RIYADH/DUBAI: When one of Saudi Arabia's leading clerics called this month for Muslims to avoid "passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm" towards Jews, it was a marked change in tone for someone who has earlier preached about Palestine in the past.
The sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque in Makkah, broadcast on Saudi state television on Sept 05, came three weeks after the United Arab Emirates agreed a historic deal to normalise relations with Israel and days before the Gulf state of Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, followed suit.
Sudais, who in past sermons prayed for Palestinians to have victory over the "invader and aggressor" Jews, spoke about how the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) was good to his Jewish neighbour and argued the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to "treat them well", Reuters reported.
While Saudi Arabia is not expected to follow the example of its Gulf allies any time soon, Sudais' remarks could be a clue to how the kingdom approaches the sensitive subject of warming to Israel - a once inconceivable prospect. Appointed by the king, he is one of the country's most influential figures, reflecting the views of its conservative religious establishment as well as the Royal Court.
The dramatic agreements with the UAE and Bahrain were a coup for Israel and US President Donald Trump who is portraying himself as a peacemaker ahead of November elections.
But the big diplomatic prize for an Israel deal would be Saudi Arabia, whose king is the Custodian of Islam's holiest sites, and rules the world's largest oil exporter.
Marc Owen Jones, an academic from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, said the UAE and Bahrain's normalisation has allowed Saudi Arabia to test public opinion, but a formal deal with Israel would be a "large task" for the kingdom.
"Giving the Saudis a 'nudge' via an influential imam is obviously one step in trying to test the public reaction and to encourage the notion of normalisation," Jones was quoted as saying.
In Washington, a State Department official said the United States was encouraged by warming ties between Israel and Gulf Arab countries, viewed this trend as a positive development and "we are engaging to build on it."
There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the Saudi government's media office.
Sudais' plea to shun intense feelings is a far cry from his past when he wept dozens of times while praying for Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque - Islam's third-holiest site.
The Sept 05 sermon drew a mixed reaction, with some Saudis defending him as simply communicating the teachings of Islam. Others on Twitter, mostly Saudis abroad and apparently critical of the government, called it "the normalisation sermon".
Ali al-Suliman, one of several Saudis interviewed at one of Riyadh's malls, said in reaction to the Bahrain deal that normalisation with Israel by other Gulf states or in the wider Middle East was hard to get used to, as "Israel is an occupying nation and drove Palestinians out of their homes".
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has promised to promote interfaith dialogue as part of his domestic reform. The young prince previously stated that Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land on condition of a peace agreement that assures stability for all sides.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has not directly addressed Israel's deals with the UAE and Bahrain, but said it remains committed to peace on the basis of the long-standing Arab Peace Initiative.
How, or whether, the kingdom would seek to exchange normalisation for a deal on those terms remains unclear.
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