongside war criminals such as Bush and Tony Blair whose prosecution has been demanded by human rights organisations. There is plenty of published evidence of what the prince did.

In terms of the failure of leadership, and without any pleasantries, Prince Bandar, why didn’t you tell the Saudi people in your programme on Al-Arabiya how trillions of dollars from the Kingdom’s vast oil revenues were wasted over many decades? How were such revenues squandered, and why is Saudi Arabia today standing naked and frightened in front of Iran, whose economy is exhausted by sanctions? Where has Saudi Arabia’s wealth gone?

How, we might ask, has Iran been able to build itself into a military and soon a nuclear power while labouring under sanctions, boycotts and wars waged by the West for nearly forty years? Why hasn’t Saudi Arabia been able to develop its own military power despite spending billions of dollars on military hardware? Why is it not able to depend on and defend itself? Why is it compelled to seek refuge behind Israel and America out of fear of this or that regional enemy? Why didn’t the prince explain to the Saudis, for instance, how and why their country is failing in its war in Yemen despite all that expensive hardware, a war which is costing Saudi citizens trillions of dollars? Where is the leadership and the competent political decision-making; where is the seizure of opportunities; and where is all that political shrewdness for the lack of which he deprecates the Palestinians?

Indeed, where is the wise leadership that has failed in every single regional issue in which Riyadh has got itself involved? In Iraq, for example, and in Syria where Bin Sultan himself assumed responsibility for the armed organisations there for a while and failed, and ended up by saying in his interviews that Saudi Arabia was principally the state which legitimised and fortified Bashar Al-Assad’s regime? Riyadh has also failed miserably in Lebanon and in its dealings with Iran and Turkey. Who bears responsibility for all of these failures, and why don’t the people of Saudi Arabia know about this? Are the Palestinians responsible for it all, as Bin Sultan claims?

On the economic front, why hasn’t Saudi Arabia become another South Korea (I won’t even say Japan) that rose from the ashes of a devastating war in the 1950s despite having no oil or other natural resources? Who is responsible for the current weakness of Saudi Arabia, which is only able to bully those that are weaker than itself?

The Saudi prince blames the Palestinian leaders for their failures, and he is probably right to do so; I will criticise them as well, and the Palestinians were among the first to criticise their own leaders comprehensively. The books, studies and research papers published by Palestinians in this respect fill library shelves. If he must criticise anyone, why not speak frankly to the Saudi people about the failure of their own leaders who have made sure that Saudi Arabia is nowhere near the world leaders in terms of progress, science and technology, the economy and military power?

Part of Bin Sultan’s silence is down to his ignorance about Palestinian history (no pleasantries, Mr Prince). After all, he is a security officer who served as an ambassador, not a historian. Despite the effort made by the producers at Al-Arabiya, and the clearly orchestrated attack points, his monologue was incoherent and had next to nothing to do with history.

READ: Saudi Arabia saw Turkey as a security guarantor in 2011, why not in 2020? 

Bin Sultan spoke about Hajj Amin Al-Husseini and what he called his “alliance” with Hitler, and yet there is no credible historian in the world who talks about an “alliance” between the two. Only Benjamin Netanyahu has been saying this as part of the Zionist discourse, and he is certainly no historian. It is also a fact that Al-Husseini was not representing the Palestinian national movement at the time, a sizable portion of which disagreed with him. Many of its figures were closer to Britain and then deluded by its false promises.

Their closeness to Britain, and that’s what really matters here, was a result of pressure exerted on them by the Arab monarchs, specifically by King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah of Jordan and King Faisal of Iraq. Whenever the Palestinians rebelled against Britain, as they did in the Great Revolution of 1936, the Arab monarchs, including the Saudi King, intervened and claimed that Britain would listen to them should the Palestinians call off the uprising. This is the tip of the iceberg that Bandar Bin Sultan did not reveal to the Saudi people. This is the thread that extends over seventy years all the way to the Arab Peace Initiative and Trump’s “deal of the century”. The essence of Arab official policy, at the fore of which is that of Saudi Arabia, has been to push the Palestinians to make ever more concessions to Israel and America, leaving the rest to the Arab leaders vowing to guarantee Palestinian rights only — like Britain — to forget their promises.

Arguably the Palestinian leadership’s biggest failure was to listen to the Arab leaders, including those in Riyadh. They were all happy to concede parts of Palestinian to appease first the British colonialists and then the American hegemon, so as to appear to be “civilised” and “understanding” and “seekers of peace”. Yet, whenever the Palestinians made a partial concession under Arab pressure, the Arab leaders, foremost among them the Saudis, would leave them to stumble on alone.

Bin Sultan could have, but didn’t, tell the people of Saudi Arabia that in 1948 their King, Ibn Saud, stood with the Jordanian monarch and the Egyptian government against the nascent administration presided over by Amin Al-Husseini in Gaza in the aftermath of the Nakba (Catastrophe), when the latter sought to establish an independent Palestinian state and government in what remained of Palestine. Britain and the Zionist movement opposed the creation of any such entity. The British government duly pressured the Arab League, whose most important members were Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to accept the idea of annexing what remained of Palestine to Transjordan. Saudi Arabia was a partner along with Jordan, Egypt and Iraq in making sure that the Palestinian entity was stillborn at what was a crucial moment. This is said with full disclosure and without pleasantries, just as the prince recommended.

All of the Saudi “peace” initiatives that Bin Sultan mentioned — as if saying to the Saudi people that their leaders had tried to help the Palestinians — were political disasters that led to new concessions at the expense of the people of Palestine and in Israel’s favour, and without any guarantees that Israel would respond with any concessions at all. Every Saudi initiative had its own American context. Prince Fahd’s 1980 initiative was made at the request of US President Jimmy Carter, for example, and imposed a new lower ceiling on the Palestinians and the Arabs and offered the first implicit Arab recognition of Israel by virtue of accepting UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 as a framework for the deal. Bin Sultan could have told the Saudi people about that, but didn’t.

He could also have mentioned that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative was not intended to serve Palestine, despite offering another concession to Israel, but was put together to salvage Saudi Arabian diplomacy, which found itself squeezed in a corner in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US that were carried out by around twenty Saudi citizens. Riyadh felt that it was being targeted as part of the war on terror, so it sought to improve its image. American journalist Thomas L Friedman suggested this “genius” idea to King Abdullah who adopted it and it became a Saudi initiative. Friedman suggested that there would be nothing better than to make concessions at the expense of Palestine and its people in order to contain American anger about 9/11. That is exactly what happened.

Even this esteemed initiative with which Bin Sultan patronises the Palestinians, however, was rejected by the then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from day one and was also rejected by successive Israeli governments. Why didn’t the prince explain to the Saudi people why it failed and what their government did to save its own face? Where was its diplomacy and why did it not succeed? Why didn’t he tell the Saudi people that the Palestinians accepted the Arab Peace Initiative, despite it offering just 22 per cent of their ancestral homeland and denying six million Palestinian refugees the legitimate right to return to Palestine? It was Israel which tore it up and threw it back in the face of the Saudis; the same Israel with which Bin Sultan and the government in Riyadh want to normalise relations.

In parallel with all of this, why wasn’t Bin Sultan honest and fair, even at the bare minimum level, when narrating the story and say that, in fact, the Palestinian leadership was always seeking after Saudi Arabia and accepting all of the initiatives placed before it: Fahd’s initiative, Madrid, Oslo and the Arab Peace Initiative? And that with every initiative a new concession was made.

This was actually the very policy that led to the political division among the Palestinians and the fighting between the factions. Yet, Israel rejected everything and is still rejecting everything. How is it that the Europeans, half the Americans and most of the rest of the world denounce Israeli rejection, the Israeli occupation and Israeli racism, and yet Saudi Arabia’s Prince Bandar Bin Sultan embraces the Israeli narrative, avoids telling the truth to the Saudi people and claims that “the Palestinians missed peace opportunities”?

Translated from Al Quds Al Arabi, 12 October 2020

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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