Joshua Hantman
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A game of Gulf

If the Saudis invested vast sums of money in Palestinian infrastructure, there'd be a real chance of peace and security
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, April 19, 2023. (Wafa/File)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, meeting with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the Saudi port city of Jeddah, April 19, 2023. (Wafa/File)

“Saudis Buy Golf” read one recent headline in a UK tabloid, as Saudi Arabia’s controversial LIV golf initiative merged with its long-embattled rival, the PGA tour, in a joint venture, leaving the kingdom as a key stakeholder in one of the world’s most popular sports. When the golfer who had been leading the battle against the Saudis spoke at a press conference about the incredible capitulation, his resigned explanation was simple: “Money talks.”

And Saudi Arabia, with its ambitious crown prince, Mohamad Bin Salman (MBS), has the money and determination to make money talk in an array of fields. Through its sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), MBS is making a splash with massive and diverse investments ranging from Soft Bank, Aston Martin, and Uber to the English Premier League. In fact, the fund has a declared aim of $1 trillion assets under management in the next two years, and $2 trillion by 2030.

The fund is even building a futuristic new $500-billion city in the Saudi desert, Neom, which is designed to be a pioneer in an array of fields, in particular, renewable energy. The Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund has transitioned from quiet investments to bombastic statements, positioning itself as the ultimate impact investor.

At the same time, the Biden administration has completed its 180-degree turn; from declaring the kingdom a “pariah” during the campaign to proclaiming that normalization with its ally Israel is a “priority.” Yet as both President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu pursue normalization for different reasons — both privately and publicly — with the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, the biggest winner in this “game of Gulf” should be the Palestinians.

While many Palestinians felt abandoned by the Abraham Accords, by linking normalization and peace with Israel to some form of Palestinian statehood (however imperfect and perhaps non-contiguous initially), MBS has the opportunity to be the leader of the Muslim world who finally put the state of Palestine on the map.

However, beyond the important pride and dignity of statehood and self-determination, the Palestinians potentially have even more to gain from a future agreement. Saudi Arabia has the financial means to turn the West Bank into a hub of technology, jobs, modern infrastructure, and, most importantly, hope and stability. The polar opposite of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

It is important to note that Hamas and other Islamist groups, backed by Iran – whose ideologies are in direct contrast to MBS’ vision – continue to grow in strength within the Palestinian Authority’s territory, the West Bank.

The clock is ticking.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) itself is weaker than ever, a threat to the progress many Palestinian cities have already made, and a direct threat to the security of both Palestinians and Israelis.

Therefore, what better way to strengthen the PA and undermine the extremists than to show the average Palestinian that there is another way. That the “Gazafication” of the West Bank is not inevitable. That peace and reconciliation can actually bring a historic — if not perfect — realization of national aspirations, and palpable lasting economic dividends. An offer that, this time, their leadership would surely be remiss to refuse.

Indeed, in Israeli circles, the phrase “peace dividend” is well known. The economic benefits of peace agreements emanating from trade and a new period of openness, in particular following the Abraham Accords, have been tangibly felt.

But for most Palestinians, a hopeful future is still a distant dream. In this shared strip of hallowed land, where religious nationalism comes in all forms — from pluralistic and accepting, to jingoistic and exclusive — we have a duty to strengthen the moderates.

Of course, Israelis are rightly concerned about future Palestinian statehood. Past concessions for peace have led to suicide bombings, terror tunnels, tens of thousands of rockets, and generational pain, suffering, and distrust.

However, prior concessions have never been accompanied by the combination of genuine national sovereignty and massive investment. Not millions, not tens of millions, but billions of dollars of potential investment. Impact investing on the scale that requires both the resources of Saudi Arabia, and the audacity of its de facto young leader.

Furthermore, such a level of investment can provide the ongoing security cooperation between Israel and the PA with a boost of much needed legitimacy. For development and prosperity, security and stability are the sine qua non.

Yet the Saudis are not alone in terms of resources and audacity, or indeed regional influence. The tiny state of Qatar, which itself has a penchant for global sports brands, holds the keys to the other half of the Palestinian equation: Gaza.

If a Saudi-led peace — however imperfect — combined with unprecedented investment can bring an era of peace and stability to the West Bank, then it may just be able to serve as a model for Qatar and Gaza to follow.

Not a hole in one. But certainly, a whole new game of Gulf.

About the Author
Joshua Hantman is a partner at Number 10 Strategies LLP and a former adviser to Israel’s minister of defense and ambassador to Washington.
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