Trump’s Jerusalem Decision and the Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

by Giorgio Cafiero

It is too early to assess the long-term impact of Donald Trump’s incendiary decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and upend US foreign policy by moving Washington’s embassy. Nonetheless, one close US ally—Saudi Arabia—may pay a big price for Trump’s controversial recognition.

As the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (every Saudi monarch’s official title since 1986), Saudi Arabia’s head-of-state has special responsibilities in the Muslim world. The status of Jerusalem as the third holiest site in Islam is important to Riyadh’s foreign policy. Many Muslims around the world feel strongly about Jerusalem and not only see Israel’s occupation of the eastern part of it as a flagrant violation of international law but also an offense to their creed.

Trump’s decision bolsters the narratives of Salafist-jihadist groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, which have long incited terrorism against Arab regimes for their non-confrontational approach to Israel and close ties with the United States. The decision also boosts the narratives of hardliners in Iran’s regime. For years the Iranians have argued that the Al Saud rulers are too negligent and incompetent to administer Hajj, especially in the aftermath of tragedies such as the 2015 stampede, and have called on an international body to administer the annual Islamic pilgrimage. Now the Jerusalem crisis, and Riyadh’s perceived inaction on the issue, will be added to this rhetoric from Iran’s most hawkish and ideological voices.

Iranian journalists whose ideologies are aligned with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—of which the elite force led by Qasim Souleimani, the Quds Force, is named after Jerusalem—have written that Trump’s move is advantageous to Tehran’s foreign policy because the regime will find it easier to garner more attention to the Palestinian plight while bolstering its axis of Shi’ite allies/partners against Israel and America. Tehran’s message to Arabs is that Iran far more than any other Muslim power in the world is a defender of Arab/Muslim interests.

Since the Islamic Republic became increasingly involved in Palestine during the 1990s following the Madrid Conference (which excluded Tehran), the Iranian leadership has capitalized on Palestinian perceptions of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, namely Saudi Arabia, as indifferent to their plight. Riyadh’s relatively cautious condemnation of Trump’s move will offer Iran further opportunity to do so.

Ultimately, amid the Jerusalem crisis, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Persian Gulf states find themselves in a difficult and awkward position geopolitically. At a time when Riyadh sees Tehran as the top regional threat, Saudi Arabia along with others in the GCC that view Iran similarly are indicating more interest in strengthening their tacit partnership with Israel. Yet without the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, the GCC members have had to tread carefully given the potential backlash for seeming to abandon the Palestinian struggle in favor of a partnership with Israel.

On December 10, for instance, when a Bahraini delegation arrived in Israel for talks on normalizing Manama-Tel Aviv relations, the guards at al-Aqsa expelled the 24-member group of religious figures and activists from the Arab Persian Gulf archipelago state. After they were denied entry to mosque’s holy site, Palestinian protestors prevented the Bahraini delegation from entering Gaza. The Palestinian National and Islamic Forces condemned the “shameless” delegation and maintained that “there is no place for people seeking to normalize relations with Israel in Gaza or in any other part of Palestine.”

Saudi Arabia will not likely do much more to protest Trump’s decision much less step down cooperation with Washington and/or Tel Aviv in pursuit of countering the expansion and consolidation of Iranian influence in the Middle East. Despite Saudi efforts to promote a two-state solution in exchange for the official recognition of Israel on the part of all Arab governments, achieving such an aim is a far lower priority for Riyadh than pushing back against Tehran. The Trump administration is likely betting that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states will, at least unofficially, come to terms with the Jerusalem move as long as the American president continues to push back against Iran’s regional conduct from Yemen to Lebanon.

The administration has not just stepped up support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Trump’s decertification of the Iranian nuclear accord, support for regime change in Tehran, demands for “Iranian militias” in Iraq to leave the country, sanctions on Lebanese Hezbollah, and historic arms deals to GCC allies all challenge Iran’s position in the Middle East more assertively than Obama did. Yet odds are good that the move on Jerusalem will embolden Tehran regionally, offering Iran more of an opportunity to strengthen its ties with Hamas and Islamic Jihad while weakening the perception that Tehran only supports Shi’ite Arabs as opposed to greater causes of importance in the Muslim world.

To be sure, the news of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital did no favors for the Al Saud rulers. They are disappointed with the American president’s decision. Yet it would be difficult to exaggerate how welcome this development was among Iran’s most anti-American elements. If Trump intends to cooperate with both Israel and Arab states in an effort to counter Iran, the White House should take all of its allies’ concerns about Jerusalem seriously instead of catering solely to Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government.

Photo: Ayatollah Khamenei and Mohammed bin Salman

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.



  1. Once again a thoughtful, insightful and knowledgeable contribution on this site. It should be compulsory reading for all diplomatic desks

  2. Trump is the best thing that has ever happened for the Islamic republic. It united Iranians for the first time with the regime. It legitimizes the hard-line talking points. It is the first time that such an ignoramus has been elected and he works hard to undermine the US. The supreme leader is pleased but with someone unpredictable as trump everything is possible including military confrontations. The world is mad

  3. Hogwash! The deal between Trump and Saudis been signed off a long time ago when DT visited MbS in SA immediately after he became president! Their deal is for the US to put more pressure on Iran politically and financiall and provide more arms and security to the GCC! Also will try to dismantle the JCPOA agreement with Iran! In return the Arab Sheikdoms will establish and perhaps officially recognize state of Israel at the expense of Palestinians!
    Then brain dead DT remembers that he has promised Sheldon Adelson to recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the US embassy there for Sheldon’s $1 million contribution to his campaign! So in the midst of all conversation and promises to the Arabs, DT stabs them in the back by his announcement! Now someone ought to ask MbS how is it going for him so far!?

  4. Limited validity. If you look at things historically Islamic factions have been at war over control for centuries. The current attacks of factions on ruling groups has too many similarities to the opportunistic fighting that led to the fall of al Andalus – the upstarts declaring themselves more fit to rule because of stricter religious practice, etc. The motivations for al Qaeda and ISIL have more to do with Arabic and Muslim culture than they do with the current particulars. The author mentions Muslims who see losing Jerusalem as “an offense to their creed”, which is a gross understatement: the offense to the creed is because any land that has submitted to Islam must remain in submission to Islam and Israel is no longer in submission to Islam. The problem is not Jerusalem but the existence of Israel at all. (Also the existence of Spain and Greece, but that is not available to contest at the moment.) The idea that Sunnis are focused on the Holy City alone is projecting Shi’a attitudes about shrines on Sunnis, which don’t really fit.
    Last point: I know in diplomatic circles you need to retain some degree of optimism, which often requires sticking your head in the sand, but on Israel and the surrounding Islamic states sooner or later you need to ask: if the optimistic goal you are hoping to achieve is that you can get the Islamic states to say “We won’t kill you immediately.” (note: “official recognition” does not mean acceptance) maybe there isn’t much use in negotiating at the moment. If the Arab side still thinks that the existence of Israel is a negotiating point, they are not ready to negotiate.

  5. It is common today to hear the claim that President Trump is mentally ill, and he is not !that he supports those nostalgic for racist Confederacies, and that he has no foreign policy. ..Nonetheless, we note that he has managed for the moment to halt the operations launched by his predecessors and maintain relative stability in Kenya, Iraq and Spain. That’s worth pointing out.

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