Last week a widely respected Saudi statesman publicly criticised both Hamas and Israel for attacking civilians in a speech that captured much of the regional mood.
“There are no heroes in this conflict. Only victims,” said Prince Turki al-Faisal, addressing a US audience at Rice University in Houston after the 7 October Hamas attack on Israel and the subsequent Israeli bombing of Gaza.
So what? Prince Turki is the longtime former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency and Ambassador to the United States, so his words – carefully criticising both sides – carry weight. The Saudi leadership is walking a tightrope as the Israel-Hamas war threatens the ambitious domestic reforms of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Pausing normalisation. Before 7 October, a succession of leaks to US media outlined the contours of a potential agreement, brokered by the Biden administration, for Saudi Arabia and Israel to establish diplomatic relations. These included:
- negotiations over a mutual defence treaty between the US and Saudi Arabia;
- American support for and assistance with uranium enrichment in a Saudi civil nuclear programme; and
- greater coordination on oil output and pricing.
The push for normalisation appeared to be gathering momentum with MBS telling Fox News on 20 September that “every day, we get closer” to “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.” The future of Palestinians remained the sticking point in the three-way talks, conducted by US, Saudi, and Israeli officials without any meaningful Palestinian input, as negotiators sought to reach an equilibrium that would allow Saudi and Israeli officials to sell any deal domestically.
It is unclear if the Hamas attack on Israel was intended to derail this process. But public anger in response to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza put pressure on officials in Riyadh, as in other Arab capitals, to take a stand.
- Saudi officials briefed reporters on 13 October that normalisation talks had been paused.
- A statement from the Foreign Ministry called for “an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and its surroundings” and urgent delivery of humanitarian aid.
- The state-appointed cleric at the Grand Mosque in Mecca urged support for “our brothers in Palestine” at the first Friday prayers after the attacks.
Careful balancing. Mohammed bin Salman may have concentrated political and economic power to a degree unseen in Saudi Arabia for decades, but he is mindful of the need to tread carefully. His father, King Salman, has largely withdrawn from public life but Salman’s lifelong support for Palestine remains undimmed by age or illness.
Salman is committed to the Arab Peace Initiative unveiled by his half-brother and predecessor King Abdullah in 2002, which called for full Arab normalisation in return for complete Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territory. MBS endorsed that position on 20 October when he called for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders and renewed the Saudi demand that military operations against civilian targets in Gaza be ended.
De-risking. But the name of the game for the crown prince over the past year has been regional “de-risking” – the prime example was the deal agreed in March in Beijing to restore diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The fact that Mohammed bin Salman held his first conversation with Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi on 12 October spoke volumes about the desire in Riyadh to prevent the conflict widening. Iran’s foreign minister travelled to Saudi Arabia on 18 October, providing further opportunities for dialogue.
Mohammed bin Salman has staked his credibility as the ruler-in-waiting of Saudi Arabia on his ability to transform the Kingdom through his Vision 2030 plan of economic reform. That plan, unveiled in 2016, hit its halfway point in 2023 and needs to start delivering on “giga-projects” such as the futuristic city, Neom. MBS’s plans will be on show this week at Saudi’s investment conference, known as Davos in the Desert. He can ill-afford another round of regional instability.
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