Saudi Arabia hosts Gaza summits, Iran President Raisi as regional fears mount

Saudi Arabia hosts Gaza summits, Iran President Raisi as regional fears mount
Saudi Arabia is hosting emergency meetings of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation this weekend after Israeli bombardment killed more than 10,000 people in Gaza.
4 min read
09 November, 2023
Saudi Arabia is due to host a summit of leaders from Islamic countries [Getty]

Saudi Arabia is hosting Arab leaders and Iran's president for two summits this weekend on the ongoing war in Gaza, which is raising fears of a regional escalation.

The emergency meetings of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) come after over a month of indiscriminate Israeli bombardment has killed more than 10,000 people in Gaza.

With Israel's leaders rebuffing talk of a ceasefire until Hamas frees its captives held in the strip, anger in Saudi Arabia over the Palestinian death toll comes amid worries the war could destabilise the wider region and fears this could thwart the kingdom's attempts to transition the economy away from oil.

Saudi Arabia and its neighbours are "united in fearing one thing in particular, which is a broader escalation", said Elham Fakhro of Chatham House.

Two Gulf countries – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – controversially normalised relations with Israel in 2020, while Saudi Arabia has considered doing so, and all three cooperate with Israel's staunch ally the United States on security matters.

"They're very worried that they're going to be targeted by Iranian proxy groups who are seeking retaliation against Israel and the United States," Fakhro told a panel organised by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Saudi analysts said the Arab League meeting on Saturday would do well to go beyond statements condemning attacks on Gaza's civilians, though it was unclear how the bloc might shape events on the ground.

"This [Arab League] meeting will be a success if it leads to any framework to pressure Israel to stop the war. Otherwise it will not be a success," said Saudi analyst Sulaiman al-Oqaily.

"The urgent need now is to stop the war."

'Above the fray'

Saudi Arabia, home to the two holiest sites in Islam, has voiced support for the Palestinian cause while denouncing incidents like the Israeli bombing last week of Gaza's largest refugee camp which killed dozens of people.

But it has simultaneously forged ahead with events intended to highlight de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform agenda, notably a major investment forum, Riyadh fashion week, and a heavyweight boxing bout.

The back-to-back summits in Riyadh could signal the start of a higher-profile diplomatic push, with Saudi Arabia taking advantage of its position as a historic champion of Palestinians combined with its interest in potentially recognising Israel one day.

An official familiar with Saudi thinking told AFP in mid-October that talks on possible normalisation with Israel were paused, yet analysts say they could be revived after the Gaza war.

Saudi Arabia is "trying to strategically position itself above the fray", said Bader al-Saif at Kuwait University.

"I think it's very smartly trying to position itself for the day after – how are we going to use this to the best advantage not only for Saudi national interests, which is front-and-centre, but also to advance a sane Palestinian-Israeli peace process."

Raisi in Saudi

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi's expected attendance at the OIC summit on Sunday will bring an unusual level of attention to the 57-member bloc of Muslim-majority countries.

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It will be Raisi's first trip to Saudi Arabia since a surprise, China-brokered rapprochement deal announced in March ended seven years of severed bilateral ties.

Iran is a backer not just of Hamas but of Lebanese group Hezbollah and Yemen's Houthi rebels, who have been at war with a Saudi-led coalition since 2015.

However, the Middle East heavyweights agree on publicly supporting Palestinians, a point stressed in official communications on the first call between Raisi and Prince Mohammed on 12 October, five days after the war erupted.

Because the OIC's membership extends from Africa to Asia, any statement coming out of Sunday's summit could also underscore how support for Palestinians is growing well beyond the Middle East, said Saudi analyst Aziz Alghashian.

"Non-Western countries are not accepting this any longer and not buying the American narrative, the Western narrative" of the conflict, he said.