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Saudi Arabia: Why Mohammed bin Salman failed Gaza

The Saudi crown prince has drifted from the old quest to lead the Arab world because he is concerned about his own leadership at home
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP)

In the past, Saudi Arabia had hopes to lead the Arab world in general, and the Gulf countries in particular, towards a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian cause. But such hopes are now shattered. 

The kingdom’s hesitant and lukewarm support for Palestinians amid Israel’s slaughter in Gaza over the last seven months shows that it is no longer a real arbiter, in a war where Tel Aviv doesn’t even listen to its own masters in Washington, let alone its rich and friendly Gulf neighbours. 

Israel’s war on Gaza has truly ended Saudi patronage of the Palestinian cause - if ever such patronage was a realistic policy option for the kingdom. 

While the UAE and Qatar have intimate connections and communications channels with Israel and Hamas, Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is disoriented and muddled for an important reason: Its own national interest, centred on keeping the US close as a security patron, cannot be achieved at the expense of the right of Palestinians to a decent life and freedom from occupation

The crown prince cannot trade normalisation with Israel for Saudi national security, while leaving Palestinians out in the cold.   

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The war on Gaza has busted Mohammed bin Salman’s dream of having the US install an “Iron Dome” over the kingdom in return for full normalisation with Israel. The memory of the 2019 attacks on oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, and the failure of the Trump administration to respond, must still haunt him. 

Since then, he has unsuccessfully pushed for the US to sign a solid security agreement with his country. The ongoing slaughter of Palestinians not only put negotiations on hold, but also made it even more difficult for Saudi Arabia to publicly express enthusiasm about the prospect of normalisation.

Rhetoric and propaganda

Saudi Arabia’s failure to play any significant role in securing a Gaza ceasefire, let alone overseeing a peace agreement in which Palestinian rights are honoured, is not surprising. Its leadership today does not aspire to gain legitimacy through leadership abroad, focusing instead on domestic affairs. 

Mohammed bin Salman has drifted from the old quest to lead the Arab world because he is concerned about his own leadership at home. Normalisation with Israel was close at hand, he assured audiences via Fox News just weeks before 7 October. 

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More than seven months later, the crown prince is confronted with the fact that according to one poll, 96 percent of Saudis oppose normalisation with Israel.

Official media has thus been keen to dispel “rumours” about Saudi complacency or a rush to normalise relations with Israel. Riyadh recently reiterated to the US administration that “there would be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless the independent Palestinian state is recognised on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, the Israeli aggression against the Gaza Strip is stopped, and all members of the Israeli occupation forces are withdrawn from the Gaza Strip”. 

Saudi propaganda on its own relief initiatives cannot be a substitute for real political engagement in pursuit of a lasting peace and statehood for Palestinians

Repeating such rhetoric has become the norm, but it is doubtful whether this can convince the majority of Saudis or Palestinians about Riyadh’s commitment to the Palestinian cause.  

On another level, Saudi aid efforts are meant to cover for the state’s political failure. In a desperate attempt to save face, Sahem, the Saudi fundraising campaign for Gaza, has touted its success in raising more than $180m from 1.8 million donors. It does not shy away from listing on its website the names of donors, including individual businesspeople and the state oil company, Aramco.

Donations such as dates, medical supplies and food baskets are also listed on Sahem’s website. Clearly, charity comes with vivid propaganda under the patronage of the king. 

Political engagement 

No doubt, Gaza needs urgent and huge humanitarian assistance. But while such aid efforts are commendable, Saudi propaganda about its own relief initiatives cannot be a substitute for real political engagement in pursuit of a lasting peace and statehood for Palestinians. 

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During this unprecedented catastrophe, genocide and slaughter, immediate humanitarian aid efforts should be focused on enabling the Palestinian people to reestablish their own agency - mainly, reclaiming their political, human and civil rights from an occupying power - rather than the aid itself becoming the ultimate objective. 

Israel cannot be allowed to continue its devastating campaign in Gaza, which has killed more than 35,000 people and destroyed the livelihoods of more than two million, while one of the most important Arab and Muslim countries busies itself with collecting donations and advertising these efforts.  

It seems that Saudi Arabia, among other states, has entered the humanitarian race simply to deflect from its political impotence and complicity in this war.

Saudi Arabia must take on the responsibility of truly supporting the political rights of Palestinians, because its own security and national interest are served better in an Arab world where Palestinians are recognised as human beings with dignity and sovereignty. Saudi Arabia’s national interest lies within the Arab milieu, not in a bilateral deal with Israel that shatters all peace.  

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Madawi al-Rasheed is visiting professor at the Middle East Institute of the London School of Economics. She has written extensively on the Arabian Peninsula, Arab migration, globalisation, religious transnationalism and gender issues. You can follow her on Twitter: @MadawiDr
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