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Saudi Arabia's Withdrawal: The end of its guardian role in the Palestinian crisis

Rayhan Ahmed Tapader

Rayhan Ahmed Tapader

Mon, 24 Jun 24

An unprecedented experiment in economic and social change is underway in Saudi Arabia, with potential consequences that could profoundly impact the entire Arab world. The primary goal of the country's Vision 2030 is to liberate the economy from its dependence on fossil fuels. Under the Paris Climate Agreement, the commitment to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius necessitates reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and reaching zero emissions by 2050. Effective measures must be implemented now to achieve these targets.

Saudi Arabia is not the first oil-dependent country in the Middle East to attempt transitioning away from hydrocarbons. Over the past few decades, other Arab nations have tried to diversify their economies similarly, albeit with limited success. However, a notable exception is Dubai. Dubai has successfully repositioned itself as a logistics center, an attractive destination for tourists from around the world, and an offshore finance hub, thereby reducing its economic dependence on oil.

The city-state model has proven successful in some parts of the Arab world, but it does not face the same challenges as larger nations. Consequently, policymakers in the region and beyond are closely monitoring Saudi Arabia's ambitious development program, given that the country has a population of about 37 million people. Despite Dubai's achievements, it is challenging to compare its success directly with that of Saudi Arabia due to the differing scales and contexts of their economies.

Saudi Arabia's leader, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is determined to achieve grand ambitions, investing substantial money and resources to accelerate the kingdom's socioeconomic transformation. At the same time, he has made it clear that political reforms are off the table. In other words, he adopts a liberal approach socially, culturally, and economically, while maintaining strict political policies.

The Saudi government has an extensive list of mega-projects aimed at improving the transport system within the country, revolutionizing urban development, diversifying the energy sector, and boosting tourism. Revenues from oil sales are being funneled into these initiatives. One striking example is NEOM, a carbon-free city on the outskirts of the Red Sea, which demonstrates the audacity of this effort.

Saudi Arabia has raised its value-added tax (VAT) rate from 5 percent to 15 percent, introducing a significant new source of domestic revenue. In a country where citizens have long received handouts and subsidies in exchange for accepting royal rule, this marks a notable shift. Despite this change, there is considerable enthusiasm for Vision 2030, especially among the youth. The ASDA'A BCW Arab Youth Survey indicates that young Saudis are confident that Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction.

In a nation where concerns about corruption and mistrust in government are widespread, it is unusual for citizens to be united by a common policy. However, Vision 2030 has succeeded in bringing many Saudi citizens together. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia's ambitious transformation under this vision is not without risks.

As Saudi Arabia is located in a geopolitical hotspot, this situation may threaten its transition process. However, recent diplomatic moves, such as restoring relations with Iran, efforts to secure a ceasefire in Sudan, and welcoming Syria back into the Arab League, indicate a significant shift from the policies of a decade ago. These actions highlight Mohammad bin Salman's political acumen. He recognizes that for Saudi Arabia to prosper, stability in the Middle East and Northeast Africa is essential. Regional conflicts could impede Saudi progress. From this perspective, it is clear that if Mohammed bin Salman succeeds in his goals, the entire Arab region stands to benefit.

For the past seven years, Mohammed bin Salman has been the sole Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, effectively becoming a statesman. He has amassed extraordinary power, extending his influence from the military to the entertainment sector, and is now seen as an absolute ruler. He primarily listens to his close friends, foreign advisors, mentors, and inner circle, rather than the older and more experienced princes. His domestic and foreign policies reflect his own vision and decisions.

Given this concentration of power, having a Deputy Crown Prince at this time would likely be seen as a threat to his authority. As the future king, Mohammed bin Salman will face challenges in selecting a Crown Prince and a Deputy Crown Prince who meet his preferences. He must ensure that any successors he names do not surpass him in merit, age, or efficiency, which will be a delicate balancing act in maintaining his control and ensuring the continuity of his vision.

Saudi Arabia was once expected to lead the Arab world, particularly the Gulf countries, towards a peaceful resolution of the Palestinian crisis. However, that hope has now been dashed. Saudi Arabia's hesitant and lackadaisical support for the Palestinian people during Israel's recent actions over the past seven months has shown that the kingdom is no longer a de facto mediator in the Gaza conflict.

In this war, Israel is not heeding the advice of its primary ally, the United States, and has even less reason to listen to its wealthy and friendly neighbors in the Gulf. Israel's actions in Gaza have effectively ended Saudi Arabia's role as a guardian in the Palestinian crisis. This shift signals a significant change in the regional dynamics and the kingdom's influence over this long-standing issue.

The isolated and chaotic position of Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman can be attributed to several factors, particularly its own national interests. Unlike the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which have established close lines of communication with Israel and Hamas, Saudi Arabia's strategy is heavily influenced by its desire to maintain a strong alliance with the United States for security reasons.

For the Palestinians, the hope of achieving a decent life and freedom from occupation seems increasingly unattainable. While Prince Salman cannot normalize relations with Israel without jeopardizing Saudi Arabia's national interest and potentially leaving the Palestinians in dire straits, he has sought strategic advantages from such normalization. One of his aspirations was to obtain the 'Iron Dome' missile defense system in exchange for fully normalizing relations with Israel. This ambition was heightened by the traumatic memory of the 2019 Houthi attacks on Saudi oil facilities, an event that saw no intervention from the Trump administration. This lack of response continues to haunt the Saudi crown prince and influences his current geopolitical strategies.

Since then, Prince Salman has been desperately trying to broker a comprehensive security agreement for Saudi Arabia with the United States; however, these efforts have yet to succeed. The Israeli military's current crackdown on the Palestinians in Gaza has not only stalled talks but also made them more challenging. Saudi Arabia's inability to play a significant role in ending the war in Gaza is not surprising. The country's leadership no longer seeks to gain legitimacy by leading foreign affairs, instead focusing on domestic matters.

Saudi Arabia has withdrawn from its aspiration to lead the Arab world, primarily because Mohammed bin Salman is more concerned about consolidating his own leadership within the country. This inward focus has shifted the kingdom's priorities, emphasizing internal stability and development over regional leadership and intervention.

Just a week before October 7, the Saudi crown prince disclosed in an interview with Fox News that Saudi Arabia had come very close to normalizing relations with Israel. However, seven months later, it appears that the prince has encountered significant obstacles in pursuing this goal. Recent polling indicates that 96 percent of Saudi citizens oppose normalizing relations with Israel, reflecting strong public sentiment against such a move.

In response to these sentiments, Saudi Arabia's state media is actively promoting the idea that the kingdom is under no pressure or obligation to normalize relations with Israel. Recently, Saudi Arabia communicated to the Biden administration that it will not establish diplomatic relations with Israel until certain conditions are met. These conditions include Israel's recognition of an independent Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, and the cessation of Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip along with the withdrawal of all occupying forces from the area.

This stance underscores Saudi Arabia's continued commitment to the Palestinian cause and aligns with broader Arab and international demands for a comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before normalizing relations with Israel.

Efforts to gather donations for Palestinians are increasingly tinged with political undertones. In an effort to salvage its reputation, Saudi Arabia spearheaded an initiative called Sahem to raise funds for Gaza, resulting in over $180 million in donations. Sahem's website discloses donors' names without restrictions, ranging from individual traders to the state-owned oil company Aramco. The website provides detailed information, including donation dates and specifics like prescribed medicines for treatment.

Philanthropy under the patronage of rulers has been transformed into impactful propaganda. While humanitarian aid for Gaza is unquestionably crucial and commendable, Saudi Arabia's emphasis on relief operations should not overshadow the need for genuine political initiatives toward establishing a Palestinian state and achieving lasting peace.

It's essential to recognize that while humanitarian assistance addresses immediate needs, lasting solutions require substantive political efforts aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ensuring the rights and sovereignty of the Palestinian people.

The ongoing devastation in Gaza, with over 35 thousand casualties and the complete destruction of homes for more than 2 million people, underscores the urgent need to address Israel's actions. Arab and Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia, have been actively engaged in collecting and publicizing aid efforts during this humanitarian crisis. However, this situation also highlights the limitations and challenges facing Saudi Arabia's political leadership.

While Saudi Arabia's national interests are intrinsically tied to the stability of the Arab region, there is growing concern about the kingdom's political decisions under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Despite the kingdom's economic generosity and efforts in humanitarian aid, questions persist about its broader political strategy and effectiveness in shaping the Arab world's future.

The international community, including Arab and Muslim nations, must continue to push for meaningful political solutions that address the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This includes advocating for Palestinian rights, promoting dialogue for peace, and ensuring accountability for actions that exacerbate humanitarian crises in Gaza and beyond.

Author: Researcher and columnist.

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