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What the Saudis Really Care About

As I noted yesterday, the idea that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help stabilize the Middle East is fatuous. Yet many world leaders continue to espouse it. In his UN address last month, for instance, President Barack Obama proclaimed that while this conflict is “not the cause of all the region’s problems,” it has been “a major source of instability for far too long,” and resolving it would help lay “a foundation for a broader peace.” In August, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius termed the conflict “one of the issues, perhaps the central one, for the region.”

Given that the events of the past few years would seem to have decisively disproved this theory–nobody would seriously argue, for instance, that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ease the sectarian bloodletting in Syria or Iraq or the feud between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, while the Syrian conflict alone has been far more destabilizing to the region than the Israeli-Palestinian one has–the question is why so many world leaders still cling to it. A good place to look for answers is Saudi Arabia’s unprecedented decision not to address the UN General Assembly last week.

Riyadh billed this decision as a protest against the UN’s position “on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.” If you took that at face value, you’d naturally assume that what upsets Riyadh most is the Israeli-Palestinian issue: The bulk of its statement was devoted to this issue, with Syria seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. The problem is that objectively, this makes no sense: After all, by Riyadh’s own admission, the conflict has gone on for 60 years now, yet it never boycotted the UN before. So why now of all times–precisely when Washington has finally succeeded in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks after a five-year freeze?

Regarding Syria, however, the UN did just do something that upset Riyadh greatly: At Russia’s initiative, it passed a resolution on disarming the Assad regime of its chemical weapons that not only killed American plans for imminent airstrikes, but essentially guaranteed Assad immunity from Western intervention for the foreseeable future and legitimized him as a partner, thereby effectively reversing two years of Western demands that he step down. For Saudi Arabia, which has backed Syria’s rebels heavily with both money and arms, this was a major blow.

Indeed, anyone tracking Riyadh’s actions rather than its words can easily see which issues it cares about and which it doesn’t: In contrast to its massive support for the Syrian rebels, or the $5 billion it pledged to Egypt’s military government after July’s coup, its financial support for the Palestinians is meager. UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, gets almost all its funding from the West; Saudi Arabia gave it a mere $12 million last year–less than half the sum provided by Holland alone. Western states are also the Palestinian Authority’s main financial backers; Arab countries not only pledge less to begin with, but serially default on their pledges.

There are various reasons why Arabs feel the need to cloak their real concerns behind a façade of verbiage about the Palestinians. The truly puzzling question is why the West hasn’t yet learned to look behind this verbiage to the telltale actions–what Arabs care enough to spend money on, or, as I’ve written before, to put their lives on the line for. But until it does, it will keep right on believing that fatuous claim of Israeli-Palestinian centrality. 


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