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Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Prince Bandar’s message

While times have changed, demanding new approaches to regional crises like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saudi Arabia will not renege on its historic duties to Arab security

Abdel Moneim Said , Friday 23 Oct 2020
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In a three-episode exclusive interview with Al-Arabiya news channel, His Excellency Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud prefaced that his remarks were addressed, first and foremost, to his fellow Saudi Arabian citizens. In fact, he had a message for all Arabs. 

I had the honour to interview Prince Bandar twice. The first time was in Washington, in the company of then Al-Ahram editor-in-chief and chairman of the board Ibrahim Nafie. The meeting was also attended by Saudi ambassador Ahmed Al-Qattan. As always in Arab-Arab interviews, the Palestinian cause topped the agenda.

On that occasion the discussion turned to the Zionist lobby in Washington and especially the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which specialises in scrutinising Arab media for everything that might hint at hostility to Israel, Israelis and Jews — in brief, what they might regard as anti-Semitic.

The Arabs’ argument that they, too, were Semites and other refutations were no longer sufficient. What was needed was an Arab media watchdog to counter MEMRI, which is to say to scrutinise Israeli and Jewish media and schoolbooks for anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian racism and discrimination.

Efforts to create such an entity resulted in the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (AADC), founded with Prince Bandar’s conceptual input and material support. Support in Cairo came from many prominent Egyptian businessmen, such as Naguib Sawiris and Mohamed Abul-Enein, the journalist Emadeddin Adeeb, as well as Al-Ahram Organisation and Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. The story of the AADC is well worth telling, from its origins to its continued work under Emad Gad who would go on to become a member of the Egyptian House of Representatives. 

The second time I met Prince Bandar occurred a few months after the first. It was in Cairo this time. He was on his way home at the end of his long tour of duty in Washington, carrying with him the weight of many years of handling Arab-US relations and on his way to assume other crucial burdens as secretary-general of the recently created Saudi National Security Council.

The meeting, which I moderated, was attended by experts from Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and senior Al-Ahram journalists. As I watched His Excellency in that lengthy Al- Arabiya interview that meeting long ago in Al-Ahram’s famous meeting room flashed to my mind. It was so rich and we were so involved that we almost missed a flight some of us were due to catch in order to accompany Ibrahim Nafie on an Al-Ahram journalistic mission.

As was the case in my previous meetings with Prince Bandar, the meeting reflected the diplomatic and political acumen and professionalism I had also seen in the late prince Saud Al-Faisal and in my interview with Prince Turki Al-Faisal. As for the substance, it was not that different either. The Arabs’ core priorities were still much the same. 

However, times changed in the nearly two decades since then. True, already by then there had been a qualitative shift from the “Arabisation” of the Palestinian cause in 1948 towards the “Palestinisation” of the Palestinian cause following the formal adoption of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people in the Arab summit of 1974.

Just as other Arab peoples were responsible for their own affairs, the Palestinians were, too, now in charge of their cause and it was up to the other Arabs to furnish the diplomatic, political and material support to enable the Palestinians to attain their goals on the path to statehood, independence and the right self-determination.

Of course, way back in 1974 it was impossible to foresee what the next decades would bring: the disintegration of the Palestinian struggle into armed and disastrous Intifadas, the division of Palestinians fighting for self-determination in an independent state with its capital in Jerusalem into one entity in the West Bank and another in Gaza and, above all, the emergence of multiple organisations, each claiming the right to bear arms and to determine Palestinian priorities and policies. 

Then came the so-called Arab Spring, bringing savage forms of radical Islamism and a decline in Arab strength that whetted the appetite of such regional powers as Iran and Turkey and their local allies such as Qatar and certain Palestinian groups. 

Prince Bandar’s Al-Arabiya interview, which drew widespread attention in the international media, came at a moment when Palestinian failure was complete. There is no unified leadership and not even a national authority to manage Palestinian affairs and fight for their interests, let alone a state. Egypt, Saudi Arabia’s “elder sister” as the prince described it, spent years trying to broker Palestinian reconciliation, but without success.

Nor has Riyadh managed to reconcile the factions, even as they all swore to defend Haram Al-Sharif. Despite how the world has changed and how this region has been turned topsy-turvy, the Palestinians remained mired in their political adolescence, bravado, false facades, weakness, declining patriotic spirit and lack of a strategic compass and acumen. Prince Bandar is not unaware of the crux of the Palestinian cause.

However, his message to fellow Saudis and to the Arabs and Palestinians who were listening was, firstly, that slogans, burning flags and pictures, and distributing charges of treachery will not serve to promote Arab interests. Secondly, not only has the world and the region changed, but also each Arab country has had to change after having neared the brink of hell due to enemies at home and abroad. So, it is time for the Palestinians to change, too. 

Although the prince’s message concerned the Palestinian cause and levelled criticism at Palestinian leaders for their handling of their people, their allies and even their enemies, it also expressed the profound changes that have been taking place in Saudi Arabia itself, thanks to a sweeping modernisation process unfolding at diverse social, economic and even historical and geographical levels of the nation state. Against this background, Saudi and Arab national priorities and national security interests are being redefined, and in this framework, it has become necessary to revise the management of the Arab-Israeli conflict — the oldest, deepest and most complex regional conflict.

The experience, expertise, facts and insight that Prince Bandar brought to bear in his message to the Saudi people is a much-needed answer to the huge quantities of noise, lies and vulgarities in the media. However, his message, which I believe was also directed to other Arab states, and perhaps to the world, also tells us that Saudi Arabia, the home of the Prophetic Revelation and the holiest Islamic sites, will not be goaded into one course of action by slanderous slights by Palestinian leaders.

Yet nor will it let transient pressures push it into another course if it feels that the essential conditions have not yet been met for a genuine peace process. It was only natural for Riyadh to support and defend the steps taken by the UAE and Bahrain.

However, by virtue of its history and status, it has to approach the Arab-Israeli peace process from the standpoint of regional security, the realisation of which requires certain practical conditions needed to safeguard the Arab nation state and pave the way to development, modernisation and prosperity. For a solution to the Palestinian question, it is not enough for the Palestinians to be ready. The Israelis also have to be ready to respond in kind to the peaceful tides in this region.

*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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