Aside from a few declarations condemning Israel’s response in the Gaza Strip to the attack by Hamas on October 7, the Saudi royal house is trying to broadcast "business as usual." Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ("MBS") hosted the annual Future Investment Initiative conference, known as "Davos in the Desert", the other week, with the participation of prominent businesspeople from around the world. Riyadh Fashion Week also took place in its usual format. No less important from the point of view of the royal family and the kingdom’s citizens is the holding of Riyadh Season, a series of events that began on October 28, hosting sportspeople, actors, and musicians from all over the world at twelve sites. A few days before the opening, MBS met FIFA president Gianni Infantino and footballer Cristiano Ronaldo (who now plays for Saudi Arabian club Al-Nassr), and also announced the Esports World Cup, the first event of its kind, to be held in Saudi Arabia in 2024.
Contrary to the image that the kingdom is trying to project, however, business is not at all as usual. The war has already disrupted some of the kingdom’s diplomatic initiatives, and it is liable to damage economic plans as well. It would not be an exaggeration to say that, as far as the Saudis are concerned, the war is a kind of mega terrorist hit.
The first hit is to normalization with Israel through the mediation of the US. Spokespersons for Iran and Hamas have said openly that one of the aims of the attack on Israel was to torpedo that development. The axis of "resistance", led by Iran, saw the process of normalization as a strategic move designed to change the regional balance of forces in favor of the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Abraham Accords countries.
Normalization was going to have huge security, diplomatic, and economic implications for Saudi Arabia. As far as security is concerned, an agreement would have tied down a defense pact with the US. On the diplomatic front, it was meant to strengthen the alliance of moderate states in the Middle East against Iran and its proxies. No less important was the economic aspect: normalization with Israel was meant to assist economic development projects in Saudi Arabia - especially the city of the future Neom - and also regionally. For example, at the G20 summit held in India in September, US President Joe Biden announced a plan to construct a railway and maritime corridor that would connect India with the Middle East and Europe via Saudi Arabia.
Because of the war, and apparently in order to avert expected criticism from Arabs and Muslims, Saudi Arabia announced the suspension of negotiations on normalization with Israel.
A hit in the backyard too
The second hit is to regional stability. Saudi Arabia’s policy down the years has been to act to ensure stability in the Middle East, which will ensure the stability of the Saudi regime, and the undisturbed flow of oil. Such stability has lately acquired even greater importance, because of Saudi Arabia’s desire to attract foreign investment and to develop the kingdom’s tourist industry, as part of Saudi Vision 2030 for diversification of the economy. In 2021, Saudi Arabia therefore called an end to the boycott of Qatar, which it had led, and recently even renewed diplomatic relations with Iran, in order to secure its eastern flank, and deepened its ties with China. All these initiatives came to nothing when Hamas carried out its murderous attack, which made clear to the Saudis, if there was any further need of it, who their real allies are.
The hit to regional stability also affects Saudi Arabia’s backyard: the Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen, supported by Iran. Back in 2015, Saudi Arabia, together with a coalition of Arab, Muslim, and Western countries, embarked on a military campaign against the Houthis, with the aim of helping deposed Yemeni president and Saudi ally Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to regain control of Yemen. In the course of the war, attacks were carried out with rockets, ballistic missiles, and armed UAVs against the civilian population, infrastructure, military bases, airports, and oil installations in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis failed in their mission in Yemen, and sufficed with obtaining a ceasefire in 2022 to remove the Houthi threat to the kingdom. Now, the Houthis’ involvement in the war in the Gaza Strip again threatens Saudi Arabia, four of whose soldiers were killed in a border incident.
The need to preserve regional stability led the Saudis to intervene in the Israel-Palestinian dispute down the years as well, even though they are geographically distant from it. In 1981, Crown Prince Fahd proposed an outline for Israeli-Arab peace, but Israel rejected it. In 2002, Crown Prince Abdullah published a peace proposal that was amended at the 2002 Arab League Summit and adopted as the Arab Peace Initiative. Israel was offered an end to the dispute with all twenty-two Arab states, in exchange for the formation of a Palestinian state in the territories captured by Israel in 1967, with its capital in Jerusalem, and an "agreed" solution to the refugee problem. Israel never officially responded to the initiative, and thus in effect rejected it. The Saudis also joined efforts to repair the breach within the Palestinian camp, when they brokered the Mecca agreement of 2007, which led to a unity government of Hamas and Fatah, albeit short-lived..
The Saudis have traditionally supported Fatah, but not the extreme-left organizations or the organizations at the religious extreme (Hamas and Islamic Jihad). Saudi Arabia acted determinedly against the extreme Islamic elements behind the attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001 (fifteen Saudi citizens were involved). The cruelty of Hamas, reminiscent of ISIS, is contrary to Islamic values in Saudi eyes, and contrary to Saudi interests in promoting peace and stability in the Middle East. In 2014, Saudi Arabia even declared the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization out of which Hamas grew, a terrorist organization.
Different voices in the media
Although the decision makers in Saudi Arabia have yet to come out with unequivocal statements condemning the actions of Hamas, the media there apparently reflect what people in the corridors of power are thinking.
Unlike Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, its Saudi competitor Al-Arabiya has adopted a moderate stance towards Israel. Evidence of this is the interview in which the channel’s presenter attacked former Hamas head Khaled Mashal over the organization’s attack on Israeli civilians. Exceptionally courageous was the article by Tariq al-Humaid, former editor of London-based publication Asharq Al-Awsat, who directly attacked Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, and called on him to show leadership and leave Gaza - as Yasser Arafat left Beirut in 1982 - because he had turned the Gaza Strip into a living hell, and in order to prevent further bloodshed. Within Saudi Arabia itself several articles have appeared strongly criticizing the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas as contrary to Islam and as causing severe damage to the image of the Palestinians. Moreover, it has been argued that the attack of October 7 was ineffective from the point of view of achieving the goal of the Palestinians, namely an end to the occupation and the formation of two states within the 1967 borders. Of course, in the kingdom’s media and on social networks there are other voices as well, but it would appear that they do not represent the stance "higher up".
Even if it won’t publicly admit as much, the Saudi regime wants to see Hamas weakened, if not eliminated. The fact that such a small organization managed to humiliate the great kingdom and cause it to suspend normalization with Israel will certainly not be forgotten . On October 31, the White House spokesperson for national security matters stated that Saudi Arabia was still interested in signing a normalization agreement with Israel after the end of the war. It would therefore seem that the Saudis are determined to realize their plans. That way, they will turn the mega-hit into a mega-deal, and pay back Iran and its proxies - and particularly Hamas - several times over.
Prof . Elie Podeh teaches in the Department of Islamic and Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and is a senior research fellow at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. He is a board member of Mitvim-the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. .
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 6, 2023.
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