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Why is Saudi Arabia quiet about Gaza?

May 11, 2024

On May 7, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a scathing statement as the Israeli military targeted the Palestinian city of Rafah, now known as the last, relatively “safe” refuge for Gaza’s people. The Saudi statement highlighted the massive destruction being inflicted by the “Israeli war machine”, and, going a step further, labelled Israeli actions as “genocide” – for the first time ever.

Despite Riyadh’s growing clarity on the war in Gaza, the past seven months have been something of a balancing act for the Kingdom. There is pressure on Saudi Arabia and its all-powerful Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or ‘MbS’, to take a clear stand against Israeli actions in Gaza, which have left thousands of Palestinians dead. However, a part of Saudi leadership also recognises – albeit in more hushed tones – that the Hamas terror strike against Israel crossed a major red line. In fact, many, if not most, Arab states in the region would like to see Hamas gone. Prior to the October 7 attack – Hamas holds Israeli hostages from that strike to this day – the Saudis were in talks to normalise relations with Israel, a deal being promoted aggressively by the US in exchange for a more expansive Riyadh-Washington security treaty. These regional deals achieved via detentes would have reshaped the Middle East geopolitics as we know it.

Decoding The Saudi Silence

Saudi Arabia, despite being positioned as a major pole of power in the region along with Iran and Israel, has maintained a stance of only mitigated diplomatic engagement for the ongoing Gaza conflict. The recent attendance of the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Iran at the latter’s first conference on nuclear science and technology in Isfahan – a city that was targeted by Israeli missiles just a few days before his visit – shows that Riyadh is ready to play a part in preventing a regional conflict, but it won’t unilaterally take part in a wider Israel-Iran conflagration unless its own sovereignty was threatened. In fact, Mohammed Eslami, Iran’s ayatollah for nuclear affairs, had said in Isfahan that the country was ready for peaceful cooperation with the Saudis on nuclear issues.

The Saudi positioning may be perplexing to many, but it’s not that complicated. Under MbS, the Saudis have embarked on an expansive, ambitious, and challenging plan to overhaul the Kingdom’s economy. The plan is, in simple terms, to divest from their economy’s addiction to petrodollars and future-proof the country from drastic changes in energy consumption as the world moves from hydrocarbons to renewables. For long, the Saudi economy and the stability of the monarchy have been funded by windfalls from oil production – the highest in the world – and the country’s unbridled influence over global oil prices. In fact, only last week, Saudi Arabia raised the oil price for Asian markets by $0.90 per barrel in an effort to keep the global prices up. This would keep the Saudi exchequer flush with funds at a time when a regional war looms on the horizon and oil production by non-OPEC states increases too.

MbS Has A Lot Of Plans

MbS is directing hundreds of billions of dollars towards building infrastructure that would attract foreign investments, as well as towards diversifying the economy and building alternative industries in areas like manufacturing, services, tourism, entertainment, and so on. In short, what MbS wants is Saudi’s own version of Dubai or Abu Dhabi. The former recently became the city with the most millionaires in the world – over 72,500 of them call the Emirati metropolis home. The Saudis are hoping to offer alternatives.

Much like the UAE, Saudi Arabia sees being embroiled in wars once again as antithetical to its economic goals. Sustaining a fast pace and large-scale economic plans won’t be easy in an unsafe, volatile, and conflict-prone geography. The UAE serves as a good example. Like Riyadh, the Emiratis have also maintained an even-headed response to the Gaza crisis. They have not rescinded their diplomatic relations with Israel, which were formalised in 2020 as part of the Abraham Accords.

But, as per reports, they have imposed usage restrictions on US military assets parked in the country, forcing Washington to re-position these to Qatar. In a way, this is the UAE making sure that it is not a direct or indirect participant in any military misadventures between Israel, Iran and the US.

For the Saudis however, attaining the same position will be a bit more complicated. Being home to the Two Holy Mosques, the Muslim population the world over accords a certain centrality to Saudi Arabia. With this custodianship comes a set of expectations that the House of Saud cannot disregard. 

But … It’s A Sticky Situation

The fact that Iran, being a Shia power at that, is a much louder voice today in favour of the Palestinian people and cause is something that MbS may not be able to ignore beyond a point. His crackdown on ideological movements like the Muslim Brotherhood not just in the country but also in other states like Egypt could become harder in the months ahead. In fact, Hamas has its own history, being as it is a branch of the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. 

The domestic sentiment in Saudi Arabia has favoured the Palestinians, and managing the ‘street’ is critical, as the Arab Spring had showcased only a few years ago. The popularity and reach of social media also make it difficult to promote official positions that are completely contrary to public sentiments and emotions, especially on issues like Gaza. While the Saudis would still like to discuss normalisation with Israel, the ongoing war makes it unpalatable to do so at any time in the near future. And hence the strongly worded statements by their foreign ministry.

MbS’s Own Goals

Finally, Saudi Arabia and MbS are driven by the latter’s economic vision put forward in the Vision 2030 statement. MbS’s leadership was initially questioned and challenged by both his family hierarchy and the international community. The success of this project is thus critical for him to prove that he is aiming for the long race. 

From economic reordering to shedding the image of being an ‘ultra-conservative’ Islamic monarchy, Saudi Arabia has a lot on its own plate currently. These pursuits are high-risk by themselves. External pressures and distractions, as also getting embroiled in regional wars, will only make the task harder for Riyadh.

[Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation. He is the author of ‘The ISIS Peril: The World’s Most Feared Terror Group and its Shadow on South Asia’ (Penguin Viking, 2019)]

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