Saudi Arabia May Be Taking Center Stage in Post-Gaza Peace

With Israel’s war on Gaza in its fifth month amid ongoing international pressure for a ceasefire, Saudi Arabia has become the focus of much attention over what happens next, vis-à-vis both the ‘day after’ framework for a Palestinian state and the heavily touted prospect of normalization with Israel. While Saudi leaders have in the past engaged in efforts to secure a fair resolution of Palestinian-Israeli issues, such as the Fahd Plan in 1981 and the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, the current moment feels different. The kingdom holds greater leverage with regional and international partners, including the Biden administration which continues to push for a Saudi-Israeli deal before the US presidential election in November. With influence comes responsibility, and the question of how, when, and where to play the cards in the Saudi hand.

Saudi Arabia’s Renewed Visibility

In recent years, the Saudi leadership, under Crown Prince (and Prime Minister) Mohammed bin Salman, has assumed an increasingly visible and prominent role on the regional and international stage. The shadow that descended over Mohammed bin Salman after the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was lifted in 2022 as Western leaders beat a path to Riyadh and Jeddah for talks on oil and economic policy in the aftermath of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Saudi foreign policy became more conciliatory and reflective after the shock of the attacks on the Kingdom’s oil infrastructure in 2019 and doubts over US regional security commitments. Meanwhile, the ramping up of the megaprojects so closely associated with Vision 2030 meant that “de-risking” the region became a key Saudi objective as the initiatives moved toward the critical phases of construction and delivery.

The ramping up of the megaprojects so closely associated with Vision 2030 meant that “de-risking” the region became a key Saudi objective.

Against this backdrop, the months prior to the October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas and other Palestinian fighters saw a drumbeat of American media reporting that outlined the parameters of three-way negotiations over a possible US-brokered deal for Saudi Arabia to establish formal relations with Israel. A striking feature of many of these reports was that they appeared to be based on selective briefings from White House officials with little apparent consideration of Saudi, still less Palestinian, interests. One result was a dissonance between rhetoric and reality, illustrated in March 2023 articles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal which laid out aspects of a potential agreement with Israel but failed to anticipate an actual Saudi normalization deal, with Iran, brokered by China and announced in Beijing that month.

When Mohammed bin Salman sat with Fox News for an interview on September 20, 2023, many observers focused on his assertion that “every day we get closer” to an agreement (with Israel) that would, he claimed, be “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.” Less attention was paid to the fact that the crown prince added that any breakthrough in the talks was conditional on “reaching a deal that gives the Palestinians their needs” without going into detail. Also, largely overlooked at the time was an op-ed published in Arab News on October 4, 2023, by its editor-in-chief, Faisal Abbas, titled ‘But what about the Palestinian cause?’ Abbas suggested that a dedicated team at the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been working for the past two years to examine “every detail imaginable” on “an initiative to make peace a more attractive proposition than war for both parties.”

Just three days after the Arab News op-ed, the horrific events of October 7 changed everything. Although Abbas had ended his piece by asking, “what if Hamas decides to once again sabotage a deal?” Saudi officials signaled a pause to normalization talks as the scale of the Israeli military response in Gaza dawned. This decision likely reflected a perceived balance of Saudi interests, mindful of the kingdom’s political credibility in the Arab world as well as its religious legitimacy in the Islamic world. A similar calculation lay behind the Saudi reaction to the deadliest round of Israeli-Palestinian fighting in decades, possibly since the 1948-49 war between the newly created State of Israel and its Arab neighbors. Thus, Saudi officials placed the kingdom at the heart of a collective Arab and Islamic response as they organized an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) states in Jeddah in October 2023 and a joint Arab League-OIC summit in Riyadh in November, albeit with little impact on the situation on the ground in Gaza.

Such pragmatic consideration of domestic interests has been evident also in the regular high-level dialogue between senior Saudi and Iranian leaders since October 7, as officials on both sides of the Gulf have sought to contain and prevent any regionalization of the conflict. Mohammed bin Salman and Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi held their first telephone conversation since restoring ties on October 12, five days after the Hamas attacks, at a time when a spread of the war to Hezbollah in Lebanon seemed possible. Raisi later traveled to Riyadh to attend the OIC summit in person in what was the first visit by an Iranian president to Saudi Arabia since 2007. From a Saudi perspective, there was, and remains, a need to minimize the chances of any return to the instability that marked the post-Arab Spring decade of regional and geopolitical confrontation in the Gulf. A hardening of Saudi statements on Israeli conduct in Gaza, while genuinely reflecting the depth of anger in the kingdom, may also be motivated by a desire not to let Iran, or members of the ‘Axis of Resistance,’ lay claim to the mantle of standing up to Israel, as arguably happened in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war.

Saudi Arabia wants to minimize the chances of any return to the post-Arab Spring instability.

If a key Saudi objective has been to avoid a regional conflagration, then the kingdom has largely succeeded. Iran has not been drawn into a broader war that would, by virtue of its geographical location, place all the Gulf states in the crosshairs of conflict. Moreover, the biggest out-of-area escalation, in Yemen, has seen the Houthis concentrate their missile and drone attacks on maritime targets in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, rather than against Saudi cities and infrastructure, as occurred between 2015 and 2022. Saudi Arabia has not joined the US-led naval coalition, Operation Prosperity Guardian, launched in December 2023 to provide security assistance to international shipping, with Bahrain being the only GCC state to join, and in an administrative rather than an operational capacity. Ending the kingdom’s post-2015 intervention in Yemen in a manner that durably addresses the Houthi risk to Saudi Arabia remains a core security aim, one that is bound up with the need to project stability as work begins in earnest on the megaprojects along the Red Sea coastline.

Saudi Expectations

What, then, do Saudi officials want to see happen if the military phase of Israel’s operation in Gaza winds down and gives way to a political negotiation and a process of post-conflict recovery? Can or will the Saudis emerge as a pivotal actor in the Palestinian issue and, if so, what form might such a front-and-center approach take in practice? It is little surprise, in light of their ability to act as intermediaries with political figures in Hamas, that Egypt and Qatar have so far led mediation efforts to secure the release of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since October 7 in return for humanitarian pauses in Israel’s military offensive. Instead, it is in the next phase that the kingdom’s leverage could become a factor in determining the contours of a post-war settlement that, for many reasons, cannot be a reversion to a status quo ante that would be politically impossible for all sides to contemplate, still less, accept.

If Israeli military operations in Gaza cease, attention likely will refocus on the prospects for a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

If (and when) a new technocratic Palestinian leadership is formed and Israeli military operations in Gaza cease, attention likely will refocus on the prospects for a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel that prominent members of the Biden administration continue to pursue. Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, reportedly sees an opportunity for a ‘grand bargain’ that would encompass Saudi-Israeli normalization in return for substantive, if not irreversible, measures toward the creation of a viable Palestinian state. What is different now is that the substance of any deal is, from the Saudi side at least, focused far more squarely on the Palestinian component that, before October 7, had at times appeared as little more than a box-ticking exercise by US officials.

Possibly more by circumstance than by design, therefore, Saudi Arabia has emerged as a potentially critical player in the intricate set of next steps over the “day after” in Gaza, specifically and on Palestinian matters generally. This is not necessarily a position that Saudi officials would have chosen, but it reflects the kingdoms’ geopolitical heft as its leadership assesses the path forward. In 2002, then-Crown Prince Abdullah was instrumental in devising the Arab Peace Initiative, which signaled a breakthrough in regional willingness to formally recognize Israel in return for withdrawal from occupied Arab land. The Arab Peace Initiative, which the Arab League endorsed in 2002 (and unanimously re-endorsed in 2007, by which time Abdullah was king) was developed in close consultation with Egypt and Jordan and continues to represent the official Saudi position.

There was little US appetite in 2002 to engage with Saudi Arabia on the Arab Peace Initiative, so soon after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and with US attention focused on Afghanistan and Iraq. The plan gained no traction in Israel, either, at a time of an upsurge of violence in the West Bank. Today, the demonstrably greater US interest in a Saudi-specific deal with Israel places the onus on Riyadh to determine the level of concessions it can extract from a normalization card it can play only once. Unlike the 2020 Abraham Accords, which failed to mention Palestine at all in the text of the declaration (and only in passing in the agreements signed by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates), Saudi officials have an opportunity to ensure that Palestinian interests are central in any eventual agreement.

Saudi decision-making will be guided by an evaluation of Saudi interests first and foremost, and they will include a range of political and economic considerations.

To be sure, Saudi decision-making will be guided by an evaluation of Saudi interests first and foremost, and they will include a range of political and economic as well as security and defense-related considerations, some of which have already been featured in media reporting on a potential deal. An approach that pursues serious and lasting commitments from Israel and the United States to open an irreversible path to Palestinian statehood would cast Saudi Arabia as the indispensable actor in Middle East diplomacy. If Mohammed bin Salman can present himself as the man who succeeded where so many others have failed, it would reinforce Saudi narratives that position the kingdom as central to the evolving regional order, however improbable that might have seemed in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s grisly death.

While the current political landscape in Israel leaves little room for optimism, successive US administrations have made normalization a regional policy priority, and, barring any unexpected development, either Biden or Trump will be in the White House in 2025. Moreover, the horrific level of destruction in Gaza since October has demonstrated the urgent need for a new peace process, with Palestinians at its core, something that the Abraham Accords manifestly failed to deliver. The Saudi leadership could therefore test how far its American and Israeli interlocutors are willing to go for a ‘deal of the century’ by challenging them to lay out concrete, specific proposals for precisely the sort of historic agreement that Mohammed bin Salman referenced in his Fox News interview last September.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: US DoS