The terms chosen by Saudi Arabia to condemn Tuesday’s Israeli bombardment of the Jabaliya refugee camp in Gaza were revealing: the attack was “inhumane” and the offensive on “besieged” Gaza, a “bloodbath” committed by “Israeli occupation forces.” This censure was the latest demonstration that the signing of the agreement to normalize relations between the Arab power and Israel is not only no longer on the table — Riyadh announced its freezing on October 13 — but that the pact now seems impossible in the short term. Israeli bombings of civilian targets in Gaza have taken with them the words of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who told Fox News in a September 20 interview that the agreement was “closer every day.”
With more than 9,000 Gazans killed in Israeli air strikes according to the Gaza Ministry of Health, not even an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia would dare to go ahead with a normalization once described in the Arab world as khiyaana (betrayal). On the contrary, Riyadh is now spearheading initiatives such as the joint communiqué issued last week by nine Arab countries to denounce “the flagrant violations of international law” committed by Israel in Gaza.
The Israeli military offensive has left the Saudis with no alternative but to try to regain “their central position in the Islamic world at a time of Muslim suffering in Gaza,” Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a Middle East expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute in Houston, says by email. “Saudi leaders must maintain a careful balance between their dialogue with the United States and Israel [...] and the high levels of public anger over the situation in Gaza.” Saudi Arabia, Ulrichsen explains, “also has religious authority as the custodian of the holy mosques in Mecca and Medina.”
The freezing of dialogue with Israel was “inevitable,” says Palestinian analyst Yara Hawari. The Saudis, she says by email, “could not establish relations with the Israelis while the Israelis massacre Palestinians in Gaza.” A large number — at least 3,730 — of the Palestinians who have lost their lives in Gaza since October 7 also symbolize the very essence of an innocent civilian: they were children.
#Statement | The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia condemns in the strongest terms possible the inhumane targeting by the Israeli occupation forces of the Jabalia refugee camp in the besieged Gaza Strip, which caused the death and injury of a large number of innocent civilians. pic.twitter.com/3sjGJFlwtn— Foreign Ministry 🇸🇦 (@KSAmofaEN) October 31, 2023
Saudi Arabia has not condemned Hamas for the October 7 attack on Israel that killed 1,400 people and precipitated the Israeli military response. Riyadh has avoided calling the Palestinian fundamentalist group a terrorist organization, ignoring U.S. pressure revealed by The Washington Post. On his recent tour of the Middle East, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was also snubbed by the Saudi heir apparent. The prince made him wait 10 hours before meeting him on October 15.
Israel established diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco under the Abraham Accords of 2020, hailed by their signatories and their sponsor — the United States — as “peace” agreements, which, almost paradoxically, included advantageous U.S. arms sales contracts and, for Morocco, recognition by Washington of its sovereignty over Western Sahara. Normalization with Saudi Arabia was also presented as a “historic” peace pact — since Riyadh is the great Sunni power — with which the Israeli government hoped to definitively end its diplomatic isolation in the region while relegating the Palestinian question to the drawer of lost causes.
In the same year as the signing of the Abraham Accords, the largest public barometer in the Middle East, the Arab Opinion Index, put the number of Saudis who supported normalization with Israel at only 6%. The survey revealed another fact: 79% of Saudis at the time considered that the Palestinian question concerned all Arabs; the “symbiosis and solidarity between Arab and Palestinian causes” to which Edward Said alluded in The Question of Palestine. Arab regimes, lacking democratic legitimacy, have traditionally feared the extension of the revolutionary potential of the Palestinian cause to their own countries. Experts such as historian Rachid Khalidi and other analysts also believe that the marginalization of the Palestinian issue in the dialogue between Riyadh and the Israeli government may have been one of the triggers that precipitated the Hamas attack.
Ignacio Álvarez-Ossorio, professor of Arab and Islamic studies at the Complutense University in Madrid, points out another aspect that may have played a role in the freezing of the dialogue with Israel: the “great divorce” between the “gerontocracy” that has led Saudi Arabia for decades and younger Saudis. At 38, Bin Salman, the driving force behind the rapprochement with Israel, belongs to a generation alien to the pan-Arabism in which solidarity with the Palestinian cause took root. But in the wake of the October 7 attacks there are signs that the pro-Palestinian sectors of power, which revolve around 87-year-old King Salman, may have imposed their views.
For the director of programs for the Middle East and North Africa of the NGO Crisis Group, Joost Hiltermann, in reality “the main impetus for normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel had come from Israel and the United States,” not from the Saudis themselves, who “were only trying to negotiate a pact, which we do not know would have been concluded,” he explains by telephone from Brussels. Riyadh had made its signature conditional on obtaining a guarantee of U.S. military protection and the green light for a civilian nuclear energy program with Washington’s support.
That agreement also had a strategic objective. Hiltermann argues that Riyadh aspired to move toward “a stable region to grow economically. And for that, some kind of engagement with both Iran and Israel was important to them.” In 2016, the crown prince presented his flagship project: the Vision 2030 Agenda, a roadmap to end oil dependence, which involves diversifying the country’s economy, attracting investment and developing sectors such as tourism, for example by hosting major sporting events, and the entertainment industry. This liberalization, lacking political transparency, was not in keeping with a head-on confrontation with a country as close to and protected by Washington as Israel.
Israel’s war against Hamas has significantly complicated these Saudi development plans, argues Ulrichsen, who says their realization will be much more difficult if Riyadh is “caught in the crossfire of another regional war.”
Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned about the risk of escalation with Iran over the Gaza conflict. The Arab kingdom re-established relations with Tehran in March, within the same logic of regional appeasement that led it to dialogue with Israel. Iran finances both Hamas and its Lebanese ally, the Shiite Hezbollah militia, and the Houthi rebels, with whom Saudi Arabia is trying to forge a definitive peace agreement that will enable it to end its costly involvement in the war in Yemen. On October 12, Mohammed bin Salman telephoned Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to reaffirm “his unwavering commitment to the Palestinian cause.” If the now-frozen talks with Israel are resumed in the future, which experts consulted by this newspaper see as likely, Riyadh will probably demand “more concessions for the Palestinians” than initially envisaged, Ulrichsen stresses.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition