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Saudi Arabia faces balancing act amid Israel-Palestine war

Saudi Arabia is walking the tightrope of reconciling a Saudi-first approach, which requires stability in the region, with increased support for the Palestinians in Gaza and their quest for an independent state 

Update : 18 Feb 2024, 10:34 AM

The war between Israel and Palestine in Gaza is increasingly influencing Saudi Arabia’s foreign and domestic policies.

“The situation has become a delicate balancing act for Saudi Arabia,” Sebastian Sons, senior researcher for the German think tank CARPO, told DW.

“The current war offers a possibility to correct years of relatively little Saudi commitment on behalf of the Palestinians, while at the same time, Saudi Arabia, the guardian of two holy sites in Islam, continues to pursue its normalization efforts with Israel,” Sons said.

For months, the process of normalizing Saudi-Israeli ties, one promoted by the US, was seen by Saudi Arabia and Israel as offering political and economic advantages to both countries while also leading to more stability in the region.

However, negotiations stalled — though they have not been called off — after Hamas, which is classified as a terrorist organization by Germany, the European Union, the United States, and some Arab states, drove a resistance campaign on Israel on October 7.

Israel’s retaliation in the Gaza Strip has since caused around 29,000 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health in the Palestinian enclave.

For Sami Hamdi, managing director of the London-based consulting company The International Interest, the “very insistence that normalization is still possible, despite the astronomical death toll in Gaza, suggests that for Saudi Arabia, there aren’t really any red lines that will result in abandoning the normalization process,” he told DW.

Hardening Saudi position on Israel ties

Nonetheless, amid the war, Saudi support for the Palestinian cause is now increasingly reflected in Riyadh’s approach to that normalization.

“During the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, we observed a marginalization of the Palestinian issue, but due to this war, a possible relationship with Israel is once again linked to a political solution for the Palestinians,” Peter Lintl, Middle East researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told DW.

According to several reports, Saudi Arabia told Washington earlier in February that it would not establish ties with Israel until an independent Palestinian state is recognized and Israeli forces leave Gaza.

Saudi Arabia’s new position can also be seen in one of the latest statements on Israel’s plans to start an offensive on Rafah, Gaza’s most southern city, which is now home to more than 1.3 million displaced Gazans. 

Last Saturday, Saudi Arabia warned Israel of the “very serious repercussions of storming and targeting the city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip.” 

“The current condemnation of Israel regarding Rafah is a clear indicator that Saudi Arabia is trying to strengthen its position,” Sons said. 

However, what exactly such repercussions will be is a question that remains open for interpretation.

Public support for Hamas 

Meanwhile, it is not only Saudi Arabia’s political stance that has hardened: The mood in the kingdom has also changed.

Parts of the Saudi public, which has been traditionally very supportive of the Palestinians and their quest for an independent state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, have started to voice support for the Iran-backed Hamas militia.

This is despite the fact that Hamas still belongs to Saudi Arabia’s ideological opponents — Iran and its so-called axis of resistance — even if ties have been thawing between Tehran and Riyadh.

Official data on public sentiment in Saudi Arabia, however, is not available as the kingdom doesn’t issue regular or reliable opinion polls.

But according to a poll by The Washington Institute, an American think tank with a pro-Israel tendency, positive opinions of Hamas jumped from 10% to 40% among Saudis in November and December 2023.

“Hamas embodies resistance against Israel and is therefore more popular among the Saudi population than before October 7,” Sons told DW.

Politically, however, Saudi Arabia keeps pushing a nationalist agenda that prioritizes Saudi interests.

And to realize this, the kingdom needs the opposite of what Iran-backed Islamist groups, such as Hamas, have in mind for the region. 

Saudi drive for security and stability

“Saudi Arabia’s first priority is to resolve the existential economic crisis through ‘Vision 2030,’” Sami Hamdi from The International Interest said.

Vision 2030 is a societal and economic overhaul that is the pet project of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The reforms it envisages seek, for example, to open up society, enhance the role of women and to diversify the kingdom’s income from oil to non-oil-related sectors, such as tourism, technology and finance. 

“The second is that the Saudis believe they still have an existential security crisis with encroaching pro-Iran militias on the borders, and the normalization of ties with the Israelis will help to convince the Americans to give a Nato style security pact to push back against that Iranian influence,” Hamdi said.

“These two priorities are not considered worth compromising for the sake of the Palestinians,” he concluded.

Sebastian Sons, too, assumes that Saudi Arabia could soon attempt to link “domestic policy goals like Vision 2030 more strongly with foreign policy goals.”

“The direction could be is that it is no longer just about economic progress and social change in the country, but could serve as a roadmap for peace and progress for the entire region.”

Jennifer Holleis is an editor and commentator at Deutsche Welle focusing on the Middle East and North Africa

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