Since the development of the new round of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the reactions of countries in the Middle East have been different.

The first is Palestine as a party. The Palestinian Authority, of course, condemned Israel's indiscriminate massacres, but also tactfully expressed its "no support" for Hamas's attack, and in the end, the Palestinian side was not only unable to prevent Israel's invasion of Gaza, but also failed to control the spread of violence in the West Bank. And Hamas, while winning a propaganda victory to force the parties to face up to the long-dormant Palestinian issue, seems to be at a loss for "how to end" and failed to prevent the people of Gaza from being massacred by Israel. In the end, Israel's retaliation remained strong, and the Palestinians showed two lines as usual: the Authority could only "wait for justice" and Hamas staged a bloody war at any cost.

And then there's Egypt. It stood firm on three points: first, no one could force Egypt to accept Palestinian refugees in Sinai or elsewhere; Second, the Sinai Peninsula is an inalienable part of Egyptian territory; Thirdly, the people of Gaza should not be forcibly removed from Gaza. Obviously, Egypt is quite worried about the spillover costs of the conflict, or because of this, Egypt actively expressed its willingness to mediate between Israel and Hamas, and finally succeeded in mediating a four-day ceasefire with Qatar and the United States. Similarly, Jordan, which is concerned about the influx of refugees, has taken a similar position.

Gaza under a temporary ceasefire. (Reuters)

Then there is Iran. By dispatching Hamas and Allah in Lebanon, Iran won an initial political victory in the attack on Israel, and its internal hardliners were even more complacent, believing that the attack represented Iran's ability to intervene in Middle East politics, especially to undermine the Saudi-Israeli peace plan. However, in the face of the Israeli army's brazen attack on Gaza, Iran's position has become calmer, obviously not wanting to get involved in the quagmire of the conflict, nor willing to fight a war for Hamas, so although the Lebanese Allah and Iraqi militias, which are vassals of Iran, have moved, they are more like unintentional "resistance performances".

And then there's Turkey. Ankara's initial response was fairly balanced, condemning attacks on civilians and calling for restraint on all sides, as it had just resumed the exchange of ambassadors with Israel. However, as the situation in Gaza escalated, Turkey's stance became more and more intense, with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan calling Hamas a liberation organization, criticizing Israel's air and ground offensives in Gaza, and saying that Turkey was willing to work with other countries to "guarantee" the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To be sure, Turkey may be able to negotiate with Hamas on the release of the hostages, but it lacks effective leverage to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Turkey has never been "its own" to the surrounding Arab countries, so Qatar is by far the most powerful mediator in the Middle East.

Whether it is actively avoiding disasters like Egypt and Jordan, or putting on fierce performances like Turkey and Iran, there is one major Middle Eastern power that has been extremely low-key in the face of this conflict, neither condemning Israel in a high-profile manner, nor mediating privately like Qatar: Saudi Arabia.

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan (right) called for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire in the Gaza Strip during talks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (second from left) on the same day, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement on November 2023, 11. The picture shows the two meeting with the U.S.-Turkish delegation at the Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara on the same day. (Reuters)

The division of roles between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states

To understand the reason for Saudi Arabia's apathy, we can first refer to the diplomatic division of labor between the six Gulf countries and Israel before the outbreak of the conflict.

Among them, Kuwait explicitly rejected the normalization of relations with Israel; Oman and Qatar have adopted a pragmatic coexistence posture and continued to deepen interaction despite not establishing diplomatic relations. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain directly broke through political correctness and established diplomatic relations with Israel; Saudi Arabia was originally similar to Oman and Qatar, but before the outbreak of the conflict, it had gradually moved towards the route of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, only to be interrupted by the Al-Aqsa flood operation.

The above phenomenon not only highlights the increasing decoupling of the Palestinian issue from realpolitik, but also reflects a certain role distribution among the six Gulf countries: the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, which are vassals of Saudi Arabia, take direct action with the support of Big Brother and take the lead in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel; Kuwait, which has always played the role of the dove of peace in the Gulf, has guarded the façade of the Palestinian issue; Oman, which plays a similar role to Kuwait, has never taken a step towards establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, even if it has reconciled with Israel; Qatar, which is good at "small country big diplomacy", has played a key pivot in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and has communication channels with Israel and Hamas. As the leader of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, even in the face of a restless Qatar, still roughly coordinated the role of the aforementioned countries.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Gaza Strip on November 2023, 11, to tell Israeli soldiers that the fighting is not over. (Reuters)

To put it simply, in the face of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Gulf countries will not have a unified position due to the different needs of regional balance and role distribution. In the wake of the conflict, for example, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) directly condemned Hamas, while four other countries, including Saudi Arabia, focused on maintaining political correctness: a review of Israel's long-standing oppression of Palestine, but that was limited to that, because none of them wanted to undermine substantive interaction with Israel. However, after Israel's fierce air raids on Gaza and the launch of a ground offensive, the leaders of various countries were forced by the pressure of public opinion to escalate political condemnation, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar have made efforts to varying degrees at the diplomatic level, but the continuation of the division of labor model is still quite obvious.

Among them, the UAE happens to be a non-permanent member of the Security Council from January 2022 to December 1, so as a representative of the Arab world, it has performed a series of political performances in the Security Council: calling for an emergency closed-door meeting, calling for a ceasefire, voting on bills, etc. It's just that Israel, which is on a killing spree, may not even listen to the words of the United States, and the UAE certainly knows how much weight the UN's resolutions and condemnations can have, but the political cost of not speaking out is bound to be greater than speaking out, so even if it is "just a scene", some scenes are "had to be passed".

Qatar, for its part, has always played the role of a good broker. Since 2012, when Hamas established the Politburo in Doha (the capital of Qatar), Qatar has facilitated many high-level meetings between the United States, Israel, and Hamas, just as it has hosted talks between the Taliban and U.S. officials. During the 2014 conflict in Gaza, Qatar played a central role in brokering a ceasefire. This time, of course, it began to mediate the hostage issue shortly after the conflict began, and even after the bloody ground war in Gaza began, Qatar continued to actively shuttle, and finally succeeded in brokering a four-day truce from November 11 to 24, and a two-day extension. It can be said that Qatar's mediation is the key to de-escalating the conflict compared to the passionate statements of Iran and Turkey, but this relief is still a palliative rather than a cure for the time being, and Qatar will never sabotage its political interaction with Israel for the sake of the Palestinian issue.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (left) meets with Hamas Politburo Chairman Ismail Haniyeh (right) in Doha, Qatar, on October 2023, 10. (Reuters)

And then there is Saudi Arabia. Basically, Saudi Arabia is similar to the UAE in that it uses its own special role for political showmanship, but does not really push for a substantive solution. For example, the extraordinary summit of Arab-Islamic leaders held on November 11 seemed to be huge, but in fact the reason was that there were divisions within the Arab League, so Saudi Arabia brought the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to the "two-in-one" and invited the Iranian president to make his first visit after the resumption of diplomatic relations. Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Algeria formed a "radical" camp at the meeting, but they did not respond to all of them, and none of the six Gulf states, even if they had their own roles, responded to the former's hardline plan: cut off oil supplies to Israel and its allies, and sever economic and diplomatic relations with Israel.

On November 11, a joint delegation of foreign ministers of Arab and Islamic countries, organized by Saudi Arabia, including the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Indonesia, and Palestine, as well as the secretary general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, visited China, declaring that they wanted to promote a ceasefire between Israel and Palestine. Of course, this visit has caused a lot of discussion in China's public opinion field, but the discussion cannot change the reality that the visit is just a political performance, because China does not have effective leverage in mediating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there is a lack of key countries like Qatar that can substantively communicate with Hamas, so the primary goal of these countries is to "have an explanation" of domestic public opinion, even if there is really an intention to call for a ceasefire, the ultimate goal is to reduce the impact of the conflict on their own substantive interaction with Israel: Egypt, which has established diplomatic relations with Israel, Jordan does not want to be forced to sever diplomatic relations by political correctness; Saudi Arabia also wants to restart the process of normalizing relations after the limelight has passed.

Therefore, in the face of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Saudi Arabia has carried out a "role contract" in the Gulf to a large extent: at the beginning of the conflict, Saudi Arabia, which was preparing to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, was low-key, and the United Arab Emirates and other countries with diplomatic relations with Israel were responsible for condemning Hamas, hoping to reduce the negative perception of Israel from the outside world, leaving room for maintaining relations and deepening interaction with Israel to the greatest extent. After the ground war in Gaza began, Saudi Arabia could no longer hide, and the UAE did not dare to justify the massacre, but although the two countries raised the level of response, the goal remained the same, both hoping to cater to political correctness and show their concern for the issue, but the real mediation task still fell on Qatar.

On November 2023, 11, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan arrived at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing to attend the Foreign Ministers' Meeting. At the meeting, he said that Saudi Arabia highly praised China and the UN resolutions adopted under China's auspices. In the picture, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi welcomes Faisal, and the two prepare to shake hands. (Reuters)

Saudi Crown Prince's considerations

From the perspective of the size of the country, Saudi Arabia is not only the leader of the Gulf, but also the undeniable power in the Arab world and the Middle East, but the reason why it is so cold to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, of course, a realistic consideration of the country's positioning and interests.

The first is Saudi Arabia's national positioning. Many Chinese public opinion believe that Saudi Arabia should shoulder the responsibility of mediation and even seek justice for Palestine on behalf of the Arab world in order to be worthy of the status of a "great power". I am afraid that this is a lack of understanding of the situation in the Middle East. Good offices and political coordination may be meaningful to China, which has long been the backbone of East Asia. However, in the Middle East, where realism reigns, for Egypt in the past, and now Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is really not a manifestation of a "great power", but only a "medium country" such as Kuwait and Qatar will act, and the real "big power" should attack the city and seize the land, strengthen itself, and become the object of "mediation by the medium country".

Tehran has intervened in the Lebanese civil war, the Iraq war, the Syrian civil war, and the Yemeni civil war, continued to expand its influence, and finally established the geopolitical plate of the Shia Crescent; Saudi Arabia has also intervened in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, but it has found itself inferior to Iran and wants to focus on the economic transformation of Vision 2030, so it has reduced its geopolitical focus in recent years and eased the confrontation with Iran. Taking Turkey, as a "medium-sized country" in the world and a "big country" in the Middle East, as an example, Ankara may have played a mediator in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but in the Middle East regional affairs, it still maintains a ferocious "big country background" of attacking cities and grabbing land, successively marching into Syria and Libya, and repeatedly fighting Kurdish forces in Iraq. To put it simply, mediation in the Middle East is not a recognized "great power act", so in Saudi Arabia's self-perception, of course, there is no political understanding that it must mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that it is enough to leave it to Qatar.

Leaders of many countries attend an extraordinary summit of Arab-Islamic leaders in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 2023, 11. (Reuters)

Then there is the issue of Saudi Arabia's national interests. This part can be divided into two levels: What is the current strategic focus of Saudi Arabia? What are the benefits of intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Saudi Arabia?

First, let's explore Saudi Arabia's current strategic focus. As mentioned earlier, after finding that the costs of confrontation with Iran outweigh the benefits, Saudi Arabia wants to carry out strategic retrenchment, no longer mobilizing vassals to encircle Qatar, which is "eye-catching" with Iran, and does not want to spend a lot of money to intervene in the Yemeni battlefield and become the target of retaliatory attacks by the Houthis, so it announced the resumption of diplomatic relations with Iran in 2023. However, this does not mean that Saudi Arabia "chooses to surrender" in the face of Iran's expansion, on the contrary, Saudi Arabia intends to cultivate a "new front" that Iran cannot participate in: first, to lay out the country's economic and industrial transformation in the post-oil era with the "Vision 2030", so that Saudi Arabia can truly become a technology, industrial and investment power in the Middle East. Second, after supporting the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and Israel, it has also begun to lay out its own process of establishing diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, with the same aim of communicating with Israel as a military and technological power in the Middle East, which Iran, which has very poor relations with Israel, cannot do either.

Of course, the aforementioned strategic shift is not only a new adjustment after Saudi trial and error, but also a change in vision that Mohammed bin Salman, the 38-year-old Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler, will inevitably have in the face of the changes of the times.

This brings us to another topic: What are the benefits of intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for Saudi Arabia? As a matter of fact, after experiencing many defeats in the Middle East wars in the past, Arab countries already know in their hearts that there is no substantive benefit from intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict except for consolidating political correctness, otherwise Egypt, which was once the representative of Arab nationalism, would not have taken the lead in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in 1980, and Jordan, which had vigorously supported the cause of Palestinian liberation, would not have followed suit in 1994. Saudi Arabia has restrained itself for many years, both because it is concerned about its role in the Islamic world as the "guardian of the two holy places", and because the fathers in power do not see it as necessary. So even as relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel continue to improve, they have never taken that crucial step.

Resumption of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran: Iranian President Raisi visited Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on November 2023, 11, to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed. (Reuters)

But the young crown prince was born in 1985, when pan-Arab nationalism was in the dark and former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser died in 1970. The crown prince did not experience the euphoria of the Israeli-Palestinian war, and the Oslo Accords, which represented the Israeli-Palestinian "two-state solution" shortly after his birth, quickly appeared, and the "second intifada" in 2000 failed to attract substantial help from other countries, but allowed Hamas's radical line to be targeted.

In 2010, when the Arab Spring broke out, the 25-year-old Saudi crown prince also began to participate in national politics, dealing with the geopolitical game with Iran. At the same time, Saudi Arabia's economic and industrial transformation needs are imminent, and Vision 2030 is not only the focus of Saudi Arabia's future development, but also an important "political IP" launched by the crown prince.

The above experience determines that Saudi Arabia under the crown prince will not only not follow the old path of the Arab coalition against Israel, but will also not give up the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel. Even after the outbreak of the conflict, Saudi Arabia was forced to carry out a series of "diplomatic performances" in support of Palestine, and Saudi Arabia, which is accustomed to regulating speech, has never restricted the "anti-Hamas" online public opinion at home.

Of course, Hamas's desperate gamble this time has indeed disrupted Saudi Arabia's geopolitical layout. However, the underlying logic of international politics is still interests and strength, and the Palestinian issue can of course always attract widespread sympathy, but the subjective position and sympathy cannot change the cruel reality that Palestine is isolated and helpless, and Israel has the support of the United States, which Egypt understood and practiced 40 years ago, and the same is true for Saudi Arabia today.

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