On Oct. 23, at around the same time the world was learning that the Qatari and Egyptian governments had won the release of two Israeli women who had been held hostage by Hamas, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was featured on Cristiano Ronaldo’s Instagram. The Portuguese soccer star met the crown prince at a panel discussion on the future of esports—that is, competitive video gaming—where the Saudis announced they would host the first-ever Esports World Cup. Important stuff.
The jarring juxtaposition of Qatar and Egypt’s efforts to free hostages in Gaza and the brief Ronaldo-Mohammed bin Salman tête-à-tête in Riyadh suggested that however much the Saudi leadership has told anyone who will listen that the kingdom is the most important and influential country in the Middle East, it still has a long way to go.
Indeed, since the war between Hamas and Israel began almost three weeks ago, the “new Saudis” are acting a lot like the “old Saudis”—there is some motion in Riyadh but no actual action. It is odd because Mohammed bin Salman and his advisors have—for all their faults—pursued significant, important, and positive changes within Saudi Arabia.
When it comes to foreign policy and crisis management, the Saudis seem “useless,” as a former senior U.S. government official, whose name I am withholding due to the private nature of our conversation, put it to me last week. That’s because the Saudis are in a bind: They remain dependent on the United States for security—the same country that is helping to facilitate the withering assault on the Gaza Strip by Israel—itself a country with which just a few weeks ago the crown prince seemed willing to come to terms, without the promise of Palestinian statehood.
One way of dealing with these problems and contradictions would be for the Saudi government to be the constructive and influential actor it claims to be. Instead, the Saudis are busying themselves with statements and meetings.
Just hours after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which was followed swiftly by Israeli retaliatory strikes on Gaza, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a call for an “immediate halt to the escalation between the two sides.” Since then, the Saudis have issued a stream of statements and readouts from phone calls and multilateral meetings that are sharper but do not contribute to reestablishing regional stability.
For example, just before Mohammed bin Salman met with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Oct. 15, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement that read, in part, that Riyadh “affirms its categorical rejection of the calls for the forcible displacement of the Palestinian people from Gaza and reiterates its condemnation of the continued targeting of unarmed civilians.” That is a principled position. Yet, if the Saudis are the big dogs of the region—as they claim—then they cannot sit around in Riyadh and offer nothing more than strenuous objections to the horrifying situation in Gaza.
To be fair, the Saudis did do something. On Oct. 18, they convened an executive committee meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). The OIC, with 57 members, seeks to do what its name suggests: promote cooperation among predominantly Muslim countries in a variety of fields. In his remarks at the executive committee meeting, which included Iran, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan decried the international community’s inaction and double standards in response to Israel’s military operations in Gaza—standard fare for these types of meetings.
Faisal also reiterated Saudi support for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Spearheaded by then-Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, the initiative committed Arab and non-Arab Muslim countries to normalizing relations with Israel in exchange for Palestinian statehood. That plan is long dead. By invoking it, though, the foreign minister was highlighting one of the few times the Saudis had something tangible to offer in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and underscoring Riyadh’s commitment to justice for Palestinians.
But for all of the hoopla, the meeting was less a genuine attempt by Riyadh at constructive diplomacy than a public relations exercise meant to provide some cover after months of negotiations with the United States over a possible Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization deal.
There was one interesting wrinkle in the Saudi approach to the Israel-Hamas war. The day before the OIC meeting, Prince Turki bin Faisal—Saudi’s ex-spymaster and Riyadh’s former ambassador in both London and Washington—spoke at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston. During his address, Turki assailed not only Israel and the West for the bloodshed in Gaza but also Hamas for its killing spree in Israel. He pointedly declared that it was against Islamic beliefs to kill children, women, and older people and stressed that there were “no heroes” in the conflict. It is true that Turki is now a private citizen and no longer a government official, but he is also the person who has said things in public that Saudi royals want to say but cannot.
Turki’s comments in Houston were important. But taken together, the statements coming from the Saudis amount to little more than background noise in the brewing regional conflict.
What makes Saudi inaction even stranger is how circumspect the Saudis have been when it comes to the Iranians. The Saudi readout of Mohammed bin Salman’s call with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi about the Israel-Hamas war can be read as an implicit critique of Iran, especially the part where the Saudi leader is said to have “asserted the Kingdom’s opposition to any form of civilian targeting” and underscored his commitment to a “comprehensive and fair peace,” implying support for a two-state solution. Iran, quite obviously, does not share either of these commitments.
But why so oblique? Hamas, a charter member of Tehran’s so-called axis of resistance, just blew up the crown prince’s entire regional strategy with what many suspect was Iranian help. The success of Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030—the country’s self-described ambitious road map to “new growth and investment opportunities, greater global engagement, and enhanced quality of life for our citizens”—depends, in part, on the stability and greater integration of the major economies of the region, including Israel (though not Iran).
The Saudi-Iranian deal in March that restored diplomatic relations between the two countries was supposed to de-escalate tension in the region. It was borne of Saudi weakness, however, and only called off the Saudi-Iranian confrontation. The crown prince clearly does not want to act in the Gaza conflict in a way that arouses the ire of the Iranians so that Tehran’s proxy in Yemen, the Houthis, starts targeting Saudi population centers again with drones and missiles.
After the civil war in Sudan broke out in April, U.S.-Saudi relations were the “best they had ever been,” according to officials from both governments who spoke to me in private conversations at the time. That is because the Saudis were able to make themselves useful to the United States in dealing with that conflict, including by mediating peace talks between the warring parties, providing $100 million in humanitarian aid to Sudan, and helping to evacuate thousands of people from the country.
Washington once again needs assistance stabilizing the region now that there is war in Gaza, but the Saudis seem unable or unwilling to help this time. Although Mohammed bin Salman is dependent on Washington for his country’s security, under present circumstances the U.S.-Saudi relationship is a vulnerability for him. The crown prince may have consolidated his power, but he needs to be careful.
Palestine remains an important symbolic issue in Saudi Arabia, and it will be difficult for the kingdom’s leader to work closely with the Biden administration right now, as the determined way it has moved to support Israel has likely made a strong and negative impression on the Saudi public, which already has a dim view of the country.
For Mohammed bin Salman to be more constructive in the Gaza conflict would mean dealing more with both Washington and Israel. The Saudis could be more straightforward in their criticism of Hamas, offer safe haven for Palestinians in need of medical care, and use their good offices with the Israeli government to privately shape the Israeli response to the Oct. 7 attack. Yet the crown prince has evidently concluded that it is better not to be exposed in this way. From his perspective, issuing statements, criticizing the international community, calling his counterparts, and hanging out with soccer stars is a better strategy. Perhaps it is. But it also reveals Saudi Arabia for what it currently is—weak.