Changing Plans? Saudi Regionalism After Gaza
Israel’s war in Gaza has left Saudi Arabia hedging its bets on the international stage and has stalled its tentative rapprochement with Iran. How is the ongoing conflict set to shape the nation’s regional ambitions?
A new vision
Since Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) became Crown Prince in 2017 and the subsequent development of the Vision 2030 Plan, Saudi Arabia has embarked on a new era of regional and international diplomacy. It aims to remodel regional geopolitics and realign the Arab World towards the Gulf, with all roads leading to Riyadh.
The Vision is an economic reconfiguration that has shaped the social opening led by MBS: concerts have been held, women can drive, and there has been a partial relaxation of guardianship laws. Investments across the domestic sector from technology to football have been turbocharged. Yet, there is an underside to the glitz and glamour of the Kingdom’s revitalization under MBS. Civil society remains on a tight leash, with formal organizations requiring royal permission to operate. Political advocacy on the part of civil society is forbidden, journalists and the media are heavily censored under a press law introduced in 2003. Penalties including lengthy jail terms, and lifetime professional bans have been exercised. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Saudi Arabia made the 2022 top-10 list of countries jailing journalists.
Vision 2030 is a royal initiative requiring societal control and political stability that has precluded any political transformation. The planned rollout of the Vision will reduce rather than promote decentralization, and citizen participation. As the latest Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) for Saudi Arabia report writes:
“The prospect of national elections is a very remote if not unthinkable possibility, at least as long as the absolute monarchy survives. The Saudi monarchy, like other Gulf monarchies, survived the Arab Spring protests either by bribing their peoples or using coercive measures against the protesters. Additionally, Saudi citizens have little awareness of Western democratic systems of governance, and there is little broad-based social demand for democracy”.
The BTI report ranks Saudi Arabia with a political transformation score of 2.5 points out of a possible 10 points, making it a “hard-line autocracy”. There has been no movement away from the established absolute-monarchy model.
Hedging it on the global stage
When it comes to engineering regional geopolitics in a manner advantageous to the fulfillment of the Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is hedging it both ways, pursuing contrasting strategic initiatives in order to minimize risks. Key indicators are: military consolidation in the absence of a declared enemy; increased participation in bi- and multilateral cooperatives; and a tactic of improving relations between regional and/or international powers.
Meanwhile, its approach to the Israel – Palestinian conflict is illustrative. The advantages of normalizing relations with Israel revolve around access to Israeli technology and its military applications on the one hand, and access to a security arrangement with the United States on the other. Both would boost the Kingdom’s military development, and provide counterweights against Iranian threats. The March 2023 reproachment however signals Riyadh’s belief that there is no clear and present threat from Iran in the short term.
Simultaneously, Saudi Arabia has not walked away from the Palestinian cause. As the custodian of the two holiest sites in the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia’s official position for decades has been no recognition without the creation of a Palestinian state: the Wahabi clerical establishment, popular opinion and the presence of a large expatriate Palestinian worker population in the Kingdom, makes deviation from this stance difficult. However, in September, MBS reportedly stated that he hoped normalization with Israel would “ease the life of the Palestinians”, without referring to state creation, an apparent deviation from the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2022. This highlights the absence of concrete detail in what progress towards Palestinian statehood looks like from Riyadh.
Competition from the Gulf to Iran
Meanwhile, within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Qatar holds the diplomatic keys, with Doha emerging as a regional center for conflict resolution. Concerningly for Saudi Arabia’s plans for regional hegemony, the Qataris have proven adept at developing accords for conflicts in which Saudi Arabia has had significant stakes: Lebanon, Syria and now Gaza, with Qatar hosting the backdoor channels between Hamas, the US and Israel. Beyond the GCC, Iran has proven flexible and proactive in expanding its regional sway, again, in areas in which Saudi Arabia has had or seeks greater influence: Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Palestine. Being the location of the third-holiest site in Islam, al-Aqsa, and part of the dormant Saudi-Hashemite rivalry, Palestine represents a significant piece in Saudi Arabia’s plan for Arab and regional hegemony.
In countering this competition on both fronts, the Kingdom’s history of conservative foreign policy has hitherto proven detrimental. Although MBS has changed this conservatism, proactive maneuvers, such as in Yemen, have been heavy-handed. How Saudi Arabia is able (or not) to balance and refine the complexities of its hedging strategy in the wake of Gaza will have a profound impact on the post-Arab Spring geopolitical order in the Middle East.
Although the war in Gaza has silenced further talk of normalization, opportunities remain. Firstly, the weakening or destruction of Hamas could offer Saudi Arabia the chance to cultivate a proxy not aligned with Iran, giving it leverage in future discussions with Israel. This would weaken the hand of Iran in the Eastern Mediterranean. Secondly, the scale of destruction is a chance for Saudi Arabia to engage in reconstruction and reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions, both within Gaza and the PA in the West Bank. This, in turn, may grant Saudi Arabia greater influence over future Palestinian politics.
If Saudi Arabia can emerge from the current war in Gaza as a peacemaker and advocate for Palestine, then its regional position will be further enhanced to the detriment of its competitors. However, will these potential gains be worth more than what it could gain from the United States (security agreements and development) and Israel (technology)? For now, the Kingdom continues to hedge its bets.
Paul Esber is a Middle East analyst and visiting researcher at El Colegio de México.
Photo by Anthony Beck