Since Hamas’s surprise military offensive on October 7, the Saudi regime has been keen to show that everything in the kingdom is proceeding completely normally and that the situation in Gaza is having no impact on day to day life there.
In part, this is because last week, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon, Citigroup’s Jane Fraser and around 6,000 other business titans visited the kingdom for a three day investment conference, the annual Future Investment Initiative dubbed “Davos in the Desert.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) also made time to attend a global esports conference in Riyadh together with football legend Cristiano Ronaldo and other celebrities to launch the first esports world cup, even though the competition itself does not actually start till next year.
Saudi media has been focussing on MBS’s economic reforms and the Riyadh Season, which started on October 28 and is billed as “one of the world’s largest winter entertainment events”. Highlights include The Phantom of the Opera, the Ladies Golf European Tour and Battle of the Baddest, “an entertainment boxing match between top tier talents Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou to create a memorable and an exciting experience locally and world-wide.” No mention, naturally, that one of the leading stars of the season pulled out on account of the situation in Gaza, Egyptian comic actor Mohamed Salam.
Keeping up appearances
Of course, the regime has not been able to ignore the situation in Palestine completely. In public fora where the war has been discussed, the Saudi regime, like other governments, has tried hard to present itself as statesmanlike in its approach to the conflict and deeply concerned about human rights and international law.
At the Baker Institute on October 7, veteran diplomat Prince Turki Al Faisal made a speech blasting both Hamas for its onslaught as well as the long held policies of successive Israeli governments that he said helped lead to the current bloody situation. “I condemn Israel for funneling Qatari money to Hamas, the terrorist group as defined by Israel,” he added.
The only reason Prince Turki would have made this outlandish claim, which has been echoed in Israeli media, is because MBS ordered him to do so. And that would be because, once again, MBS has been left seething with jealousy after being thoroughly upstaged by Qatari monarch Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who has won international acclaim for his role brokering hostage releases and Hamas talks, just like he upstaged MBS in 2020 with the Taliban peace agreement.
On October 25 Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi tweeted, in English, “I’m pleased to say that Qatar is becoming an essential party and stakeholder in the facilitation of humanitarian solutions. Qatar’s diplomatic efforts are crucial at this time.” For MBS, such accolades from the Israelis bestowed elsewhere are likely to be the hardest aspect of the war so far.
During MBS’s telephone conversation with President Joe Biden — the first in the three years since Biden became President — the Saudi Press Agency reported that MBS, perhaps trying to reclaim the moral high ground, underscored the need to comply with international humanitarian law and urged a return to the peace process. At the UN Security Council in New York on October 24, the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan called for an immediate ceasefire and a lifting of the blockade.
Privately, MBS is a good friend of Israel
As in Western countries, it would be a grave mistake to take pro-Palestinian statements by Saudi and other Arab leaders at face value. As Dennis Ross, a former senior US official involved in Middle East peace talks, wrote recently for The New York Times, every senior Arab official he has spoken with since the war began is hoping Israel will end Hamas’s rule in Gaza.
As a result, such statements should be seen for what they are: a PR exercise intended solely for public consumption and as a backside-covering exercise against future charges of complicity in Israel’s genocide and ethnic cleansing. Behind closed doors, MBS has long since placed all his chips on Israel and believes — most likely correctly — that his own future and that of Israel are intimately intertwined.
His worst fear now is that, having put all his eggs in one basket, he could see the Israelis somehow manage to lose the war. In order to try and make sure this does not happen, MBS is ready to go to any lengths in private to show support for Israel, whether that means a bloody IDF ground assault in Gaza or ethnically cleansing the Palestinians by ejecting them into Sinai — although, as Maged Mandour explained in Arab Digest’s October 16 newsletter, even MBS understands that this would likely amount to the political equivalent of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi slitting his own throat.
Saudi Arabia suppresses pro-Palestinian activism at home
In order to try to persuade everyone in Saudi Arabia to think as he does, MBS has directed the Saudi security apparatus and propaganda machine to work overtime. Any kind of public expression of pro-Palestinian sentiment in the kingdom, whether a tweet, post or video, is banned and liable to lead to immediate arrest.
Saudi Islamic scholars have informed the population that citizens should stop discussing Gaza. “Leaders,” these scholars say, “know the issue better than you” and “you are not qualified and have nothing to offer… your analyses are burdensome… Trust” MBS.
Spies at the Etidal Centre, Saudi state surveillance headquarters, have been instructed to track down as many supporters of Hamas and other Palestinian movements as they can. Those few who are known to be affiliated with Hamas, if they are not already in prison, have long since been expelled from the country, along with many other leading Saudi scholars and thinkers.
Meanwhile, Saud Al Qahtani’s army of electronic flies energetically promotes pro-Israeli accounts, and well-known pro-MBS Saudi media figures like Saud Al Shammari have appeared on Israeli TV laughing and making light of the conflict. As Sami Hamdi observed in an Arab Digest podcast, Saudi-controlled Al Arabiya News conducted an aggressive interview with Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, asking whether he would now apologize to Israel. Regime-controlled social media accounts have launched strident attacks on the Palestinians, urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stop at nothing to destroy Gaza, even if it means using a nuclear bomb.
As a result, Jared Kushner, son-in-law and former adviser to US President Donald Trump, was able recently to tell Fox News that Saudi Arabia is “safer” for American Jews than US college campuses.
It would be a mistake however to interpret the total absence of public criticism of Israel as meaning that popular opinion in the kingdom really lies with the Israelis. On the contrary, in reality almost everyone in Saudi Arabia is pro-Palestine. It is safe to say that, if there was freedom in the kingdom, not only would massive demonstrations occur on a scale comparable to what we have seen recently in Yemen and other countries, but many Saudis would likely be ready to leave immediately and attempt to join Hamas in Palestine.
Choking off all legitimate outlets for pro-Palestinian sentiment may serve MBS’s political goals in the short term, but it also raises the possibility of desperate acts of violence in the kingdom in the future, whether against the government, MBS himself or foreigners living there.
US government travel advice recently raised the terror threat in Saudi Arabia to “Reconsider travel,” and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin has warned of escalation across the region. “In fact, what we’re seeing … is the prospect of a significant escalation of attacks on our troops and our people throughout the region,” Austin told ABC’s “This Week” program.
[Arab Digest first published this piece.]
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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