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Jordan freaks out over custody of al Aqsa as Israel, Saudi Arabia draw close

Pre-dating the inception of Jordan and Israel. the Hashemite writ on the mosque survived 70 bumpy years until Donald Trump brokered this deal

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Jordan has been panic-stricken, insecure about its status as the custodian of al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem since the time the news of a meeting between Israel and Saudi Arabia arrived. A deal between the Jews and Saudis could throw the ownership of one of the holiest sites of Islam open to claimants, Amman fears.

With Saudi Arabia and Israel making up, as seen in the weekend visit by Benjamin Netanyahu to Saudi crown prince bin Salman, Jordan fears Riyadh would ‘compromise’ as Washington pushes it hard to leave a Trump legacy in the Middle East.

The foreign ministry of Jordan released a statement on 25 November that challenged “attempts to alter the historical and legal status quo” of al Aqsa. Spokesman Daifallah al-Fayez said: “The kingdom will continue its efforts to protect and care for the mosque, and preserve the rights of all Muslims to it in compliance with the Hashemite custodianship of Jerusalem’s Muslim and Christian holy sites.”

Earlier, a call between US President-elect and King Abdullah II of Jordan’s Hashemite dynasty that has governed the Jerusalem sites (Haram al Sharif) since 1924, the very year the Saud dynasty was given control of Mecca and Medina had sounded the alarm in Amman.

It is the custody of al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock that Jordan’s ruling Hashemite dynasty exploits to establish its legitimacy in the country for nearly a century. This claim pre-dates the creation of Jordan and Israel. It has survived seven tumultuous decades of stalemate, war and eventually peace. In the 25 odd years since the two sides established diplomatic relations, the treaty has been at the core of the deal’s stability.

Jordan is apprehensive that US President Donald Trump, his deputy Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, along with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, may try to change the arrangement by offering the sites to Saudi Arabia to sweeten their deal. The impact of such a move would overshadow the effect of pacts signed recently between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.

After all, Trump had always wanted to broker better relations Israel-Saudi Arabia relations, which would be like throwing the American weight behind a Sunni Saudi Arabian leadership of Islam in its tussle for supremacy against a Shi’ah Iran. As it wasn’t Prophet who had divided Muslims into the two major sects, Tehran claims an equally legitimate theologian right over the two holy shrines, Mecca and Medina.

A former senior aide to both King Abdullah and his father King Hussein, Adnan Abu-Odeh says guardianship of the Haram al Sharif had been the basis of the Hashemite dynasty’s claim to rule Jordan. He recalls that the deal was part of the peace treaty between the two Islamic states. Thus, he says, Jordan’s stakes in the status quo were strong.

“Historically the religious aspect was key in the legitimacy of the ruler and the Hashemites, after leaving Hejaz, derive their legitimacy from Jerusalem,” he said. “Israel practises pressure and extortion over Jordan with the custodianship matter and they threaten to give it to the Saudis and it is not far fetched, and I believe his majesty the king understands that.”

As rulers of present-day Jordan, the Hashemites controlled Mecca for centuries until the House of Saud conquered it in 1924. Mecca and another of uge religious significance, Medina, were incorporated into Saudi Arabia, while al Aqsa went to the Hashemites. Since then, the two powerful bloodlines have verbally sparred over this influence, with Saudi Arabia enjoying an edge, as oil dollars and US patronage have transformed the Saudi kingdom into a regional heavyweight.

Another former senior royal aide and Jordanian foreign minister, Jawad Anani said: “As far as Israel and Netanyahu are concerned Saudi Arabia is the big prize now. “I don’t think the Saudis will be in a hurry to give Mr Netanyahu, or even Mr Trump right now, more because they have to deal with four years of a potentially not very friendly American administration [if they did]. Many Jordanians… [are] being vigilant about this. Netanyahu … might find it to be worthwhile giving this to the Saudi royal family rather than keep it with the Hashemites because that would probably bring him the prize he’s seeking, which is open and declared normalisation with Saudi Arabia.”

Former Israeli Ehud Olmert had tabled the fate of Haram al Sharif the during peace talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2008, says Elie Podeh, a professor of Middle East studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Olmert was very forthcoming on this issue,” Podeh said. “He suggested the Old City of Jerusalem be an international city run by a committee of five — Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians, the US and Israel. The idea was raised, but nothing substantial ever transpired. The question of Jerusalem might come up in the current context. The Saudis would want to have some role. There is now an opportunity to do something bilateral, and with Trump, it would be much easier than under Biden. But whether it would be wise to do so is another thing.”

“It would radically crush the Hashemite monarchy and it would change the guarantee of sorts that Jordan has been providing for Israeli and regional security. It would be like throwing a grenade into a crowded room. As for the Saudis, there would be some appeal there. Iran has always challenged them on the legitimacy of their custodianship of Mecca and Medina. If they were to add a third shrine to their list, it could enhance their claims to be the absolute leaders of the Islamic world,” a former UK consul general to East Jerusalem and ex-ambassador to Riyadh, Sir John Jenkins said such a move would expectedly have widespread implications for Israeli security and for Jordan.

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Khwaja Nazim
Activist based in Hyderabad and former member of the Aam Aadmi Party

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