The concentration this week of Saudi military strength on the oil kingdom’s Jordanian border appears to be symptomatic of the revival of a historic feud between the House of Saud and the House of Hashem, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report.
The face-off is also linked to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian war and the role the United States wants Jordan to play in a political resolution of the conflict.
On Tuesday, April 23, Saudi Arabia moved eight armored divisions, including short-range surface-to-surface missiles and surface-to-air missiles, to its northern border with Jordan, positioning the force near the northern city of Tobuk. Saudi spokesmen claimed the deployment was a response to Israeli troop movements along the Israeli-Jordanian border and violations of Saudi airspace by Israeli warplanes.
Israeli military spokesman denied the allegations. Israel has no need to mass troops and armor along the border with Jordan. As DEBKA-Net-Weekly has reported before, Israeli and US forces are already deployed by invitation inside the Hashemite kingdom, present along its eastern border to repulse any Iraqi invasion attempts.
It has now emerged, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources, that the Saudi military movements were a warning to Jordan to keep its hands off the West Bank. Riyadh wants Amman to back away from the role assigned it by the United States and Israel in a diplomatic solution of the crisis over the West Bank. The Saudis also strongly oppose any US plan to relocate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from Ramallah to Gaza and shrink Palestinian Authority jurisdiction into the Gaza Strip.
(The details of this US plan were laid out in DEBKAfile on April 20: See Hot Points below).
The plan, which has not been finalized, envisions a West Bank cut in two. One part will stay in Israeli hands. The most powerful local Palestinian clans of Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron will establish a self-governing administration in the other part, retaining a token connection with the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, without being subject to it.
This Palestinian West Bank province will rely on Israel and Jordan jointly for its security and economic well-being, while its political center of gravity will be Amman. The first step towards putting this plan in motion was taken during Operation Defensive Shield, when Israeli forces destroyed the Palestinian Authority’s governmental infrastructure, including its security and intelligence arms and civil administration offices. The Israeli campaign, in addition to obviating Arafat’s governance over the West Bank and wrecking his terrorist infrastructure, also opened the way for Jordan to move in.
Saudi Arabia’s rationale for preserving Palestinian Authority rule in the West Bank is historic. Saudi rulers are loath to see Jordanian jurisdiction over Islamic holy sites on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and will go far to prevent this happening – even to applying military leverage against their royal neighbor.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the Gulf say the Saudis note that Jordan’s King Abdullah II is very much alone in the region; the only Arab ruler willing to stick his neck out to back future US military action against his neighbor Saddam Hussein, King Abdullah has publicly and unequivocally come out in support of the US global war against terrorism.
He has thus opted for a line diametrically opposed to that of the Saudi throne.
The Saudi royal family is convinced that their neighbor’s stance is a revival of the historic rivalry between their dynasty and the Hashemites over guardianship rights in the Islamic shrines of Mecca and Medina in the Red Sea province of Hijaz.
Saudi princes have long memories. They recall that the Hashemites were once the hereditary Sherifs of Hijaz – until the early 1920s, when the founder of the House of Saud evicted the Hashemites and displaced them, to create the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Neither have the Saudi princes forgotten the actions of Abdullah’s father, King Hussein of Jordan, during the uprising 23 years ago that nearly toppled the Saudi throne in Riyadh.
When back in 1979 the incumbent Saudi crown prince Abdullah asked King Hussein to dispatch his rapid deployment commando force to put down a revolt staged by extremist Wahabi tribal and religious leaders at the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the Jordanian king laid down a condition: He demanded the restoration to the Hashemite House of a sovereign enclave in Medina, including the tomb of the Prophet Mohammed.
This would amount to the restoration of Hashemite Sherifdom to the Hijaz, as guardians of Islam’s Holy Places, and Saudi renunciation of its cherished standing as protectors of the Kabah of Mecca and the Tomb of the Prophet.
Since then, the Saudis have kept a weather eye on what they perceive as Hashemite aspirations in Hijaz. They fear that if King Abdullah gains a foothold in the West Bank and Jerusalem, he will turn this gain into a fulcrum for claiming the holy shrines under Saudi protection.
US President George W. Bush will have to exercise the utmost diplomatic finesse to pick his way between the two Arab monarchs and their mutually contradictory interests. He will need to avoid a showdown with Riyadh by making concessions on formulae for resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, while at the same time keeping faith with his most faithful Arab ally and mainstay, Jordan’s King Abdullah.