Saudi Arabia has long held a place as arguably the most influential country in the Middle East. Yet, as the world reels from the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, and nations such as Qatar and Egypt have rushed in with attempts to broker the release of hostages and send aid to Gaza, as NBC News reports, Saudi Arabia has been slow to react. Middle East Eye reports that Saudi Arabia hosted a regional summit aiming to unify pro-Palestine states on November 12, the country’s first major move to broker peace in the region.
Hours after Hamas’s initial attack and Israel’s resulting strike on Gaza, the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a post on X (formerly known as Twitter) calling for an “immediate halt in escalation” between the two sides. However, they notably did not condemn Hamas for their initial attack. Much of their action since the attack – meetings with United States officials and other regional leaders and statements condemning the increase in violence – has not held much bite, according to Foreign Policy analyst Steven A. Cook.
Generally, since the attacks, Saudi Arabia has seemed paralyzed – a result of their precarious security situation, Cook continues. They face the difficult challenge of relying on the U.S., who currently sit on the opposite side of the conflict, for much of their security. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman faces a difficult choice – unifying its fellow Arab nations at the risk of damaging its all-time high relationship with the U.S, or prioritize its regional position.
Internally, Saudi Arabia appears normal. Many of the lavish events that have marked Prince Mohammed’s rule are still underway. But below the surface, citizens are reeling, as The New York Times reports. Pro-Palestinian sentiment is at an all-time high as the reality of what is happening spreads through social media. Though there have been far fewer public displays of outcry across the state – largely due to their illegality – public sentiments of grief and outrage at the conflict are clear.
Also complicating the situation is the fact that in the months leading up the conflict, progress was building surrounding a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal brokered by the U.S. The U.S. Institute of Peace reports that the deal would formalize U.S. security support for Saudi Arabia, as well as provide support for a Saudi nuclear program by allowing them to enrich their own uranium. The deal would require them to support a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict. This would be a huge win for the U.S., as it would represent Saudi Arabia taking a massive step apart from China and Russia.
However, the deal was far from done when the conflict broke out. The U.S. Institute of Peace continues that there have been significant challenges in the process, as the actors with interests that often don’t align try to come together. It is unclear what the domestic response from both sides may be, as the concept of protecting the Saudi Arabian monarchy with American troops may likely be unpopular.
And now, the future of the deal is even more uncertain. As Reuters reports, the deal is being put on the back burner as Saudi Arabia is rapidly reevaluating its foreign policy priorities. Instead, the kingdom is engaging with Iran in attempts to broker peace. But Axios states that Saudi Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman visited Washington at the end of October, assuring the Biden administration that the country is still interested in pursuing the deal eventually.
According to The Associated Press, President Biden asserted at a campaign fundraiser that the potential Saudi-Israel deal was a contributing factor to Hamas’s attack. “One of the reasons… why Hamas moved on Israel, is because they knew I was about to sit down with the Saudis,” Biden said. “Guess what? The Saudis wanted to recognize Israel.”
Meanwhile, the conflict is already starting to have broader impacts on the entire Middle East. Reuters reports that oil prices are set to decline for the third week in a row. As fears grow that the Israel-Hamas war will stretch on, Saudi Arabia stands at a crossroads with the rest of the region.