Saudi Arabia is walking a tightrope with its public response to the Hamas-Israel war

Saudi Arabia is walking a tightrope with its public response to the Hamas-Israel war

Since the start of the Hamas-Israel war in October 2023, news of the conflict and its broader implications have dominated headlines globally, arguably even eclipsing the Russia–Ukraine war.[i] The war, which erupted after Hamas’s attacks on Israel that killed over 1200 people, mostly civilians, and led to the abduction of 248 hostages,[ii] has since been characterised by Israeli bombing campaigns and ground offensives in the Gaza Strip. These have, so far, claimed 30,000 lives and left nearly 70,000 injured, with no information available on civilian vs. combatant casualties.[iii] The continuing suffering of Israelis and Palestinians, and the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip that has caused the internal displacement of almost two million people, have refocused the world’s attention on the Middle East.[iv]

The war put Saudi Arabia in a particularly difficult position. In the first six-and-a-half years of Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud’s (MbS) de facto rule of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, he and his government have been on a mission to transform the country’s reputation on the global stage.[v] An integral part of this plan has been Riyadh’s concerted effort to normalise ties and improve relations with Israel—a move that gained traction during the US President Donald Trump’s tenure.[vi] The Saudis hoped that this initiative would create the conditions necessary for a “unified, integrated, thriving Middle East”, primarily for the purposes of boosting trade along the Red Sea corridor and across the wider region—a key goal of Saudi Vision 2030.[vii] The plan, requiring the prospect of normalisation of relations and ever-closer economic collaboration between the State of Israel and its Arab neighbours, has been dealt a major setback with the war.

In light of the Kingdom’s role as representative of the international Muslim community by means of guardianship over Islam’s holiest sites,[viii] [ix] there have been calls from Saudis and the wider Islamic World for Riyadh to condemn Israeli operations.[x] Consequently, the Kingdom has had to adopt an unusually cautious approach to its official communications strategy, balancing its responsibility as a prominent voice for Muslims with its macroeconomic and foreign policy aspirations vis-à-vis Israel.

Heading towards normalising relations

Riyadh’s apprehension in issuing bolder statements may be understood in the context of the Kingdom’s media and political communications strategy under its current ruler. Since his ascent to the role of Crown Prince in 2017, MbS has been courting the media at almost every opportunity, providing headline-worthy soundbites to the press, promoting his own interests, and signalling Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policy intentions to local and international audiences alike.[xi]

Even before MbS’s tenure, military and intelligence co-operation between Saudi Arabia and Israel had been an “open secret”.

MbS and his government’s attempts to normalise ties and forge economic links with Israel are prioritised in Saudi media and communications strategy. Even before MbS’s tenure, military and intelligence co-operation between Saudi Arabia and Israel had been an “open secret”.
[xii] Naturally, the next step was to formalise this relationship officially.

Hence, Saudi–Israeli economic and military intelligence-sharing relations since 2017, according to analysis by the Brookings Doha Center, have been made significantly and deliberately more public.[xiii] During the Gulf Diplomatic Crisis in particular, Saudi Arabia and Israel clearly intended to signal to the outside world (specifically Western powers), that the two countries were getting closer to forming an alliance that could foster regional and international economic and security co-operation.[xiv] This was confirmed by leaked statements from a private meeting between MbS and Israeli officials in 2018, when the Crown Prince allegedly stated that “the Palestinian leadership has… rejected all the peace proposals” and that the Palestinians should “take the proposals and agree to come to the negotiating table”.[xv] Regardless of whether the statements were intentionally leaked, they made headlines across both Israeli[xvi] and Arab[xvii] press, and clearly showed Saudi intent to speed up the process.

The willingness to collaborate publicly on security issues was perhaps best illustrated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defence of MbS’s endeavours to maintain stability in the midst of domestic and international outcry following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi,[xviii] in which MbS was personally implicated. Lending much credibility to the prospects of a long-awaited “Abraham Accords 2.0” normalisation treaty,[xix] MbS stated in his landmark Fox News interview that the two states were close to a lasting peace treaty[xx] (a sentiment later welcomed by Netanyahu),[xxi] maintaining that Saudi Arabia was set on finding a solution to the Palestinian issue that is acceptable to all parties involved.[xxii] Then, after 7th October attacks and Israel’s subsequent declaration of war against Hamas, Saudi Arabia’s communications balancing act put normalisation on hold.

Balancing since the outbreak of the war

Following the attacks, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued what has been described as a surprisingly “neutral” official statement on X.[xxiii] Calling for an immediate ceasefire, the Kingdom blamed Israel for “occupation, the deprivation of the Palestinian people [and] of their legitimate rights, and the repetition of systematic provocations”, but underscored the need for a “credible peace process that leads to the two-state solution to achieve security and peace in the region and protect civilians”.[xxiv]

In an unofficial capacity, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a senior royal and former Director General of the Saudi General Intelligence Presidency, went a step further. Acknowledging that Gazans had long been provoked by Israel, he controversially condemned Hamas’s harming of civilians as going against fundamental Islamic principles[xxv] at a time when a survey found that nearly 3/4 of Palestinians supported Hamas.[xxvi] This condemnation is not surprising, however. At times when official Saudi state communications have to exercise restraint and decorum for international audiences, unofficial (but often connected) spokespersons use the media to say what the government cannot. The statement is reminiscent of a number of Saud al-Qahtani’s Twitter tirades against Qatar during the Gulf Diplomatic Crisis.[xxvii]

The initial mixed messaging indicated Saudi frustration with both, and for forcing Riyadh to delay normalisation plans—undoing several years of diplomatic progress and economic strategizing.[xxviii] Even with the death toll in Gaza soaring after waves of bombings and ground operations, and pressure from within the Kingdom and across the Middle East, analysts have felt that a neutral communications position that omni-balances according to the state’s strategic objectives should be adopted.[xxix]

Riyadh’s communications balancing act has not been limited to making noncommittal statements in relation to each party to the conflict. It has also been forced to engage with other prominent Gulf states in response to the war, namely, Iran and Qatar.


The Islamic Republic of Iran, in particular, poses a threat to Riyadh’s legitimacy as an alternative representative for the Islamic World. Under MbS, the Kingdom has come under attack domestically for his efforts to modernise and moderate Wahhabi Islam’s longstanding archconservative image,[xxx] and he has been criticised by the international Muslim community for encouraging the unpopular over-commercialisation of the Hajj.[xxxi] A predictably hard-line stance towards the conflict from Iran without a Saudi response could make Riyadh look particularly toothless in comparison and confirm in the eyes of MbS’s vocal critics that Saudi Arabia no longer represents the Muslim world. [xxxii] [xxxiii]

Once portrayed as an éminence grise in Saudi state communications and blamed for much unrest in the region—most notably by means of supporting the Houthi movement in the Yemeni Civil War[xxxiv]—Iran has been tentatively embraced as an ally by Riyadh since the China-backed rapprochement in 2023.[xxxv] However, the two states’ official stances on the war are certainly not aligned.

This dichotomy became clear when the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed that MbS had been on the receiving end of a phone call with Iran’s President, Ebrahim Raisi, to discuss the Israeli military escalation in Gaza.[xxxvi] The Saudi Ministry, reporting the call (and the summary of key topics covered), neglected entirely to mention the State of Israel by name, or to condemn Netanyahu’s government directly, and suggested instead that the onus was on the international community to push for a ceasefire, with a message of support for the Palestinian cause.

In stark contrast to the Saudi press release, on the same day, Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei’s official X page issued a statement commenting that the Al Aqsa Flood operation was a “big step on the way to the salvation of Palestine”,[xxxvii] seemingly confirming rumours that Iran supported the Hamas attacks all along.[xxxviii] Then, the following day, during Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s visit to Beirut, the minister attended a widely-publicised meeting with senior members of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, as well as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.[xxxix] [xl] This announcement by the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s official X page was followed by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs issuing a statement (also on X) that was once again remarkably moderate in tone, not directly condemning Israel and calling for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders.[xli]

Riyadh has chosen to distance itself from any strongly-worded statements that might suggest that the state is interested in taking the side of extremists.

The differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia’s official stances are coming sharply into focus to spectators of the ongoing politics surrounding the war. Riyadh has chosen to distance itself from any strongly-worded statements that might suggest that the state is interested in taking the side of extremists. Saudi official statements calling for a two-state solution throw into sharp contrast the more extreme ambitions of the regime in Tehran and armed groups historically aligned with Iran, presenting MbS’s regime as a more moderate diplomatic force. Such moderation has been prioritised in MbS’s media appearances since becoming Crown Prince, and is likely to serve him well in terms of the perception of the Kingdom in the West and in Israel.


Qatar, meanwhile, poses a somewhat different challenge to the Kingdom. The state has previously clashed with Saudi Arabia for attempting to forge “a separate path to escape from the Saudi shadow”.[xlii] Riyadh’s attempt to punish Qatar for its clashing foreign policy priorities came to a head during the Gulf Diplomatic Crisis, when Saudi Arabia engaged in campaigns claiming that the House of Al Thani was funding terrorism and sowing the seeds of instability in the region.[xliii] However, following the 2021 rapprochement that marked the end of the Crisis, official Saudi state communication evolved to indicate increased co-operation between the two states.

Doha has emerged as a strong critic of Israeli military campaigns in Gaza and has acted as a key negotiant between Israel and Hamas.

Since the outbreak of the war, Doha has emerged as a strong critic of Israeli military campaigns in Gaza and has acted as a key negotiant between Israel and Hamas.
[xliv] Whilst Riyadh’s media and communications apparatus has been quick to congratulate Qatar’s diplomats on their co-brokering of the November ceasefire that led to hostage and prisoner exchanges between Hamas and Israel,[xlv] it has, to an extent, refrained from releasing statements of unqualified support for Qatar’s stance. This is most likely in order to remain in the good graces of the United States and the West generally, where there have been longstanding accusations (much fuelled during the Gulf Diplomatic Crisis by Saudi Arabia itself) that Qatar sponsors and harbours terrorist groups.[xlvi] [xlvii] Doha’s granting refuge to a number of Hamas leaders reaffirmed these suspicions,[xlviii] however useful they proved in negotiations. If MbS’s ambitious government wishes to play a major role in regional security, refraining from echoing inflammatory statements by Qatar will serve Riyadh well.

Whilst Qatar’s insistence on being an independent voice in the Gulf has earned the state the reputation of an outlier in the region, its public condemnation of Netanyahu’s government may backfire in the long term, specifically due to housing members of Hamas.[xlix]

As expected, Saudi communications were in stark contrast to Qatar’s overt condemnation of Israel for being “solely responsible for the ongoing escalation due to its continuous violations of the rights of the Palestinian people”.[l] Furthermore, MbS’s regime has ensured that on occasions when the government shared a stage with Qatari representatives—for example, during the recent Arab League and emergency Organisation of Islamic Cooperation summits held in Riyadh[li]—it is able to issue official statements that largely mimic Qatar’s calls for a ceasefire, without overly condemning Israel.

With the 2024 US presidential election looming, a Saudi state that enjoys good diplomatic relations with Israel would be best placed to deal with the eventual winner.

Looking to the future, with little sign of imminent peace between Israel and Hamas, it seems likely that Saudi Arabia will continue to use its communications apparatus to put some pressure on Israel to abide by the rules set out by the Geneva Conventions during wartime. Whilst Riyadh has recently expressed an interest (despite the events of the war) in normalising relations with Jerusalem,[lii] it will not wish to see further deterioration of its public image in the Islamic World. To that end, it may wish to be seen to be lending its support to the Palestinian cause, even if via muted messaging. Furthermore, in spite of recent rapprochements with Iran and Qatar, Riyadh will likely continue to ensure that its official communications only echo these countries’ statements in the broadest terms.

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