King Saud and the issue of Palestine

Publication Date: 
Thu, 2002-09-05 03:00

With Palestine and its problems in the news every day, it is important that we have some knowledge of its history and some understanding of how and why matters have developed as they have. In the following piece, Fahda bint Saud ibn Abdul Aziz reflects on the reign of King Saud. The Kingdom gives full support today, as it always has, to the Arab people of Palestine. Just as in earlier times, the Kingdom faces an unjust propaganda and diplomatic offensive by America and Israel. History loses no time in repeating itself: To forestall this, we must read history, examine it and its events in order to understand what happened, why they happened and try to prevent them from happening again.

The Palestine issue has been a thorn in the side of Saudi-American relations since World War II. As a world power with military bases and interests in the Middle East, the US began to play its role in the region as soon as Britain ended its own.

As leader of a country dear to the hearts of all Muslims, King Abdul Aziz firmly opposed the Zionist movement and Jewish immigration into Palestine. Enraged by the call at a Zionist conference in America for the creation of a Jewish state, King Abdul Aziz threatened to sever relations with both Britain and the United States should they support that call.

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent his special emissary Harry Hopkins to Riyadh on a fact-finding mission. Hopkins met King Abdul Aziz on Aug. 14, 1943 after which Roosevelt became interested in discussing the issue personally with the king. The two leaders met near the end of World War II in February 1945. At that historic meeting, they discussed the matter of Palestine and laid the foundations for relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Just one week before his death, in a letter dated April 5, 1945, Roosevelt promised King Abdul Aziz that he, as president of the United States, would take no hostile action against the Arabs and that the United States would not change its basic policy toward the Palestine issue without prior consultations with both Arabs and Jews.

Things changed drastically when Harry S. Truman took over as president after Roosevelt’s death. In a move that was incompatible with Roosevelt’s pledge, Truman played a key role in the settlement of 100,000 Jews in Palestine. In May 1946, the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia tendered his resignation as a reaction to Truman’s breaking the promise of Roosevelt to King Abdul Aziz.

Thus the most serious of all Zionist efforts to establish a homeland for the Jews in Palestine burst on the international scene with a bang. For their part, Arab leaders flocked to Anshas at the invitation of King Farouk of Egypt for consultations at a conference on May 28, 1946. Saudi Arabia was represented by Crown Prince Saud ibn Abdul Aziz. The other participants were Syrian President Shukri Al-Qowatli, King Abdullah of Jordan, Iraqi Regent Prince Abdullah, Lebanese President Bishara Al-Khouri and Saif-ul-Islam ibn Yahya of Yemen. The conference issued a statement that said “The Palestine issue is of concern not only for the Palestinians but for all the Arabs.” The statement denounced the British stand on the issue.

Crown Prince Saud had become emotionally involved with the Palestinian issue after an official tour in 1935 which took him to Egypt, Transjordan and Palestine. The first Saudi prince to visit Jerusalem, he was accompanied by a delegation made up of Fouad Hamzah, Midhat Sheikh Al-Ardh, Khairuddine Azzirikli and Saleh Al-Ali. The tour was organized as part of King Abdul Aziz’s directive to inspect conditions in Palestine, give aid to its Arab population and help ease their ordeal. The crown prince was given a warm welcome in Palestine. He prayed at both Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and Al-Ibraheemi Mosque in Al-Khaleel (Hebron). On arrival in the Palestinian town of Anabtah, the crown prince heard the poet Abdul-Raheem Mahmood recite a poem in his praise. The poem touched the crown prince deeply and he was moved to tears by one especially powerful line:

“Al-Aqsa Mosque: Have you come to visit it, or have you come to bid it farewell before it is lost?”

Addressing the crowd, Crown Prince Saud made a touching pledge in a firm sonorous voice: “By Allah, we will never bid Palestine farewell as long as blood is throbbing in our veins.”

President Truman sent an official invitation to Crown Prince Saud to come to Washington for talks on both the strained US-Saudi relations and the Palestinian issue. The crown prince arrived in New York on Jan. 13, 1947, accompanied by a delegation made up of Sheikh Fouad Hamzah, Sulaiman Al-Hamad, Ali Alireza, Dr. Rashad Pharaon, Dr. Adeeb Intabi and Sheikh Fahd ibn Kuraydees. He had lengthy discussions with President Truman on Feb. 16, 1947 at the White House. On leaving the meeting, the crown prince told the press that President Truman had promised to be impartial and not to show bias to the Jews. The crown prince reminded his host of President Roosevelt’s pledge regarding Palestine and Washington’s attitude toward the Arab position. He explained to President Truman afresh the inalienable right of the Arabs in Palestine and listed the following points:

1. The illegality of the Jewish settlement scheme;

2. The status of Jerusalem and its significance to all Arabs and Muslims;

3. The Arab majority of the population in Palestine.

The outcome of the meeting, however, was disappointing as, unlike his predecessor, President Truman had failed to grasp the importance of the Palestinian issue.

America’s pro-Zionist policy has not changed over the years, a fact borne out by what is happening today. The truth is that American bias has become more obvious and more pronounced. It is no longer concealed; it is there for all to see.

The Kingdom, however, did not cease its efforts. It went much further in supporting Arab issues with the Palestinian issue always on top of the agenda. At a meeting with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden in February 1947, the crown prince called for the withdrawal of British forces from Egypt. He also reviewed the Palestinian issue and the strained Anglo-Egyptian relations.

Several months after Crown Prince Saud’s visit to Washington, the United States voted at the United Nations in November 1947 for the partition of Palestine, and the creation of two states: One for the Jews and one for the Palestinians. King Abdul Aziz was furious. US Secretary of State Robert Lovett sent through the American Minister Plenipotentiary in Jeddah his government’s reply to the points raised by the crown prince during his Washington visit. Lovett claimed that his country’s vote was in the interest of peace. He mentioned that the US was instituting an embargo on arms supplies to Palestine and neighboring countries while the security issue was under consideration at the United Nations.

President Truman’s stand in favor of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine needed no further clarification. He took the stand showing little regard for the pledges made orally and in writing by his predecessor to King Abdul Aziz. The king had fought strenuously to prove that Jewish immigration into Palestine was absolutely illegal and he blamed both the international community and the American administration for the usurpation of Arab territory. The accession of Crown Prince Saud to the throne after the death of King Abdul Aziz (may his soul rest in peace) coincided with the election of Dwight Eisenhower as president of the United States.

As the struggle for the restoration of Palestinian rights intensified, King Saud realized that the unification of Arab ranks was a pressing need. The Israeli threat backed by the West was growing. To face such a threat successfully, a joint endeavor by Arab countries was indispensable in King Saud’s opinion. As part of his assessment of the danger, King Saud made the right diagnosis: “The Zionist threat is like cancer — in dealing with it neither medicine nor surgery will do any good.” This royal statement was meant to emphasize that the Arabs do not, and will not, accept an Israeli state amidst them.

In 1954, King Saud called for a conference of Muslim countries in order to discuss aid to Arab forces in and around Palestine. The conference, scheduled to be held in Jerusalem, would discuss the Palestinian issue as a whole, work for the unification of Muslims, and explore ways in which financial and military aid could be channeled.

On the occasion of the Haj that year, a number of Muslim and Arab heads of state held a meeting after performing the rites, devoted to coordinating joint efforts with regard to Palestine. The leaders decided to appoint a general secretary for the conference, a task Anwar Sadat of Egypt offered to undertake. They also decided to create a supreme council headed by King Saud.

At a meeting with the Jewish writer Alfred Lilienthal, King Saud recalled that the Jews and Arabs had lived together in peace at the beginning of the British mandate in Palestine and before that as well. Lilienthal had exposed in a book the plots hatched by American Jewry, in collusion with Truman, for the settlement of Jews in Palestine, and timed to coincide in 1947 with United Nations deliberations on Palestine. King Saud told Lilienthal that peaceful coexistence could be restored only by the repatriation of Palestine refugees, termination of Jewish immigration, and the implementation of all relevant United Nations resolutions; otherwise Arabs and Muslims would resort to the only other option — namely to defend themselves and protect Al-Aqsa Mosque with all the manpower and fiscal resources at their disposal. In September 1954, King Saud was interviewed by William Polk of the Ford Foundation, who requested him to address few words to the American people. The King said, “We hope the American people will understand the hopes and suffering of the Arab people, and the Palestinians in particular. I appeal to the humanitarian conscience of every American to think of the suffering of homeless Arab refugees.”

In November 1954, the American and British ambassadors to Israel presented their credentials in Jerusalem instead of in Tel Aviv. This was in violation of United Nations resolutions and King Saud called on Arab countries to lodge strong protests and take whatever measures were deemed necessary. Saudi Ambassador to Egypt, Abdullah Ibrahim Al-Fadl, broadcast the King’s call to the Arab peoples and made a personal protest to Britain.

Because of the tense situation, King Saud agreed with Egypt and Syria to set up a three-pronged collective security pact and a joint military command. The three countries agreed to adopt a unified foreign policy and cooperate closely in all fields. At the same time, Israeli forces launched repeated attacks on Gaza and across the line of armistice. Saudi citizens cabled King Saud their willingness to proceed to the Gaza Strip in order to stand by the Egyptians in repulsing any Israeli attack. The Saudi Army had undergone intensive training and was ready to face all eventualities. King Saud firmly believed that the Arabs, by being united and prepared militarily, would force others to respect them and deal with them fairly in line with United Nations principles.

On Oct. 27, 1955, Egypt and the Kingdom signed a military agreement calling for the creation of a joint command, a defense fund and a military council. The agreement was signed by Prime Minister Prince Faisal ibn Abdul Aziz and was known as “The Joint Defense Agreement.” King Saud announced the agreement to the public in a nationwide address on the second anniversary of his accession to the throne, and apparently in preparation for the meeting which brought him, President Nasser of Egypt and Syrian President Shukri Al-Qowatli together on March 6, 1956. Within the next five days, resolutions were passed calling for the strengthening of Arab security and for dealing with American arms supplies to Israel. On March 19, 1956, King Saud informed the French foreign minister that the Kingdom would cancel all its contracts with French companies if France sold arms to Israel.

On July 19, 1956, the US reneged on an earlier offer to finance the construction of the Aswan High Dam. On July 26, 1956, Egypt announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal and France, Britain and the United States froze all Egyptian assets. The Egyptian government countered by seizing the assets and properties of the Canal. The situation was referred to the UN Security Council amid rising tension and an atmosphere of war. The triple aggression against Egypt by France, Britain and Israel was not long in coming. The Kingdom was in the forefront of countries supporting Egypt. King Saud announced a general mobilization on Oct. 19, 1956, and cut off oil supplies to Britain and France, the first time such a step was taken by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Army took up positions in Jordan and offices to receive volunteers were opened throughout the Kingdom. King Saud placed the Ministry of Defense under his immediate control and personally supervised the recruitment of volunteers. In addition, he deposited $10 million in Egyptian banks to increase Egypt’s foreign currency assets and he gave instructions that goods purchased from Egypt should be paid for in dollars. The Kingdom broke off diplomatic relations with France and Britain. At the time, Saudi Arabia lost $300 million in oil revenues as a result of the oil embargo and another $50 million due to the closure of the Suez Canal.

As Communist influence began to be felt in the Middle East after the so-called Czech arms deal to Egypt, America produced the Eisenhower Doctrine on the Middle East in 1957. A meeting had taken place earlier in Egypt between King Saud, Egyptian President Nasser and Syrian President Shukri Al-Qowatli at which they had signed the Arab Security Agreement.

On King Saud’s arrival in New York, Mayor Robert Wagner refused to receive him officially. Addressing a fund-raising for Israel, Wagner said that the Americans were at the end of their tether because of the discriminatory treatment of American Jews to whom both the Saudi Air Force and Aramco were off limits on orders from King Saud. He also stated that he had doubts as to whether King Saud was a real ally of the United States. The next day King Saud made a speech at the United Nations in which he said that power politics had failed and caused much harm to mankind. That kind of politics, he observed, did not spare even the United Nations, making it difficult for it to perform its mission properly. Commenting on the king’s personality, The Herald Tribune said that he possessed the firmness, candor and restraint typical of Muslims.

President Eisenhower personally received the king the next day at Washington Airport. Such a gesture was a first in the annals of American protocol. The king stayed in Washington as the president’s personal guest. The matter of Palestine topped their agenda and King Saud briefed the president on regional political realities as well as on Arab feelings and rights. Eisenhower summed up his attitude by saying that Israel was there to stay, that America would not stand idly by if Israel faced elimination and that the Arabs must understand that. He went on to say that Washington would not allow Israel to expand and would not tolerate any injustice to the Arabs. While promising to help the Arabs against any unfair Israeli policy, President Eisenhower made it clear that he could not commit himself to a return to the Palestine partition plan and that any solution to the Palestinian problem must be based on the project submitted by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles concerning the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Egyptian territory. He indicated that he was ready to use pressure to force Israel to withdraw from Sharm El-Sheikh and Gaza. The final joint communique stated that the Middle East problems should be solved by peaceful means through the good offices of the United Nations. The United States tried to convince King Saud of the value of the Dulles plan but Saudi Arabia’s stand was conveyed by the Saudi Ambassador to Washington Abdullah Al-Khayal. He met Undersecretary of State William Rowntree and expressed the Kingdom’s discomfort with the Dulles plan because of its unqualified support for Israel and its attempts to justify a continued Israeli military presence in Gaza and the Gulf of Aqaba. This presence was inferred from the American argument in favor of freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba and the stationing of international troops along the Egyptian-Israeli border. King Saud made it clear that this position would only lead to widening the gap between America and the Arab countries. He instructed his ambassador in Washington to convey this to State Department officials and this difference of opinion cast a chill over relations between the two countries.

A four-power meeting was held in Cairo to evaluate the outcome of the king’s talks in Washington and discuss the Eisenhower Doctrine. Two other topics were also scheduled for discussion: Continued Israeli defiance of the United Nations and the need to lay the groundwork for a common Arab policy. The meeting was held in February 1957 and was attended by King Saud, King Hussein of Jordan, Egyptian President Nasser and Syrian President Shukri Al-Qowatli. The king’s delegation was composed of Prince Musa’id ibn Abdulrahman, Royal Counselor Sheikh Yusuf Yaseen, Dr. Jamal Al-Husseini, Sheikh Abdullah Balkhair and Prince Muhammad ibn Saud. The Kingdom’s position was firm and clear. It had to be so since four months earlier, Israeli planes and boats had attacked positions well inside Saudi territory at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba. Those attacks served to indicate Israeli intentions to secure for itself by force the right of free passage in the Gulf of Aqaba; it of course demonstrated the threat Israel posed to peace in the region.

During a visit to Saudi Arabia by the Shah of Iran in 1957, the Kingdom and Iran agreed that peace and stability in the Middle East could be established only through the recovery of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.

The year 1957 was decisive for Saudi policy on the international, Arab and Islamic levels. During that year, King Saud worked hard to bring Arab and Muslim countries closer as the crisis with Israel and the West over the recovery of Palestinian rights continued unsolved.

In April 1957, King Saud threatened to open fire on any Israeli vessel attempting to pass through the Gulf of Aqaba and the Saudi straits. He sent a message to President Eisenhower in which he referred to Israel’s provocative acts and its constant threat to peace in the Middle East. The king made it clear that the Kingdom would resist with all its might any support for moves to internationalize the Gulf of Aqaba. In a demonstration of its stand on the issue, the Kingdom lodged a protest with the United States against the violation of its territorial waters in the Gulf of Aqaba by an American vessel. The American vessel had sailed from the Iranian port of Abadan bound for Israel with a shipment of oil. King Saud had earlier raised on two different occasions with the Americans the question of the Gulf of Aqaba and its proposed internationalization as the price for an Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip. King Saud explained that the Gulf of Aqaba was the gateway to the cities of Makkah and Madinah and that the 33rd paragraph of Article Ten of the 1888 Constantinople Convention was meant to ensure the security of the Muslim holy places and a smooth passage for Muslim pilgrims through the Gulf of Aqaba. A memorandum to this effect was sent by the Kingdom to various countries on March 31, 1957.

The Kingdom lodged a protest with the United Nations against hostile Israeli aerial and naval activities in the Gulf of Aqaba, serving notice that it had the right to take whatever measures it deemed necessary in self-defense. Saudi Arabia’s delegate to the United Nations, Abdullah Al-Khayal, delivered a note to this effect to United Nations Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold on May 4, 1957. On May 5, the United States issued a statement referring to the Gulf of Aqaba as an international waterway through which no nation had the right to block free innocent passage.

In July 1957, King Saud issued a Royal Decree naming Assistant Arab League Secretary Ahmad Al-Shuqairi as minister of state for United Nations affairs and head of the Saudi delegation to the international organization beginning with the General Assembly session in September. Al-Shuqairi was also assigned the job of holding talks with various Arab officials aimed at the formulation of a well-orchestrated Arab approach to the issues likely to be raised at the United Nations. A private message sent by Eisenhower to King Saud on July 12 stated that Washington objected to the use of force in the Gulf of Aqaba and preferred that the issue be referred to the International Court of Justice. Eisenhower thus gave support to a statement by Secretary of State Dulles to the effect that Washington would scale down its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The messages exchanged between King Saud and Eisenhower were part of a wider discussion between the two governments in which the Americans tried, as usual, to defend Israeli position.

In addition to these, talks were held between Dulles and the Saudi representative at the United Nations, Ahmad Al-Shuqairi. The talks failed to avert a crisis. It was obvious that the United States was trying to make an international issue of the Gulf of Aqaba question in order to achieve, even indirectly, its objective of giving Israel the political leverage needed to buttress its case for free passage.

The messages exchanged between King Saud and the American president took two different directions. The Saudi position was stated clearly whereas the American one was an elusive political attempt to make Israel a participant in the discussions. King Saud was determined to defend the rights of his country, even if he had to resort to force.

On Oct. 2, Al-Shuqairi called on the United Nations to discuss the Middle East question. He presented the General Assembly with a three-point proposal for the settlement of the Palestine issue:

1. The repatriation of one million Palestinian refugees

2. The branding of Zionism as an unlawful movement

3. The establishment of a United Nations Agency to help Jews resettle in their former European homes.

Al-Shuqairi said that thousands of Israelis would like to emigrate from Israel and that a United Nations agency should be set up to facilitate their return to the countries of origin now that both Nazism and Fascism had been eliminated. He suggested that such a project was in need of Hammarskjold’s skills as his prestige was very high in the Middle East. King Saud made it clear that he was unwilling for a debate on any matter affecting the Muslim holy places and travel to Makkah on the sidelines of the current controversy over Israeli navigation in the Gulf of Aqaba.

Commenting on Al-Shuqairi’s remarks, the Israeli delegate at the United Nations said: “We have seen a delegate of a member state calling officially and in a dreadful manner for the liquidation of another member state.”

The next day Eisenhower was highly critical of Al-Shuqairi’s speech in which the Saudi had denounced the West’s policy in the Middle East. The American president told a press conference that he doubted that Al-Shuqairi’s speech reflected King Saud’s line of thinking. In reply to this, an official Saudi source at the United Nations announced that the speech was fully in accord with the Kingdom’s policy and was endorsed by King Saud. “Zionism,” the source added, “has recruited all the imperialist powers and conspired with them against the Arabs in order to achieve its expansionist designs in Arab lands.” The source called on all Muslims to redouble their efforts against Zionism’s subversive schemes and to close ranks in defending the rights of Arab refugees and their repatriation.

King Saud repeatedly emphasized that in order for the Arab nation to rid itself of the Zionist menace, it must first close ranks and follow a common strategy. He practiced what he preached as shown by his personal attempts to give shape to a unified Arab stand through the Arab Common Defense Pact. He also made a number of visits to Muslim countries with the aim of creating a solid Muslim front in the face of the Zionist-Western menace. Addressing delegations during the 1961 Haj, the king called for the creation of an Islamic league to promote cooperation among Muslims. He called on Muslims to hold fast to the tenets of their religion. Ever mindful of the rights of Palestinians, he pressed for a more convincing show of sympathy for them on the part of the international community.

In February 1961, a six-nation committee consisting of members from Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq was set up to deal with certain important issues. Among them was the message received by Arab heads of state from President Kennedy. The other topics on the agenda were related to the Palestinian problem, developments concerning the refugees and the never-ending Zionist ploys all over the world to sweep the Palestinian problem under the carpet.

In his message, President Kennedy reviewed the international situation in general and discussed Palestine at length. Saudi Arabia made it known that it would join other Arab countries in a joint reply to the sections of Kennedy’s message dealing with the Palestine issue. The committee was instructed to submit its recommendations to a joint meeting of Arab foreign ministers and ministers of defense who were members of the Supreme Defense Council of the Arab Security Pact. The recommendations stressed that no solution to the issue would be acceptable unless it acknowledged the right of the Palestinian Arabs to a homeland of their own and repatriation of Palestinian refugees. The recommendations emphatically stressed that the Arab states did not recognize the partition plan and neither did they recognize Israel. They finally stated that stability in the Middle East depended on the return of Palestine to the Arabs who were its legitimate owners.

In March 1961, King Saud declared that the Dhahran Air Base Agreement with America, scheduled to expire in April 1962, would not be renewed even though Washington had asked for another five-year term. The decision was apparently linked to Washington’s Israeli bias — the latest instance of which was Kennedy’s loan of $20 million to Israel. In a related development, Al-Shuqairi said, “King Saud is determined not to allow his country to become a battleground for international disputes and Arab interests are his one and only concern.”

Radio Makkah reported that the Kingdom declined to renew the agreement but Saudi-American relations would continue on the basis of friendship, cooperation and mutual respect. King Saud visited the United States in April 1963 at the invitation of Kennedy. The president was assassinated seven months later. Near the end of 1963 Egypt called for a meeting of Arab heads of state to deal with Israeli plans to divert the River Jordan. This particular Arab initiative seemed different from previous ones which, because of internal Arab differences and the Cold War, had failed to build an effective anti-Israeli bloc.

King Saud attended this first summit in which efforts were made to foster Arab unity and form an organization responsible for the Palestinian welfare. The conference asked Al-Shuqairi to contact the Palestinians and Arab League member states to prepare for the proposed organization. The conference is considered to have been a starting point for the Palestinians since it specified that the issue was a common one to be borne by all Arabs.

Al-Shuqairi followed up his contacts with another round of similar activities in February 1964. The Arab Radio of Jerusalem broadcast a Palestinian National Charter consisting of 29 articles on which the liberation of Palestine would be based. The idea was to set up what later became known as the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The first Palestinian conference followed soon after; it was convened in Jerusalem on May 28, 1964 and was opened by King Hussein of Jordan.

We can easily see that Palestine issue has always been a vitally important topic of discussion between Saudi Arabia and the United States. King Saud’s reign coincided with various events as the tripartite aggression against Egypt and its sequel, the occupation of Arab territory, Israeli expansionist policies, the Cold War and inter-Arab quarrels.

Such negative events never discouraged King Saud who continued his efforts to unite all the Arabs and mobilize Muslim support for Arab causes. His energetic efforts were channeled through Arab diplomatic and military alliances. His rule ended on an auspicious note: The beginning of real organized Palestinian work, a cherished aim for which King Saud worked hard and with such exceptional devotion and determination. King Saud’s untiring efforts exerted on all levels were mainly directed at preventing Israel from penetrating into Arab lands with the help of the great powers. If we look at what is going on today in the Palestinian theater, we can see a striking resemblance. The Kingdom gives full support now to the Arab people of Palestine as it did during King Saud’s reign. In those earlier days, the Kingdom faced what it faces today: An unjust propaganda and diplomatic offensive launched by America and Israel. How wise is the saying that history repeats itself: This requires that we read history and examine it and its events in order to understand what happened and prevent its happening again. Mistakes, mind you, can easily seal the destiny of peoples, Arabs and others.

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