Since the beginning of the conflict in Gaza on October 7, Saudi Arabia has been involved in a series of mostly conservative approaches regarding the development of events. Guided by its grand plan to face off Saudi Arabia in a decade, Riyadh sticked to the policy of keeping peace while mediating to end the violence as soon as possible. The kingdom still seeks to proceed with a disputed agreement with Israel to normalize the ties after seven decades of feud. En route, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has adjusted his ties with both sides of different conflicts at an even level to, as he claims, facilitate potential brokering of peace. At a deeper level, however, Riyadh means to stay immune, politically and economically, from the reverberations of major wars like the ones in Ukraine and Gaza. The upcoming visit by Vladimir Putin to Riyadh, few months after another visit by Volodymyr Zelenskyy, represents another show of the policy of evading to take sides in conflicts.
A Saudi Flight; From Moscow to Gaza
Saudi Crown Prince is preparing to host the Russian president this week after the latter’s first visit to Abu Dhabi. Vladimir Putin leaves Moscow after a meeting with his Iranian counterpart at Kremlin which will focus on a range of regional and trans-regional topics. The diplomatic expedition of Russian president is expected to focus on Gaza war as one of its most important agenda. Since the beginning of the war in Gaza, Moscow has hesitantly taken side with Palestinian people against Israel which is vocally backed by the United States, the Russian strategic foe.
Having involved in a year-long war with Ukraine after a controversial invasion in February, 2022, a war that actually kicked off eight years earlier, Vladimir Putin is not expected to play an active role in Gaza conflict. The upcoming visits, however, may prove decisive as they start with a meeting with the Iranian president Ibrahim Raisi, an outspoken supporter of Palestinian people and Hamas forces in Gaza. UAE and Saudi Arabia, the next destinations, the former has already normalized ties with Israel, have been trying to mediate the talks between the warring sides. An Iranian involvement in the process may turn the evolution of events in Palestinian lands.
Saudi Arabia and Russia have enjoyed warm relationship after the establishment of OPEC+, a special group of oil producers excluding the United States. The new group has proven an outstanding influence following the outbreak of Russo-Ukrainian war and the ensuing sanctions campaign by western powers. Temporal divisions on issues like cutting down on oil production and exports has been diminished by a shared friction of ties with the United States. While seeking more economic and security gifts from the United States in the framework of an agreement with Israel, Riyadh’s new face has facilitated improvement of ties with its arch-rival, Russia.
Saudi Arabian New Face (No Hamas)
Following the takeover of power after the throning of King Salman in 2015, Mohammad Bin Salman started a local crackdown on other princes, convicting and putting multiple ones into house confinement. In line with the local practice, the de-facto ruler, made steps to consolidate his power through a series of policies mainly aiming to contain it regional arch-rival, Iran. Along with Abu Shabi, Riyadh kicked off a violent crackdown against the Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. The war proved futile after multiple years of bombing campaign with hundreds of thousands of victims and left the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
In another futile embargo, Saudi Kingdom led a political blockade against Qatar in 2017 due to the country’s political and diplomatic involvements in the region. In a move to denigrate the Iran-backed Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, Riyadh forced president Saad al-Hariri to resign during a visit to the Kingdom. Hariri was restored to office after return from an actual, but not official, detainment in Riyadh. Backed by the hostile policies of former US president Donald Trump against Iran, Bin Salman intensified the rhetoric against Tehran in unprecedented remarks stressing on fighting with Iran in its soils, not Saudi Arabia.
The ultimate scar on the face of Bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia was marked when Washington Post Saudi-origin journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018. The operation was inevitably denounced by most Saudi partners across the world as a brutal practice of crackdown against any dissident inside and outside Saudi Arabia. Crackdown, violence and fierce strategy backfired in less than three years with the global public opinion reaching the place where then-US presidential candidate Joe Biden vowed to isolate the kingdom in a move to secure more votes. The potential “pariah” veered off its primary course, leading a new strategy of peace with neighbors like Qatar and Iran. A cease-fire with Yemen paved the way for the restoration of ties with Iran. Bin Salman figured out the necessity of securing peace and development of economic projects to heal the face of Saudi Arabia.
Under the new grand strategy, Saudi Arabia, a vocal supporter of the Palestinian people’s rights, was at odds with Hamas group in Gaza, a Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. On the one side, the group is under the influence Iran and on the other, the nature of the group, rejecting any potential agreements with Israel, was mingled with escalations and tensions in the region. Guided by this policy of rejecting Hamas, Saudi role in the future of Gaza has been reinforced for the past few weeks.
Israeli invasion into the Gaza has been justified by the claims of annihilating Hamas forces after its killing of over 1200 Israeli people on October 7. Whether Israel will be able to demolish a semi-partisan group that lives inside the Gazan community, is still under question. During the recent prisoner swap between Israel and Palestine, the released inmates were celebrating their battle against Israel and expressed their will to return to the battle until perishing Israel.
Despite that, Israeli heavy bombardment of Gaza, that has so far led to the death of over 16000 people, and the destruction of Hamas’s headquarters and tunnels, has raised hopes for the total demolition of Hamas. The post-Hamas era in Gaza means taking the lead in reconstruction of the city and facilitating a local leadership that avoids instigation of violence. Saudi Arabia may seem an apt option, considering its improving ties with Israel and a brokering role Riyadh seeks to display in regional developments. A recent embargo by the Saudi government to stop arms sale to Israel may seem at odds with this potential leading role. The embargo, however, was more of a humanitarian nature than a political one. Russian president welcomes a potential Saudi role in the future of Gaza, considering it as one of the rare powerhouses still keeping ties with Moscow. Riyadh, albeit, has been hesitant to respond to the calls due to the fertility of the violence in Gazan soil as represented by the public approaches in the city.