Saudi-Jordanian Feud Heightens

Saudi donation to UN seen as undermining Jordan's guardianship over Jerusalem shrine

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A DECADES-OLD feud between the Hashemite and Saudi dynasties took a new twist this month when the latter indirectly challenged the Hashemite custodianship of one of the holiest shrines in the Islamic world, the Dome of the Rock Mosque (Al Aqsa), in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.

The Saudi family challenged Jordan's legal responsibility for the Islamic shrines in Jerusalem in mid-May, when King Fahd announced that he was donating $9 million to the UN Education, Science, and Culture Organization (UNESCO), to repair the gold-plated dome of Al Aqsa.

In response, an outraged King Hussein, head of the Hashemite clan, immediately sold his London house to donate $8.5 million to repair the revered 12-century-old mosque. The move seems intended to remind Saudi Arabia that Jordan, which ruled East Jerusalem until it was captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, remains the legal guardian of the Islamic endowments in the city.

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The Saudi move was viewed here as undermining Jordan's claim to restore Jerusalem at a time when Israel refuses to discuss East Jerusalem at the ongoing Middle East peace talks. Israel claims that East and West Jerusalem are the unified and eternal capital of Israel.

"The Saudis have the best intentions, but they went to the wrong body, and they should beware of weakening Jordan in the holy sites," said Jordanian Information Minister Mahmoud El Sherif.

In the Jordanian view, which is shared by Palestinians, the Saudis could either deliberately or inadvertently be paving the way for the internationalization of East Jerusalem, thus undercutting its Arab identity.

The other fear expressed by Jordanian officials in private is that by channeling the money to UNESCO instead of Jordan's Ministry of Religious Affairs, which has maintained the shrines since 1950, the Saudis could risk having to deal with the Israeli Religious Affairs Ministry - consequently playing into Israeli claims to the whole of Jerusalem.

Whatever the Saudis' intentions, King Fahd's step strongly revived the old feud between the two dynasties over the holy Islamic shrines, and analysts here see an attempt to strip King Hussein of his custodianship.

"It appears as if King Fahd is seeking to become the custodian of the three main Islamic shrines," says a Jordanian political analyst close to the government.

For the Hashemites, who have always prided themselves on the custodianship of Jerusalem and have not gotten over the loss to Israel, King Fahd's action is a painful reminder of a previous move by the House of Al Saud which stripped the Hashemites of their centuries-old custodianship of Mecca, the cradle of Islam.

Ever since the Saudis forced the Hashemites out of Mecca in 1925, and King Hussein's great grandfather moved to Jordan, bitterness between the two dynasties has never disappeared, although it was subdued during their more recent alliance with the West.

Saudi Arabia has even in the past provided Jordan, which has limited resources, with financial aid, largely to ensure stability in what is viewed as the buffer state separating the Gulf states from Israel.

But last year the old hostility erupted, when King Hussein broke the unwritten rules by refusing to join the United States-led, Saudi-financed, coalition against Iraq. The Saudis reacted by severing aid to Jordan, which amounted to 15 percent of the government's budget, and terminating contracts of thousands of Jordanian expatriates.

And, at subsequent Arab and international forums, Saudi officials have reportedly turned their backs to Jordanian officials.

Saudis were particularly alarmed when King Hussein, at a high point before the Gulf war, asked his subjects to call him Sherif Hussein - after his great grandfather, the former Sherif Hussein of Mecca. Saudis have told Western and Arab visitors that Hussein's statements revealed his intentions to reclaim the guardianship of Mecca.

The Saudis, who at the time expressed concern that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein planned to invade their country, apparently suspected that Baghdad might pave the way for King Hussein to claim the province of Hejaz in Arabia, the site of the former Hashemite kingdom.

"King Hussein has no such intentions," a senior Jordanian official said this week. "We are aware that we cannot reverse history."

The king's statements during the Gulf war were critical of the Saudis invitation of foreign troops onto its territory - although they were kept away from the holy sites.

In this context, Jordanians see King Fahd's donation to UNESCO as a way to get back at King Hussein by casting doubts on his ability to take care of Al Aqsa.

Between 1952 and 1991, Jordan has reportedly spent more than $240 million to keep up the Jerusalem mosques and pay the salaries of Islamic Endowment employees.

When Jordan relinquished its legal responsibility of the West Bank to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1988 - in response to the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation - the two sides had agreed that Jordan remained in charge of the Islamic endowments, to prevent Israel from taking control of Al Aqsa. The Israelis, especially religious zealots, have not concealed intentions of rebuilding a synagogue on the site of Al Aqsa.

The Saudi move was seen here as unlikely to boost King Fahd's popularity among Palestinians in the occupied territories. Palestinians have thanked King Fahd but reminded him that donations should go through the "proper channels" to prevent the internationalization of the city.

For the Jordanian government, however, at this stage, a main priority seems to be to keep away Jerusalem from the feud between the two dynasties. "We appeal to them not to involve Jerusalem in inter-Arab differences when Israel is just waiting to gobble up the city," Mr. Sherif said.

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