How Saudi Arabia is approaching Israel's war on Gaza

6 min read
30 November, 2023

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman last week called on all countries to cease arms exports to Israel - posing another roadblock in Washington’s monumental plan to get Saudi Arabia and Israel to normalise relations.

Just weeks before the deadly 7 October Hamas attack, a US-brokered normalisation agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia was underway. The deal would have been a significant geopolitical shift in the region with serious implications for the Palestinian national movement and was potentially one of the key drivers of the Hamas attack.  

However, now almost two months into the Israel-Hamas war, any steps towards Saudi normalisation with Israel have come to a halt.

“Any sort of Saudi-Israel normalisation talks would be too toxic for Riyadh at this time,” Anna Jacobs, the senior Gulf analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told The New Arab. As the mass atrocities committed by Israel on Gaza “galvanise” the Saudi public and the Arab world, a resumption of normalisation talks would be “politically radioactive” for Riyadh, Jacobs said. 

"Almost two months into the Israel-Hamas war, any steps towards Saudi normalisation with Israel have come to a halt"

Demonstrations have erupted throughout the region calling for an end to Israeli aggression in Gaza, and even in support of Hamas. Although strict bans on speech freedoms have left Saudi streets quieter than in neighbouring countries, Saudi social media channels are loud with anger towards Israel, Jacobs said.

The Saudi leadership is treading carefully in its wartime rhetoric, balancing a public increasingly frustrated by Israel, with its interest in keeping the Israeli normalisation agreement on the table.

Riyadh has taken the lead in public diplomacy, Jacobs said. The Arab-Islamic summit held in Riyadh early this month brought together dozens of Arab leaders who called for an immediate end to Israel’s military operations in Gaza. The Saudi Crown Prince, commonly known as MBS, has also reiterated calls for a two-state solution, as spelt out in the 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative.  

But as the war rages on and civilians are being killed at an unprecedented pace, the Saudis’ “status quo” rhetoric is not enough to meet swelling public anger. “The Saudis are under pressure to come up with something a bit more powerful, a stronger position,” Jacobs added.

And so “calling for an arms embargo on Israel is a way for Riyadh to say, ‘we’re trying to intensify our criticism’”, to appease public sentiment as opposed to taking action, she stated.  

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  Normalisation 'on the table'

Although Saudi-Israeli normalisation is frozen for now, Saudi Arabia’s investment minister Khalid al-Falih confirmed during an 8 November forum that normalisation is still “on the table”.

For Israel, normalising ties with Saudi Arabia - the region’s economic powerhouse and home to Islam’s holiest sites - would be the “holy grail” of normalisation agreements. Riyadh would benefit from a strengthened US defence pact, including fewer restrictions on US arms sales, and assistance in developing its own civilian nuclear program. Facilitating this normalisation would provide US President Joe Biden with a major foreign policy win before the 2024 election.

Aiming to return to the international stage, the Saudis have recalibrated their foreign policy goals and are arriving at the centre of high-stakes diplomacy and mediation efforts, Jacobs wrote in a recent ICG paper. Before the war, this had left the ground fertile for a Saudi-Israel normalisation to take root. 

As the Gaza war rages on and civilians are being killed at an unprecedented pace, the Saudis’ 'status quo' rhetoric is not enough to meet swelling public anger. [Getty]

Jacobs said that normalisation with Israel remains one of MBS’ long-term objectives, but there are “many pieces” that have to fall into place. For instance, the Saudis’ demands for a return to a full Palestinian peace process and a formal US security guarantee, despite their widely criticised human rights record, would be difficult for Israel and the US to deliver, she said. 

Under MBS’ ambitious development initiative, Saudi Vision 2030, the Kingdom is strengthening its diplomatic ties and working to resolve the region’s long-standing feuds to open a space for smoother economic exchange and investment, according to the ICG paper. Over the past year, the Kingdom has hosted a slew of international summits and stepped up to make amends with its worst enemies, notably Iran. 

And now, Saudi Arabia is continuing to use its “growing diplomatic clout” to rise as a leader in calling for an end to Israel’s war on Gaza, Jacobs said. 

"Although the Saudis have clamped down on Israel with more aggressive rhetoric, they are still treading lightly, veering away from politics by focusing on the humanitarian side"

“Saudi Arabia has taken concrete steps to express solidarity with the Palestinians including by suspending its normalisation talks with Israel. This does set Saudi Arabia apart from other Arab states that have been less willing to match their rhetoric with diplomacy and action,” Elham Fakhro, an associate fellow with Chatham House and a senior Gulf analyst, told TNA.  

It was during one of the Saudis’ chain of wartime summits, this time with the BRICS alliance, when MBS made its call for the arms embargo. The BRICS is an economic alliance of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. Saudi Arabia, as well as Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and the UAE were offered membership in August.

However, it is still unclear how MBS’ call will impact Israeli arms sales. Israeli arms exports to India, for example, are estimated at $1.5 billion to $2 billion, with Israel the top exporter of arms to New Delhi after Russia. Jacobs expressed her doubts that the Saudi call for an arms embargo will have any significant impact.

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Saudis as the 'gate to peace'

Although the Saudis have clamped down on Israel with more aggressive rhetoric, they are still treading lightly, veering away from politics by focusing on the humanitarian side.

MBS’ call for an arms embargo was not political, but rather an act “taken to stop a humanitarian catastrophe”, Amer Sabaileh, a Jordanian political analyst, told TNA. By entering the conflict from the humanitarian side, the Saudis “are putting themselves on the front line while taking a realistic approach” - leaving them better positioned to play a key role in political negotiations in the war’s aftermath, he added.

Meanwhile, in the current wartime negotiations, Saudi Arabia has been left out, lacking channels with Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and proxy of Iran. Jacobs referenced the Saudis’ poor state of relations with the Palestinians and said that although they have expressed willingness to improve ties with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas “it hasn’t happened explicitly”. 

The Arab-Islamic summit held in Riyadh earlier this month brought together dozens of Arab leaders who called for an immediate end to Israel's military operations in Gaza. [Getty]

Circulating within American diplomatic circles are proposals for Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia, to play a role in the administration of post-war Gaza. The “most ambitious” proposals call for Saudi Arabia to provide military and administrative personnel to govern post-war Gaza, while the “more modest” proposals assign Saudis with financing Gaza’s reconstruction.

But Jacobs also said that the Saudis’ playing a larger role in Gaza’s post-war governance would be “extremely complicated”.

However, the US administration is still keeping its channels open with Saudi Arabia as a promising future broker in Israel-Palestine negotiations, Sabaileh noted. Last week, Blinken called the Saudi FM to discuss the ceasefire in Gaza, posting on X after the call that: “A sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians is a shared priority for both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia”.

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Sabaileh said that Qatar’s relationship with Hamas, and the growing need for the country to defend itself from the “sponsor of terrorism” allegations, will leave it less suited to be an influential actor in the peace negotiations of the long term. And although Jordan has hardened its stance on Israel during the war, it is still “completely out of the game” he said. 

In the future “peace with the Saudis is the only peace Israel will seek after this war”, Sabaileh said. “The Saudis will be the gate to any peace.” 

Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.

Follow her on Twitter: @hannadavis341