During recent years, dramatic political changes have shaken the Middle East. Some have described these events metaphorically as “shifting desert sands.” They have also been defined as dramatic realignments of political seismic plates.
Some of the more terrifying changes have called to mind the proverbial “end of days.” Others look a little like minor miracles, so unlikely are the players and so unexpected their praiseworthy actions.
Who could have predicted, for example, that a young Saudi intellectual would visit Jerusalem and then courageously write an open letter to his generation, expressing both hope and desire for political transformation?
His dream? That Saudi Arabia’s vibrant young Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud will embrace a new vision for Saudi Arabia – including peace with Israel.
Consider the writer’s opening paragraph:
Having read the article in Foreign Affairs about Prince Mohammad bin Salman, and in the wake of publicity following his meeting with President Trump this week, I would like to offer a candid view that speaks for many Saudis of my generation. Like King Talut of the Holy Quran (corresponding to the biblical King Saul), whom the Quran credits with saving the Jewish people from an enemy bent on their destruction, the young prince bears a similar responsibility — addressing many challenges in order to achieve the goal of transforming his people to greater strength. Prince Mohammad bin Salman may well be God's chosen to help lead Saudi Arabia through the political, economic, and social challenges it faces. This letter offers suggestions he may consider useful in dealing with them.
Yes, it really happened. Abdul-Hameed Hakeem’s open letter was published by the Washington Institute on March 21.
And here’s how it came to pass.
One excellent writer about Middle East realities is Ambassador Dore Gold, who until recently served as director-general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He is now president of the highly regarded Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Gold’s 2003 book, Hatred’s Kingdom, focused on Saudi Arabia and spelled out the precarious balancing act the oil-rich Arab country has been performing for decades – juggling two opposing forces: the secular Western world that buys massive amounts of its oil, and radical Islamism, embodied in Saudi’s Wahabi religious leadership.
In Hatred’s Kingdom, Gold summed up the danger personified by the Saudis:
President Bush asked, after the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon, whether nations are with the United States or with the terrorists. Despite Saudi Arabia’s insistence to the contrary, the record makes it frighteningly clear that the Saudi kingdom is, at this point, with the terrorists. Indeed, it is Saudi Arabia that has spawned the new global terrorists. Unless the Saudi regime feels pressure to change, the hatred that has motivated a horrifying series of worldwide terrorist attacks – including the attacks of September 11 – will only go on. And as long as the hatred continues, the terror will go on.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s leadership – its enormous royal family – has for decades relied on the West’s consumption of its petroleum resources to support the kingdom’s economy; Western oil purchases also finance the royals’ lavish and sometimes decadent lifestyle. But the royal family is, at the same time, obliged to enforce hardline religious laws established by the severe Wahabist religious system.
Wahabism, a sect that came into being in the 18th century, seeks to return Sunni Islam to its earliest roots – the days of Mohammad and his first followers. It curses both Christians (Crusaders) and Jews (sons of pigs and dogs), as was explicitly declared in several of Osama bin Laden’s pontifications.
Much of the anti-Jewish animus in Saudi Arabia is focused on Israel and Zionism. Israeli passport-bearers are banned from entering the country; even travelers with Israeli visas stamped in their passports are turned away. Obvious Jewish religious attire and symbols, such as Star of David jewelry, and religious books are also forbidden.
In December 2014, the Saudi government opened the door just a crack, declaring that Jews could work inside the kingdom. But they made it clear that their newfound openness to Jews did not include Israelis.
Gold’s book meticulously documents the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s dangerous ideology, which inspired Al-Qaeda and innumerable other Sunni jihadi groups.
These days, however, bin Laden is history; no longer the incarnation of Wahabism. At the same time, several stunning and unforeseen political events have perhaps permanently shifted Middle East politics.
First came the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. Despite its custodianship of Mecca and Medina – sometimes described as “Islam’s Vatican” – Saudi Arabia’s kings and princes have long attracted the ire of Sunni and Shia radicals alike. The Arab Spring perilously increased the likelihood of fanatical revolutionaries spilling across Saudi Arabia’s borders.
At the same time, it became uncomfortably clear that the Obama Administration was taking a hands-off approach to the Middle East turmoil, proving itself unwilling to stand behind its historic allies. This became alarmingly evident across the region after President Barack Obama’s “red line” regarding chemical weapons remained unenforced in the Syrian Civil War.
Then came unmitigated upheaval in Libya, Iraq and Egypt in which America seemed to side with her enemies and turn away from her allies.
Would the kingdom’s betrayal come next?
Meanwhile, the centuries-old Sunni-Shia conflict was edging toward center stage again. The gradual exposure of Obama’s initially secret negotiations with Iran – the avowed archenemy of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia – encouraged and emboldened the Ayatollahs. Would the alleged (and likely) Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapon ever actually be stopped?
On the other hand, there was no denying an impressive array of Israeli achievements: ever-increasing high tech innovation and mastery, cyberwarfare capabilities, natural gas discoveries, a flourishing economy, and thriving international relations. The successful international diplomacy of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu – sometimes at the expense of Obama’s agenda – was reflected in his effective outreach to friends and former foes alike.
It was against this backdrop that an unexpected rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel began. In June 2015, the Times of India reported that the Indian city Lucknow had hosted an unusual meeting between Israel and Saudi Arabia, also attended by prominent Shia intellectuals.
Interestingly, the Israeli team was led by Gold, who had just been named director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The Saudi delegation was led by a retired Saudi general, Anwar Majed Eshki.
The India conference was the culmination of numerous clandestine meetings that had taken place over nearly two years.
Soon thereafter, Gold and Eshki addressed the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations. In the press conference that followed, both speakers drew attention to the serious flaws of the Iran nuclear deal, still being negotiated by the P5+1. And they both identified Iran as the chief threat to regional stability.
The two created a significant media ripple when they publicly shook hands.
In July 2016, an even more dramatic event took place. Eshki led a Saudi delegation to Ramallah, where he had been invited to meet with the Palestinian Authority. One evening, Eshki and his colleagues traveled from Ramallah to Jerusalem to meet Gold and other Israelis at the King David Hotel. The Times of Israel reported,
Eshki … told Israel’s Channel 10 News at the time that he and Gold had sat down together “to call for peace in the Middle East.” He said “Saudis and Israelis could work together when Israel announces that it accepts the Arab Initiative.”
There have been various media reports of clandestine talks between Israel and Arab powers, who have come to see the Jewish state as a possible ally against what they consider to be a far greater threat — Iran and its regional aspirations.
Netanyahu too has often spoken of growing secret ties with Arab nations, though experts have warned that the prospects of normalization of ties before peace with the Palestinians is achieved are dim.
The Jerusalem Post interviewed another member of the entourage, the young Saudi intellectual Abdul-Hameed Hakeem. He told BBC Arabic, “In Arab societies, the picture of Israeli society is that it embraces a culture of death, wants to spill blood, and does not believe in peace. That [picture] is not correct.” He continued, “The Israeli society that I encountered embraces a culture of peace, has accomplishments it wants to [protect], wants coexistence, and wants peace.”
Hakeem was amazed by what he saw and heard during his visit to Israel, and was moved by the evident freedom and the peaceable nature of the Israeli people he met.
He made the courageous decision to publish his open letter to young Saudis, who are represented by the 32-year-old deputy crown prince. Hakeem believes that alongside Prince Salman and others, he represents a new generation of Saudis who can see far beyond the present kingdom’s scope.
As for his own view of Israel, in his letter, Hakeem went on to say,
I would like to address a message to the Israeli people and to Jews around the world. Our Holy Quran confirms that you are an integral part of this region. Your civilization and the history of your ancestors was and still is part of our region’s history. Your State is a product of your civilization as well. You have also left a mark in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, as well as in Najran and Khaibar and Medina, which remains visible to this day.
The policies of the Iranian regime are alarmingly similar to the Nazi policies that aimed to exterminate your people. Thus, the Iranian and Nazi regimes are two faces of the same coin in their enmity and hatred of you and the danger they pose. Nevertheless, please be assured that peace can be achieved, and your historical role in our region secured, within the framework of the Arab Peace Initiative. This process would also promote the achievement of peace with Israel within the framework of the Saudi (Arab) Peace Initiative. If achieved, it will save the region from the flames fueled by the Iranian regime, and also allow Saudi Arabia to openly partner with the many technological advances Israel offers.
Israel sees the Saudi peace proposal as flawed, due to its call for complete withdrawal to the 1967 border, or “Green Line.” But it is also viewed as a potentially viable starting point for negotiations.
Time will tell whether the seismic tremors that have so shaken the Middle East in recent years will expose new and lasting opportunities for alliance and cooperation.
One seasoned observer put it this way: “While speculations about secret Saudi-Israeli counter-terrorism and intelligence exchanges cannot be confirmed, it would be naïve to believe that the two countries have no contacts, especially given their mutuality of interest vis-à-vis Iran and defeating terror. There is no doubt that concerns in both Israel and Saudi Arabia about Iran’s ambitions and growing influence in the Middle East have brought these two adversaries of Iran closer.
“Secondly, although the Palestinian issue is highly important as is evident from Eshki’s statement during his visits … his public, even if unofficial, visit shows that Saudi Arabia is willing to take the risk of provoking domestic and Arab public anger by engaging with Israel.”
Few would have foreseen the quiet but consistent diplomatic conversations that are taking place between Israel and a number of Muslim states.
Meanwhile, the author of Hatred’s Kingdom is courageously pursuing a course that could transform hatred into hope.
A delegation of brave and visionary Saudi Arabians have made their way into the heart of Jerusalem to listen and learn.
And a young Saudi scholar has openly offered his dream of peace between two dangerously estranged nations.
Are these simply political machinations? Or do they amount modern-day minor miracles? They are clearly more than “shifting desert sands.” And miraculous or not, such brave efforts kindle a flicker of hope in our dark and troubled world.