By James M. Dorsey
US President Joe Biden may have little appetite for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking but seems determined to prevent some third parties from exploiting the regional stalemate to their advantage. That seems to be one message contained in ensuring that King Abdullah of Jordan will be the first Arab leader to visit the White House since Mr. Biden took office.
The message takes on added significance with the beginning earlier this month of court proceedings against two senior Jordanians accused of sedition and plotting with former Crown Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, a half-brother of King Abdullah II, to destabilize the monarchy. The message’s significance is enhanced at a time that various Muslim-majority states are competing for religious soft power in the Muslim world.
The alleged plot in cooperation with Prince Hamzah and Saudi efforts to protect one of the defendants, Bassam Awadallah, refocused attention on a low key, long-standing Saudi effort to include the kingdom in the administration of the Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount in Jerusalem, considered by Muslims to be the third holiest site in Islam.
A close associate of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Mr. Awadallah is a former chief of the court of King Abdullah and ex-Jordanian finance minister.
The Harm ash-Sharif is home to the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. The Temple Mount is Judaism’s holiest site. It is where Jews believe that God's divine presence is manifested most and to which Jews turn during prayer.
Saudi Arabia bases its claim to leadership of the Muslim world on its custodianship of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. The Saudi claim, at a time that it is competing for religious soft power, would be significantly boosted by a stake in the administration of the Haram ash-Sharif. In effect, Jerusalem is a crown jewel in what amounts to a battle for the soul of Islam with the administration of its Muslim holy sites vested for the past century in a Jordanian-government controlled endowment.
The stakes in the struggle for control of the Jerusalem sites are high. For Saudi Arabia’s ruling Al Saud family, it is about bolstering its religious claim to leadership of the Muslim world. For Jordan and its Hashemite monarchs who, unlike the Al Sauds, trace their ancestry to the Prophet Mohammed, it’s not just about religious power. With Palestinians accounting for more than 40 per cent of Jordan’s population, maintaining the status quo in Jerusalem, seen by Palestinians as the capital of a future Palestinian state, is key to ensuring regime survival.
Although not charged, Prince Hamzah has been under house arrest since April when Mr. Awadallah and the second defendant, Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a businessman and distant cousin of King Abdullah, were detained.
Saudi Arabia fueled suspicion of a Saudi connection to the plot by allegedly mounting a concerted effort when the plot was first disclosed to persuade King Abdullah to allow Mr. Awadallah, a Jordanian, US and Saudi national, to go into exile in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia sent its foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, intelligence chief Khalid bin Ali Al Humaidan, and a senior official in Prince Mohammed’s office to take Mr. Awadallah back with them.
Jordan’s rejection of the Saudi demand was bolstered by support from Mr. Biden as well as CIA Director William Burns.
Saudi Arabia has denied wanting Mr. Awadallah to go into exile in the kingdom. Saudi officials said the visits to Jordan by senior officials were intended to express support for the Jordanian monarch.
Denying any Saudi association with the Jordanian plot, Ali Shihabi, a Middle East analyst who often reflects Saudi positions, tweeted: “The only Saudi ‘angle’ is Awadallah who also has Saudi nationality and is immensely unpopular in Jordan. He is mentioned in the leaks as having been asked to secure Saudi help by Hamzah. No help was extended in any form and not a shred of evidence supports such allegations.”
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi insisted during a visit to Washington in May that efforts to broaden administration of the Haram-ash Sharif constituted a red line. King Abdullah reiterated Jordan’s rejection of any attempt to involve third parties in the administration during a subsequent visit to Amman by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
Relations between Jordan and Saudi Arabia have flowed and ebbed with the Saudis being irked by King Abdullah’s fierce rejection of former US President Donald J. Trump’s recognition of all of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish, including the eastern part of the city conquered from Jordan during the 1967 Middle East war, and the president’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that effectively supported hardline Israeli policies.
King Abdullah suspected former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of favouring a Saudi role in the administration of the Haram ash-Sharif and is uncertain about Mr. Netanyahu’s successor, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who rejects the notion of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and supports Israeli settlement activity.
Jordanian officials denied reports last year in Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu publication, quoting Saudi diplomats as saying that Jordan was willing to grant Saudi Arabia observer status in the endowment administering the Haram ash-Sharif.
Saudi Arabia has not officially announced its quest to wrest control from Jordan of the Haram ash-Sharif but Saudi interest is evident in various of the kingdom’s moves in recent years.
Flexing the kingdom’s financial muscle, Saudi King Salman told an Arab summit in Dhahran in April 2018 that he was donating US$150 million to support Islam’s holy places in Jerusalem. The donation was in part designed to counter bequests by Turkey, a rival contender for Muslim religious soft power, to Islamic organizations in Jerusalem as well as Turkish efforts to acquire real estate in the city.
Saudi Arabia has since clashed with Jordan in Arab fora over Jordan’s exclusive control of the administration of the Jerusalem sites and is believed to have been wooing Palestinian religious dignitaries.
The risk for Saudi Arabia is that broadening the administration of the Jerusalem sites could blow new wind into latent suggestions that the custodianship of Mecca and Medina also be internationalized. It is a proposition, often put forward by Iran, that sends chills down Saudi spines.
Writing in Haaretz in 2019, Malik Dahlan, a Saudi-born international lawyer, who is believed to be close to Prince Hamzah, suggested that any negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians could work if in the first phase “an agreement on the (religious) governance of Jerusalem” was achieved. “This Jerusalem-first approach would involve the idea of ‘integrative internationalization,’ which incidentally, I also prescribe for Mecca and Medina,” Mr. Malik wrote. There was no suggestion that Prince Hamzah shared Mr. Malik’s views on the holy Saudi sites.
(Correction: Mr. Malik was wrongly described in the last paragraph of this story as a supporter of Mr. Trump's Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. He is not. He put forwards his argument for resolving religious governance in Jerusalem as a matter of negotiating principle).
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute as well as an Honorary Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Eye on ISIS.