On the 7th of October, 2023, Hamas allegedly surprised Israeli security and military institutions with the attack on its soil. Despite the fact that this surprise element was at least partially dismissed subsequently by both foreign information services that had warned Israel in advance, and the fact that the Israeli officials appear to have been well aware of the plan – a document title “Jericho Wall” was obtained by the Israelis an year ago and Unit 8200 warned three months before the attacks that intensity of Hamas training had increased (Bergman & Goldman, 2023) – Hamas attacks have led to a relatively high number of casualties among Israelis. Furthermore, Israel has instrumentalized Hamas attacks to unleash nowadays seldom armed attacks on civilian population of Gaza Strip, under the pretext of eradicating Hamas. The gravity of Gaza’s situation is well reflected by United Nations Secretary General’s statement that equaled Gaza with a “graveyard for children” (United Nations Türkiye, 2023) and that of UNICEF Spokesperson James Elder who added that Gaza Strip “… is a living hell for anyone else” (UNICEF, 2023).
After 1948, the Palestinian Problem has been widely perceived in the Arab-Muslim World as an Arab and Muslim problem. Various alliances have tried to either undo territorial arrangements after Israel’s foundation or more recently to obtain a state for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. However, none of the initiatives has led to a definitive settlement of this international issue, and while Israel is continuing to push Palestinians out from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with American and European support, certain Arab countries are giving up on the Palestinian cause at least in the form it has been approached in the past.
This article will analyze the Saudi position on the war against Palestinians from Gaza Strip and against Hamas, taking into consideration the historical position of Saudi Arabia on this issue, recent dynamics and global constraints. There is no doubt that the Saudi support for Palestinians has recently become less recognizable, but the causes of current situations require a broader contextualization.
Saudi Arabia, the Muslim World, Palestinians and Hamas
The Arab-Muslim mark in history has been followed by the Ottoman rule in this region from the Fall of Constantinople in the 15th century until the beginning of the 20th century, when an already colonial Europe has been overtaken by American exceptionalism in the Western culture. During these fundamental dynamics, the House of al-Saud managed to maintain a centuries-long regional influence and through the type of oil deal it managed to conclude with the Americans approximately a century ago, their position on the international relations scene remained very significant.
The custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, i.e., the Saudi ruler, had also an important saying in the Muslim and/or Arab affairs. Despite Istanbul being the seat of the last caliphal institution during Ottoman dominance, Saudi leadership was and is exerting Saudi Muslim influence through venues like the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (former Organization of the Islamic Conference), the Arab League, organization of Hajj among others.
The Wahhabi conservative approach to Islam has been called out by Saudi Arabia’s Occidental partners, but not in a deterministic and consistent manner if Saudi Arabia was the largest oil producer of oil for decades and oil was the number one resource in winning global scale wars. However, this uncontested, relatively holistic, leadership position of Saudi Arabia among partners outside the Middle East and North Africa, did not contain the development of competing approaches to religious or state organization especially after the global post-colonial nationalist movements. These approaches will not be reviewed in this study, but a particular one, i.e., the Muslim Brotherhood one, emerged as a possible ideological competitor to the conservative Wahhabi approach within the Muslim-Arab World. This movement began by promoting an Islamic traditional, pan-Islamic but not extremist view society and due to its successes became a competitor to the Saudi supremacy within the Muslim-Arab World.
As Hamas, ruling entity in the Gaza Strip, is considered to have been supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudis have increasingly distanced themselves from Hamas and implicitly from the Gaza Strip Palestinians. A Washington Institute of Near East Policy compilation of “Arab Critique” of Hamas before October the 7th mentions instances in which Saudi representatives designate Hamas as “extremist and terrorist” (Adel al-Jubeir, Minister of State and Foreign Affairs, 2018) (Greene, Hamm, McDonough, & Sharawi, 2023). This approach has been certainly considered by Saudi allies, especially the ones from the Persian Gulf area. Hence, a strong Saudi support for the Palestinians from the Gaza Strip is impacted by a long-term confrontation between the traditionally conservative Saudi Arabia and the competing approach of the Muslim Brotherhood, emerging in Egypt and with Türkiye and Qatar among other countries.
While the patterns of competition within the Arab-Muslim World have been considered to follow a traditional Sunni-Shia rift for centuries, recent decades have experienced significant shifts. Among others, competing power centers dispute also how to modernize societies and which bases. From this perspective, while Saudi Arabia appears to reorient itself very quickly from a Wahhabi traditionalist approach to a more modern society based on economic advance, the Muslim Brotherhood or Iranian approaches are also oriented towards modernization but on other premises. It must be mentioned in this context that the Saudis have no choice but modernization, if they wanted to maintain the level of international influence, they exert now given the expected green future of the planet, i.e., not based on oil anymore. This difference in approaches to modernizing Middle East societies may have been identified by exogenous decision-makers. An opinion published by the Middle East Monitor claims even that Saudi Arabia’s description of Hamas as a terrorist organization might have become a pre-condition for implementation of President Trump’s Deal of the Century (Abu Hannieh, 2018).
The unfortunate situation of the Palestinians ruled by Hamas in the Gaza Strip is influenced by the more complex competition between Saudi Arabia and Muslim Brotherhood as leading approaches across Arab-Muslim societies. Coincidences like common displeasure of the Saudis and Qataris with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule do not reduce the fundamental rift that resulted, among others, in the 2017 Qatar blockade for example. The single new approach that appears to have significant potential in healing old Arab and Muslim regional wounds is the emergence of Chinese and BRICS, but although the Iranian-Saudi rapprochement appears to be a good sign in this direction, turning potential into historical changes is yet to be demonstrated.
Regional and international realpolitik and Saudi modernization aspirations
In comparison to countries like Egypt and Jordan, it must be mentioned that Saudi recognition of Israel is very limited to this date. However, Saudi quietness on the Abraham Accords may well be interpreted as a go-ahead signal even from a conservative perspective on the matter. The opening of its airspace for Israeli carriers in 2022, along with the first ever arrival of Israel’s Tourism Minister in Saudi Arabia in 2023 represent clear steps towards normalization of relations. Saudi Arabia’s fast-pace modernization clearly requires significant regional security guarantees, especially for tourism development. Three fundamental developments are of outmost interest for Saudi Arabia’s economic transformation and future: the replacement of traditional American security guarantees with a set of new arrangements, regional stabilization as to guarantee the long-term success of its Neom investment and the potential construction of an economic corridor, together with Israel, able to rival the Suez Canal.
Rivaling the Suez Canal is only one aspect of this project. Western support for this project, at declarations level at least, should result from paralleling the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) together Europe and India. But given the reactive nature of such a plan against a genuine previous Chinese vision, the countering part of the plan has relatively low chances of success. It must be also mentioned that Neom development in a fashion like the Emirati experience with development of Dubai for tourism and finance may entail risks due to differences in scale and historical context.
Israeli is very keen to obtain recognition from the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. This would represent a major achievement and will raise its position in negotiations with other Muslim nations. In this sense, Israel appears to have taken steps in positively answering potential Saudi requests as a preparation for recognition. It is not a secret anymore that spying tools that normally require state approval have been delivered by Israelis to the Saudis. Even as the Israeli war on Gazans is carried out, the Israeli Defense Forces’ (IDF) suggests at the beginning of October 2023 that a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia and Saudi nuclear program may present “dangers”, but “cooperation possibilities” are also being analyzed. This appears to suggest not only an indirect Israeli consent for the Saudi’s nuclear ambitions, but a non-stated promise to support them (Times of Israel Staff, 2023). As if Israel had anything to do with nuclear programs.
A present-day fundamental prerequisite of Saudi Arabia in external policy is oil business. As an OPEC leader, Saudi Arabia’s economy is strongly impacted by the evolution of oil markets. These markets have been impacted on short-term by the Covid pandemic and subsequently by the conflict from Ukraine. The long-term oil and natural gas demand is supposedly expected to decline, reason for which Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation along with their oil market partners are defending the price with production cuts. However, this is only a market view. In fact, American opposition to the economic rise of China and the threat with potential military confrontation, based on excuses like Taiwan for example, are accompanied by what can be considered war preparations. The Chinese, Russian and BRICS economic and financial consolidations have left the US with relatively low capacity to increase production of oil should this be needed. The Chinese successful cooperation with African partners has pushed the US towards South America. In this sense, Venezuela has received the American blessing to increase oil production as to compensate OPEC oil production cuts, and the American oil deal with Guyana is also pressuring Saudi oil market interests, probably indirectly and unintentional. The US itself is pumping oil at record levels to stabilize its economy, reaching reportedly 13.2 million barrels per day towards the end of 2023 (Krauss, 2023). In all cases, the successful transition of Saudi Arabia towards a diversified economy does require oil revenues historically and more security in the future. Managing these variables will require relentless efforts, especially in the context in which Israel is willing to become an energy supplier for Europe and control the flow of goods from Asia to Europe, should the alternative to the Suez Canal become a viable reality.
Review of limitations in Saudi’s approach towards current situation from the Gaza Strip
Israel’s plan to expand in Palestine has been a given since 1948. Determining Palestinians to leave the territories in which they and their parents lived continued also after the foundation of Israel as a state, with British and then predominantly American support. What some would consider the unique moment of creating Israel is also seen by others, including Israelis, as a starting moment in taking over the “Holy Land,” “from the River to the Sea.” Hence, from the perspective of taking over the remaining Occupied Palestinian Territories has been instantiated by multiple actions (Gaza Strip blockade, illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank) and attempts to further push Palestinians out. And the idea of gradually transferring them in the Sinai Peninsula is also not new. According to an Asharq al-Awsat, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resisted American and Israeli pressure in 2007 to “open the Rafah crossing for the Palestinians and grant them freedom of residence, particularly in Sinai” (Hatita, 2014). President Mubarak suggested the existence of a plan to establish refugee camps and accommodate Palestinians. The same source mentions that upon winning elections, President Muhammad Morsi sent a 50 member Muslim Brotherhood delegation to Washington at CIA invitation. The US counterpart, probably on behalf or in coordination with Tel Aviv, suggested Egypt to cede a third of Sinai to Gaza in a two-stage process over 4 – 5 years with the purpose to “establish and fully support a Palestinian state” (Hatita, 2014). President Morsi refused and the story repeated itself in 2018. President Trump allegedly proposed a” Greater Gaza Plan” to President al-Sisi, according to which a massive relief program would be initiated if northern part of Sinai was be placed at the disposal of Palestinians and these received work in Egypt (Cook, 2018). President al-Sisi declined the initiative as well. No matter the Saudi stance on the Palestinian issue or the relation with Israel, the American effort to free up Gaza Strip for Israel have been ongoing and relentless. Hence, this represents a constraint for Saudi Arabia in regional policy.
Besides regional development with Israel, Saudi investments in the US and the UK also represent a limitation vis-à-vis potentially vigorous stance-taking on the situation in Gaza. Besides well-known investments in companies like Lucid or WeWork, the Saudis recently acquired 10 % of Heathrow Airport shares (Oi, 2023) and opened their first Neom development office abroad in London (ARABNEWS, 2023). Consequently, the already significant engagement of Saudi Arabia with the Occidental economies, as well as future strategic interests, among other factors discussed above, significantly limit of Riyadh to adopt a vigorous stance in the Gaza Strip situation.
The Saudi reaction to latest developments from Gaza was reduced to mainly neutral positions. Following paragraphs will summarize Saudi stances on the 2023 Gaza War. For example, Saudi Arabia sent 14 ambulances to Gaza at the end of November (ARABNEWS, 2023). Saudi Cabinet called for a complete ceasefire in Gaza (ARABNEWS, 2023), Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman called on countries to stop exporting weapons to Israel and the normalization process is allegedly on halt, i.e. pause (Davis, 2023). In a PR attempt that is otherwise not typical to regional countries, news according to which Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman “blocks Netanyahu’s number” appeared in the Israeli press (Halabi, 2023).
But on the other hand, Saudi Arabia is strictly maintaining a sort of neutrality in the conflict despite its population’s relatively small – according to Western media – attempts boycott American products as a form of protest developments in the Gaza Strip (Saafan & Al-Khalidi, 2023). The modest $ 17 millions raised by the Saudis for Gaza is characterized by the New York times as “consistent with the Saudi government’s ambivalent response to the conflict” (Nereim, 2023) and the reported detention of worshippers praying for Palestine at Mecca and Medina by the Saudi authorities adds to the duality of the Kingdom’s response to this conflict (Nadda, 2023).
Discussion and conclusions
Saudi Arabia’s relatively neutral position on the recent conflict from Gaza is determined by various factors. Some of them are related to direct economic interests in the region, intertwined at least partially with certain Israeli interests. Others are related to broader geostrategic interests related to the oil market and Saudi Arabia’s future as a relatively rich nation. Riyadh is balancing American and Western pressures on its oil interests, who wave the flag of a green future and at the same time try to increase own production and shift supplies from traditional providers like the Russian Federation or even Saudi Arabia to other emerging players like Israel or Egypt.
Related to the Saudi position within the Muslim-Arab World, the Kingdom appears to have taken softer stances than countries like Türkiye or Qatar, at least at declarative level. The relatively moderate agreements within the Arab League or the Organization for Islamic Cooperation may reflect the level of cooperation within these bodies, but also the position of the leading country, Saudi Arabia.
The rift between Muslim Brotherhood sphere of influence, which includes Hamas, and Saudi Arabia play an additional role in Kingdom’s stance on the recent conflict. Israeli speculations according to which the peace in Gaza Strip may include the replacement of Hamas with a body backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, among other speculations probably meant to test the public reaction, remain unfounded and likely unrealistic starting points for solving a grave, chronic situation. The “Arab Peace Initiative” was a 2002 Saudi-proposed and Arab League-backed proposal and repeated by the Saudis since then. This proposal mentioned the withdrawal of Israel withing the 1967 borders and from Golan Heights and acceptance of an independent Palestinian state against a general recognition of Israel by all Arab regional states and pacification of the region. This plan is now more than 20 years old, the number of settlers in the West Bank surpassed 500’000, the majority of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip are displaced at the end of November 2023 and more than 15’000 Palestinian civilians and more than 1’000 Israelis lost their lives from the 7th of October until the beginning of December 2023.
However, as Israel is building assets to trade with its Arab neighbors and international partners, the model of international relations based on the sometimes-unreliable mix between values and hard arguments is suffering unless international law is upheld and enforced in a minimally equitable manner.
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Program Director MEPEI