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PoliticsSaudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia balancing Israel ties and Palestinian solution

January 10, 2024

Amid the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza, Saudi Arabia must weigh up ambitions for normalization with Israel against pan-Arab solidarity with Palestinians.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
After several years out in the diplomatic cold, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is now back in favorImage: Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik/REUTERS

Germany will no longer block the sale of Eurofighter jets to Saudi Arabia and will also deliver other high-tech armaments like the IRIS-T guided missiles. That is despite concerns from within the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's ruling coalition and his own party.

Germany started blocking weapons deliveries to Saudi Arabia in 2018 after the brutal assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi made global headlines and highlighted the country's human rights violations.

But now, according to a German government press spokesperson, Scholz shares the opinion of German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who has praised Saudi Arabia's "constructive" position concerning Israel during the current Israel-Hamas conflict.

"The Saudi Arabian air force also employed Eurofighters to shoot down Houthi missiles that were bound for Israel," government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said in Berlin this week.

The Gulf nation's "constructive" attitude clearly means more to the German politicians than previous concerns about Saudi Arabia's role in the war in Yemen, which has resulted in what is often described as one of the world's worst humanitarian crises, as well as the various human rights violations that first sparked the ban.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock praised Saudi Arabia's "constructive" position with regard to Israel Image: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

The Germans are not alone in this kind of "realpolitik." US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also found kind words for Saudi Arabia following his visit to Riyadh earlier this week. Blinken said he and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had discussed potential normalization of relations with Israel and that the Saudis still had a clear interest in progressing this.

Blinken's view seems more positive than that expressed by most Middle East analysts, who perceive a growing distance between Saudi Arabia and Israel, after the militant Hamas group attacked Israel on October 7. Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, Germany and other countries. During the attack, over 1,100 people were killed and over 200 taken hostage.

Part of the motive for the Hamas attack was the fact that several countries in the Middle East were normalizing their relationships with Israel, bypassing any solution to the problem of Palestinian statehood along the way. The Hamas attack brought attention back to that.

Saudi-Israel normalization on ice

During the Doha Forum, held in Qatar at the beginning of December, many attendees also seemed to think that the Saudi-Israeli normalization process was on hold. Saudi Arabia could not continue with the process given the tens of thousands of Palestinians killed in Gaza since Israel started bombing the enclave. The normalization process was never formally ended but realistically, it was on ice.

Before October 7, the normalization process did seem to have been advancing. The two countries do not have formal ties but do have plenty of informal ones. Previously Israeli and Saudi leaders had been making promising statements about formalizing that relationship, indicating it might soon become official. For example, in the summer of 2022, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to all airlines, which meant flights to and from Israel could traverse over the country.

The October 7 attack changed all that. Similar to other countries in the region, Saudi Arabia sees Israel's military operation in Gaza in a much more critical light than most Western nations.

During a November meeting of the so-called BRICS intergovernmental organization, which Saudi Arabia recently joined, the country's Crown Prince called for the end of weapons deliveries to Israel. Some observers even suggested that the Gaza conflict was going to push Saudi Arabia closer to its longstanding rival in the region, Iran. China brokered a better diplomatic relationship between the two countries last summer. 

During a recent meeting of the Arab League, Middle Eastern leaders condemned Israel's military approach in GazaImage: Saudi Press Agency/dpa/picture alliance

Saudi Arabia has expressed itself clearly during the conflict.

An article in Foreign Policy magazine this December said as much: "Riyadh is leading a diplomatic effort designed to generate an international narrative that questions the legality of Israeli military aggression, and the US diplomatic cover it is utilizing," Aziz Alghashian, a fellow at Lancaster University's Richardson Institute, a peace and conflict research center, wrote in the magazine. "Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan is leading a diplomatic committee mandated by the Arab League and Organization of Islamic Cooperation, to tour various international capitals and argue for an immediate ceasefire."

It was noticeable that the first places the committee stopped for talks in were Moscow and Beijing. "This was a clear signal to Washington that Saudi Arabia has other options in this ever-evolving multipolar world," Alghashian surmised. Additionally, "[Saudi Arabia] does not want to allow itself to be politicized for Israeli political ends," the analyst argued.

Saudis acting in their own interest

Despite all of the Saudi criticism of Israel one thing remains clear, said Philipp Dienstbier, director of the Regional Program Gulf States for Germany's Konrad Adenauer Foundation: Saudi Arabia's underlying foreign policy objectives have not changed drastically since the beginning of the Gaza conflict.

The Saudis were previously working on a better relationship with Israel at the Americans' request because the Saudis want to continue to enjoy a good relationship with the US. 

Saudi Arabia has ambitious plans to build the most modern infrastructureImage: Eliot Blondet/ABACA/picture alliance

"After the [Saudi] disappointment about the lack of a US response to the [Houthi] shelling of Saudi facilities in 2019, Saudi Arabia now expects a more solid and reliable security partnership with the USA," Dienstbier said. "In addition, Riyadh is interested in US support for its nuclear program as well as arms cooperation."

Similar Saudi self-interest was apparent in its burgeoning relationship with Israel, Dienstbier noted. The Gulf kingdom has major plans to modernize its economy, moving away from a  dependence on oil, and part of that involves better relationships with the leading economies in the region.

"On that front, Israel is at the top of the list," Dienstbier explained. "Especially with its high-tech sector. Common interests in trade and in infrastructure projects also connect the two countries."

Saudi Arabia's difficult balancing act

But if all this is important to them, why then are the Saudis being so audibly critical of Israel?

Dienstbier thinks the Saudis believe that, in the current situation, it is necessary to use a different kind of rhetoric. The Saudis are doing this because of their role as leaders of the Islamic world — the country is home to some of the holiest Muslim sites and the Saudis are seen as guardians of these. As such, they cannot normalize their relations with Israel without the prospect of some kind of solution to the long-running problem of Palestinian statehood and Israeli occupation.

Additionally, Saudi leaders are under pressure from their own people and their political elite on this subject.

"Thanks to these different perspectives and interests the Saudis are trying a balancing act, something we have observed ever since October 7," Dienstbier said.

Over 23,000 Palestinians have been killed and close to 2 million displaced in the Gaza Strip since OctoberImage: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Saudi Arabia also has its own interests in ensuring that the region remains stable, despite the Gaza conflict. Crises and wars in the neighborhood would obviously put a dent in Saudi Arabia's modernization program. The current Houthi attacks on vessels off their own coast and the resulting disturbances in commercial shipping show just how quickly things can change for the worse. The fact that the Saudis have likely blocked or intercepted rockets fired out of Yemen has not been confirmed by the Saudis themselves. But they haven't denied this either, Dienstbier pointed out.

The Saudis have been involved in Yemen's civil war since 2015, having led an international coalition against the Houthi rebels after the rebels ousted Yemen's internationally recognized, Saudi-backed government in 2014. But they have been largely unsuccessful in quelling the Houthis and currently appear to be more interested in extracting themselves from that fight. A ceasefire is holding in Yemen, despite the fact that it officially expired in October 2022. There are also reports that the chances for long-lasting peace in Yemen are increasing.

Until that situation is resolved though, Saudi Arabia continues to make efforts to secure its own borders and the military installations that the Saudis used while fighting in Yemen continue to operate.

"Of course, these could be contributing to the Kingdom's ability to prevent Houthi attacks," Dienstbier said. And if one looks at it that way, it is also quite possible that Saudi Arabia is actually protecting itself as opposed to actively helping to protect Israel.

This story was originally published in German. 

Relations between Israel and the Arab world


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