Saudi Arabia’s Israel strategy upended by anger over Gaza war

Hisham was enjoying the mild winter weather on a recent walk through Riyadh’s diplomatic quarter when he was suddenly stopped by the police.

“Why are you wearing this?” they asked, pointing to his T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Palestine” in six different fonts. “This is a political gesture . . . We’re pro-Palestine, but you don’t do this,” the officers warned.

“I had to calm them down by saying ‘OK, I’m leaving, no worries, I’m not going to wear it,’” said Hisham, a government employee. “I thought: ‘this is not the place for such T-shirts.’”

Like many Saudis, Hisham feels deep solidarity with the Palestinian victims of Israel’s five-month offensive in Gaza — the reason for his choice of T-shirt. But the police response underscores the alarm emanating from the Saudi leadership, which before the war was nearing a deal to normalise relations with Israel.

Now Saudi Arabia’s leaders worry about the threat posed by a prolonged conflict in Gaza to its chances of restarting that process, as well as to its ambitious plans for economic and social reform and the cohesion of the kingdom.

Saudi officials have repeatedly called for a halt to the war and led Arab nations in accusing Israel of committing war crimes in Gaza. They fear that the brutal images emerging from the shattered territory will radicalise their young population.

“Any institutional dialogue on human rights cannot be taken seriously if it ignores the tragic situation in Palestine,” foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told a meeting in February of the Human Rights Council held at the UN headquarters in Geneva. “What rights are we talking about while Gaza is under the ashes? How can the international community remain silent while the people of Gaza are displaced and suffering from the ugliest forms of human rights violations?”

Yet even as public anger ripples across the kingdom, the US is pushing the potential of Saudi Arabia normalising diplomatic relations with Israel as the main incentive to nudge the Jewish state towards a broader settlement to end its protracted conflict with the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia has long been considered the grand prize for Israel. And as the Arab world’s biggest economy and home to Islam’s two holiest sites, a decision by the kingdom to normalise relations with the Jewish state would have far-reaching effects.

In the months before Hamas’s devastating October 7 attack that triggered the war, Saudi Arabia was edging towards a deal that would have traded a new US defence treaty and a deal with Washington to transfer nuclear technology in return for a normalisation agreement.

US secretary of state Antony Blinken had been due to travel to Riyadh in October to hammer out the Palestinian element to an accord, but those plans were upended when Hamas launched its assault. “We already had an outline” of a deal from the Palestinian Authority, said a person briefed on the talks.

The Saudis have not taken normalisation off the table, but talks are unthinkable while the fighting rages, and Riyadh has made “irreversible steps” towards Palestinian statehood a precondition for any deal. They have also cautioned the US against overselling the prospect of an agreement, underlining the sensitivity of the issue for Riyadh amid the Gaza war.

Only a few years ago, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appeared to have been sidelined in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi-first approach that followed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ascent to power in 2016 promoted influential voices to push a rhetoric that vilified the Palestinians for not showing sufficient gratitude for aid provided to them and for allegedly squandering multiple chances to achieve peace.

As slogans such as “Palestine is NOT my cause” trended on social media, there was a growing sense that the issue was no longer key to the political identity of young people across the region.

Elham Fakhro, associate fellow with the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa programme who is working on a book about normalisation, said the Gaza offensive had dramatically shifted that dynamic.

“It’s safe to say that the Palestinian cause is back at the centre of popular consciousness and support for normalisation with Israel at an all-time low,” she said. “This will . . . complicate Saudi Arabia’s ability to sell a deal to its citizens and the broader Arab and Islamic world.”

Yet many Saudis remain anxious about expressing their true feelings about the war in the autocratic kingdom, and fear that voicing their thoughts could be seen as opposing official policy.

Several people have been arrested in Saudi Arabia for carrying Palestinian flags, including in the holy city of Mecca. Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque, has asked God to grant victory to the Palestinians as he led prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.

But last month he told state television that the mosque was a place for worship, not for airing slogans. This left some wondering whether it was even permissible to participate in pro-Palestine protests abroad.

Reema, a Saudi mother of one, said she was “so scared” after taking part in a demonstration of solidarity in California that she made sure she did not appear in any photos.

“I kept telling my Saudi friends, don’t post anything” on social media, said Reema, who like the others who spoke to the Financial Times for this article did not want her full name to be used.

Hisham, the government employee, said he understood the sensitivity near foreign embassies that led to him being stopped by the police. But he was struck by the contrast with nearby countries he has visited since the war began.

He has seen Palestinian flags and symbols openly on display on visits to the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey amid the wave of support that has surged across the Arab and Muslim worlds since the invasion.

By comparison, a visitor to the Jeddah book fair in December reported seeing a basket full of Palestine-related items at the entrance that had been confiscated from attendees.

“I saw in Dubai that some art galleries are focusing on Palestine. It’s a small gesture, and yet you can see [its meaning],” Hisham said. Such an act of solidarity was “not even possible here, and I really don’t understand. It’s a small thing you can do, and people will appreciate it.”

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