News | Gulf States - Israel - Palestine / Jordan - War in Israel/Palestine Saudi Arabia and the War in Gaza

How the Saudi royal family is using Palestine to bolster its own claim to leadership



Sebastian Sons,

People walk past a banner showing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, outside a mall in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Dec. 6, 2019
People walk past a banner showing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman outside a mall in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 6 December 2019. Photo: picture alliance/AP Images | Amr Nabil

The events of 7 October 2023 marked a turning point for Saudi Arabia. Just like in other parts of the Arab world as well as in Europe and the US, the Saudi leadership under the powerful Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman had almost completely disregarded the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s political relevance. Rather, in the months leading up to the war in Gaza, intensive talks were held with the Israeli government and the US administration under President Joe Biden in an effort to achieve rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel and ultimately bilateral normalization.

Sebastian Sons holds a PhD in Islamic Studies and works at the Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient, focusing on the Arab Gulf monarchies.

Saudi Arabia would have followed the example of other Arab Gulf monarchies such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which already signed the Abraham Accords with Israel in 2020 and thus established diplomatic relations. Although the Kingdom had long since created informal networks with Israeli representatives from the business, security, and political sectors, it seemed only a matter of time before Saudi Arabia would officially recognize Israel. In a TV interview with the US television channel Fox News in September 2023, Muhammad bin Salman emphasized that all sides were getting closer to an agreement “every day”.

However, the devastating attacks carried out by Hamas in Israel, which killed more than 1,200 people, and the subsequent war in Gaza, which has so far killed more than 33,000, have put these talks on hold for the time being. Instead, the Saudi leadership is under more pressure than ever to adopt a stance on the Gaza war and Israel that does not weaken its own objectives, while at the same time taking into account the hostile attitude towards Israel of large swaths of the Saudi and Arab populations. In Saudi Arabia, nearly 100 percent of young people now oppose normalization with Israel, and the majority of the population is calling for an end to all relations with Israel.

The War in Gaza as a Threat to Saudi Arabian Interests

From the Saudi Arabian perspective, the temporary suspension of talks with Israel is a blessing in disguise: in contrast to the UAE and Bahrain, which signed the Abraham Accords and thus officially normalized their relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia has given the impression that even prior to 7 October, there was no prospect of reaching an agreement with Israel. After all, the Kingdom had always advocated for the establishment of a Palestinian state and demanded that the United States align with this stance.

On the other hand, Israel remains a potentially attractive partner for Saudi Arabia, which is reliant on economic diversification and socio-economic transformation, for security and economic reasons. Nevertheless, the drastic military response of the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is exacerbating the suffering of the Palestinian population, heightening the risk of a regional escalation, and bolstering the influence of radical groups such as Hamas, whose attack on Israel was also condemned in Saudi Arabia.

As an influential leader in the region, Saudi Arabia could still try to overcome these rifts and work towards a regional solution through pressure and dialogue.

Saudi analyst Hesham Alghannam now sees Israel more as a security threat and no longer as a bulwark against Iranian influence in the region. Against this backdrop, Saudi Arabia faces a dilemma, as the Gaza war poses a significant threat to Saudi interests on three levels:

  • The economy: Saudi Arabia is currently undergoing a complex social transformation. The country needs to move away from its dependence on oil and is therefore investing heavily in the tourism, sports, research, culture, and entertainment industries as part of the “Vision 2030” programme introduced by the Crown Prince in 2017. Its aim is to provide prospects for the younger generation despite rising taxes and declining subsidies, to further reduce youth unemployment, and thus to modify the social contract without breaking it.
    To achieve this, Saudi Arabia
    s business model must be successful, which requires foreign investment and external capital. In particular, ambitious mega-projects such as The Line, a high-tech city under construction in the north-west of the country, are at risk if the threat to stability in the region and the Red Sea persists after the Yemeni Houthis began attacking shipping just off the Kingdom’s coast in the wake of the Gaza war. Saudi Arabia is the sole bidder for hosting the 2034 Men’s Football World Cup and wants to organize up to 25 world championships in various sports, including the 2029 Asian Winter Games, by the end of the decade. By 2030, 150 million tourists are expected to flock to the country.
    In order to successfully implement these plans, the Saudi leadership is in urgent need of
    stability in the region. A prerequisite for this is the security of the sites of investment, which is why the war in Gaza is jeopardizing this course of economic diversification.
  • Security: To achieve these goals, the Kingdom is trying to balance its interests. The best example of this is the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran in March 2023. For Saudi Arabia, the rapprochement with its regional rival represents the temporary culmination of a sustained de-escalation effort that began after the attacks on Saudi oil refineries in September 2019.
    Despite the close relations between Tehran and Hamas, Saudi Arabia and Iran
    maintained their channels of communication even after 7 October. Five days later, Muhammad bin Salman and President Ebrahim Raisi spoke on the phone for the first time. However, this rapprochement is not based on mutual trust, but rather on tactical considerations. The primary goal was to de-escalate the war in Yemen and reach an understanding between Saudi Arabia and the Iranian-backed Houthis. This was partially achieved: for example, the Houthis have intensified their attacks on ships in the Red Sea in the course of the Gaza war, but are refraining from attacking Saudi targets as they did between 2015 and 2022. To avoid jeopardizing this process, Saudi Arabia is also not participating in the US-led “Prosperity Guardian“ naval operation to secure shipping lanes in the region.
  • Identity-building: Saudi Arabia’s transformation also includes the search for a collective Saudi identity. Muhammad bin Salman proclaims a “hyper-nationalism” that is explicitly aimed at a young audience, the “MBS generation”, and has marginalized traditional forces such as the Wahhabi clergy. The Gaza war is also fuelling pro-Palestinian and pan-Arab notions of identity among young people, appealing to the religious solidarity of the Saudi state.
    In recent years, the Palestinian cause has barely been discussed in public and it seemed as if the Middle East conflict had lost its emotional appeal. This has proved to be a misconception. Saudi Arabia’s identity policy has to address the issue not only by pursuing a course of social liberalization and
    “Saudi First” nationalism, but also by including solidarity with Palestine into their identity-building narrative to a greater extent than before. This in particular poses a challenge to the previously pragmatic approach to Israel.

Saudi Arabian Criticism of Israel Intensifies

Against the backdrop of these risks, Saudi Arabia is gradually changing course: While official announcements shortly after 7 October barely expressed open criticism of Israel and adopted a more pragmatic, conciliatory stance, Saudi condemnations of Israel’s actions in Gaza have become much harsher in recent weeks.

For example, the Saudi newspaper Arab News described the Israeli military campaign as a “second Nakba”, referring to the “catastrophe” of the flight and expulsion of about 700,000 Arab Palestinians from the former British Mandate of Palestine during the founding of Israel in 1948. Furthermore, in Saudi Arabia, there is an insistence that no sustainable regional stability can be achieved without a two-state solution.

In addition to calls for an immediate ceasefire, the establishment of safe humanitarian corridors, and a significant increase in aid deliveries to the Gaza Strip, Saudi Arabia’s rhetoric is becoming increasingly clear and is intended to help consolidate its role as a regional leader and traditional patron of the Palestinian cause. By the end of March, the Saudi fundraising campaign for Gaza had raised more than 180 million US dollars from around 1.8 million donors. In March, the Saudi King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre (KSrelief) donated 40 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In 2022, the Kingdom was the third largest funder of UNRWA behind the United States and Germany with a total of 27 million US dollars.

The Saudi narrative also emphasizes the relevance of the Arab Peace Initiative, which was largely initiated by the then Saudi King Abdullah in 2002 and calls for a two-state solution as a precondition for potential normalization between the Arab states and Israel. By hosting numerous crisis summits, where even regional rivals like Iran participated, and by serving as a key interlocutor for the US, Europe, and other regional actors, Saudi Arabia strives to present itself as a mediator, without which a de-escalation of the conflict cannot be achieved.

However, the Kingdom lacks direct and official channels of communication with the parties involved in the conflict — unlike the UAE, which is in contact with the Israeli leadership, and Qatar, which is in contact with Hamas. To compensate for this, Saudi Arabia is seeking to strengthen its own soft power through shuttle diplomacy, networking, and political mediation. As the “guardian” of the two holy sites of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia holds significant religious influence within the Islamic world, and the Kingdom bears a special responsibility with regard to solidarity towards the Palestinians.

Therefore, the pro-Palestinian expressions of sympathy and solidarity in Saudi Arabia and across the Arab world can neither be ignored nor suppressed, lest the credibility of the Saudi position be weakened.

Saudi Arabia as a Key Regional Actor in Ending the War in Gaza

It would be prudent for the Kingdom to constructively leverage the current situation on multiple levels. Given its overarching interests in regional stability, economic prosperity, and national identity formation, Saudi Arabia should strive to move beyond conflict management and pursue a long-term, sustainable solution to the current war. In this endeavour, the Kingdom can leverage its regional influence to facilitate a resolution.

So far, Saudi Arabia has not succeeded in finding a consensus with other Gulf states such as the UAE and Qatar. The governments in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha have raised similar concerns: they call for a ceasefire, an expansion of aid, and a perspective for the establishment of a Palestinian state. However, they do not offer a common vision for the future after the end of the Gaza war. Moreover, in dealing with Israel, the interests and approaches of the individual Gulf monarchies sometimes differ fundamentally, which has so far prevented a unified strategy in the region.

The crisis also offers an opportunity for the Gulf states to play a more active and constructive role as peacemakers, while also asserting their own autonomy.

Nevertheless, as an influential leader in the region, Saudi Arabia could still try to overcome these rifts and work towards a regional solution through pressure and dialogue. In recent years, trust in the United States and the international community has declined across all Gulf states, with accusations of hypocrisy and double standards — a trend that has intensified significantly since 7 October. While the Gulf states are aware that an end to the war in Gaza does not seem realistic without the active involvement of the US and Europe, regular talks are being held with the Biden administration to develop a reconstruction plan for a post-war scenario.

In March 2024, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia and the five other Gulf monarchies, published a joint vision for regional security for the first time in its 43-year history. It explicitly calls for the creation of a two-state solution based on the Arab Peace Initiative in order to achieve a just solution to the Palestinian issue. This approach is intended to strengthen unity among the Arab Gulf states and clearly bears the hallmarks of Saudi Arabia — representing a first step towards a united position. However, a ceasefire is a prerequisite for such a plan.

“Vision 2030” Cements Saudi Arabia’s Leadership Aspirations

The crisis also offers an opportunity for the Gulf states — and Saudi Arabia in particular — to play a more active and constructive role as peacemakers, while also asserting their own autonomy from the “West”. This would underscore Saudi Arabia’s role as an honest mediator and continue to offer the Gulf States the opportunity to initiate a strategic course change, focusing less on conflict management and more on practical solutions. This goes hand in hand with an attempt to increase pressure on Israel and to make normalization conditional on there being a realistic prospect of a two-state solution, as expressed by Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, among others.

From the Saudi perspective, this also requires a counter-narrative to push back against the growing popularity of Hamas, the Houthis, radical forces, and extremism, thus offering the people of Gaza and the rest of the Arab world a different outlook. “Vision 2030” symbolizes Saudi Arabia’s aspirations of leadership in the Arab world and is therefore no longer presented solely as a national project for change and progress, but also as a response to regional challenges. In recent years, it has already served as a vehicle for closer exchange with Israel and Iran.

Accordingly, the Saudi leadership could try to use “Vision 2030” to regain control of the narrative and present itself as a pragmatic and constructive force that opposes radical movements and offers a promising counter-model in the form of economic integration and investment.

Translated by Diego Otero and Alice Rodgers for Gegensatz Translation Collective.