Lip Service: Saudi Reactions to Trump’‎s Declaration

Nachum Shiloh investigates the reasons behind the moderate Saudi reaction to U.S President Donald Trump's Jerusalem declaration.
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The Five-Point Document, from the Twitter account of the Saudi Press Agency.

The Five-Point Document, from the Twitter account of the Saudi Press Agency.

Immediately following US President Donald Trump’s speech recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Saudi government released an official statement stressing that there is a broad international consensus that opposes the declaration because it violates the rights of the Palestinian people, and the statement further called upon the American administration to retract it.[1] On December 13, when the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) met in Istanbul to denounce the declaration, the Saudi king called for the implementation of a political solution to the region’‎s problems, first and foremost among them the Palestinian problem. He added that Saudi Arabia supports the realization of the rights of the Palestinian people, especially the right to establish an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital.[2] The Saudi response to the Trump Declaration was low-key, carefully considered and non-inflammatory. This was not only because the Iranian threat, which is currently considered the most serious threat to Saudi Arabia, dominates the discourse, but also because of the Saudi desire to maintain a close relationship with the United States, and perhaps also because Saudi Arabia shares some political and security interests with Israel.

The moderate tone adopted by the Saudi government was followed by other officials in the kingdom. For example, on its official Twitter account the Foreign Ministry was careful to present a position similar to that taken by the monarch. Their Tweets on the subject included moderate condemnation of Trump’s statement, expressions of support for the Palestinians, and emphasis on the importance of implementing the 2002 Saudi peace initiative. However, the Foreign Ministry’s Twitter account dealt with the issue of Jerusalem for only two days, before returning to the issue of greatest concern to the Saudi kingdom, namely the Iranian threat.[3]

A similar trend was found on social networking services (SNS) identified with the Saudi religious establishment. The Saudi Council of Senior Scholars (Majlis Hay’‎at Kibar al-’‎Ulama) published a short 5-point document on the subject stating that Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa Mosque have a very important place in Islam, and for the existence of all Muslims; the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has led the Arab and Islamic countries in fulfilling their duty to assist the Palestinians; treatment of the Palestinian issue must include reference to the importance of Jerusalem to Muslims; any peace agreement must be based on justice and the granting of rights to the Palestinians; and Jerusalem is hallowed land that the Qur’an has commanded to bless. With its moderate and restrained language, the document not only failed to stir passion, but also made clear that the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia is prepared for an agreement with Israel based on the 1967 borders and the division of Jerusalem. In the days following the publication of the document, the Council resumed its discussion of theological and domestic issues.[4]

In the discourse that developed on SNS, a sharper tone was evident, especially among young Saudis. Along with the expected resentment expressed against the United States and Israel, there were many unusual reactions on Twitter and YouTube, including harsh criticism of the Palestinian people, the Palestinian leadership, and the Palestinian problem itself. This was due to a wave of inflammatory statements in the Palestinian media and Palestinian social networks against King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, who were accused of “selling Jerusalem” and “betraying Jerusalem.” These statements were made against the backdrop of articles claiming that the crown prince recently suggested to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) that the future capital of Palestine could be established in Abu Dis instead of East Jerusalem. One of the most prominent hashtag was “#May you and your problem burn,” in which the word “problem” was deliberately misspelled, apparently with the aim of humiliating the Palestinians and expressing disdain for their cause. This was distributed by the so-called “Saudi electronic committees,” a designation that is presumably intended to create the impression that it is a community, not individual users.

Many of the young Saudis who participated in the discourse argued that the Palestinians dare not curse Saudi Arabia and the Saudi royal family, considering the many years in which the Saudis supported them by contributing vast sums of money. For example, one Saudi citizen, Riyad al-Zahrani, uploaded a picture of a campaign requesting donations for the Palestinian that appeared in an old Saudi newspaper and wrote: “I am one of the Saudi people, and when I was a schoolboy, I donated some of my food money to Palestine, but now that I am grown, I see that the turncoats tread on the picture of our king and curse my homeland, which gave them billions, and now I say: ‘‎May you and your problem burn.’‎ May Allah not grant you the benefit of the money that came at the cost of my meal.”[5]

A review of leading Twitter accounts in Saudi Arabia claiming to represent residents of large cities, found references to the statement, but mainly as a transitory media item. In some cases, there is even a hint of undermining the consensus on Jerusalem. For example, a survey conducted by the “Twitter Jedda” account, which has 189,000 followers, asked if Jerusalem is the eternal capital of Palestine. Of the 590 participants in the survey, 87% responded positively. Although this is a high percentage of supporters, the very fact that some people in Saudi Arabia question the correctness of the claim is significant. Moreover, the low number of respondents to the question attests to users’‎ limited interest in the subject. Therefore, it is no surprise that a few days after the declaration, the subject was no longer mentioned by these accounts.[6] Furthermore, there was a complete disregard for the Jerusalem issue among Twitter accounts representing small cities and towns, especially border towns; these instead chose to focus on the current affairs of their residents.

The limited interest in this issue was also evident on other public pages. For example, the Facebook pages associated with the Saudi Shi’i opposition in the eastern district, such as al-Awamiyya Online (al-Awamiyah ‘ala al-Shabkha) and others, dealt with issues concerning their specific constituency, with emphasis on the measures taken against them by the Saudi authorities).[7] Another example is the Twitter account of the newspaper Najran al-Yawm, which dealt almost exclusively with the situation on the border with Yemen and the steep-trajectory rockets frequently fired from that country into Saudi territory. Unsurprisingly, then, the most prominent images published on that account were of the remnants of missiles and rockets fired from Yemen, not of the mosques on the Temple Mount.[8] This clearly reflect the prevailing perception held among the Saudi leadership and on the Saudi street that Iran is the country’‎s main enemy, and therefore the most important issue on the Saudi agenda.

In conclusion, although SNS did include some heated rhetoric against the United States and Israel following the Trump declaration, it can be said that the responses were low-key, in part because of the line led by the government. The religious establishment has remained in step with the political authorities on this issue, too. Among Saudis, the Iranian threat and the internal affairs of the Kingdom are much more deserving of their interest; it is clear that the average Saudi is more concerned about insults made by Palestinians against the king than about the issue of Jerusalem and its status for the Palestinians.