Whether Peace or Escalation in Israel-Gaza, Watch Saudi Arabia

Whether Peace or Escalation in Israel-Gaza, Watch Saudi Arabia

Any signs of a resumption in the normalization process between Saudi Arabia and Israel could serve as an indicator that movement is being made towards a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

As Israel’s war in Gaza continues to rage, there has been no shortage of mixed signals recently over whether the conflict is on the verge of a major escalation or the cusp of a diplomatic breakthrough. From Israel’s offensive in Rafah to Iran’s direct attacks against Israel to shuttle diplomacy taking place throughout the Middle East, it appears that the conflict could veer in any direction at any time. Of course, this direction will be shaped not only by the Israelis and Palestinians but also by numerous external players that are involved in the conflict, including security patrons like the United States and Iran or diplomatic mediators like Egypt and Qatar. 

However, there is another player who may not be as openly or directly involved in the conflict but has, in many ways, proven just as influential in shaping its trajectory: Saudi Arabia. Riyadh’s position has not only been a significant factor in the evolution of the Israel-Gaza war over the past year but also could serve as an important bellwether for the future direction of the conflict and its ripple effects throughout the region and globally. 

A key backdrop for the Israel-Gaza war and the October 7 attacks that precipitated it is a diplomatic warming process that had long been taking place between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The two states had been exploring enhancing ties for much of the past decade, and this was accelerated by the U.S.-facilitated Abraham Accords of 2020, which saw Israel establish formal diplomatic relations with the UAE and Bahrain (and later Morocco and Sudan). Such agreements were motivated by a shared interest in forming a counterweight to regional rival Iran while also establishing greater trade linkages and economic integration between Israel and the Gulf states. While initiated under the Trump administration, the Biden administration sought to build on them with a particular eye on one of the leading players in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. 

Both prospects were appealing to Riyadh, which sought to counter Iranian interests and power in the region while also implementing the ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification program led by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. By 2023, negotiations between Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States had gained significant momentum, with the aim of achieving diplomatic normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel as well as enhancing security ties and a civil nuclear agreement between Riyadh and Washington. Such a deal would contribute to energy diversification for the Saudis while also enabling the United States to strengthen its position vis a vis Iran, as well as counter the rising influence of China in the Gulf region. 

Given the effect it would have on reshaping the regional landscape, such a deal was opposed by Iran as well as by the Palestinians, which had sought statehood for Palestine as a precondition to be linked to any normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The October 7 attacks by Hamas and Israel’s subsequent military response in Gaza had the effect of disrupting this arrangement, as the Palestinian issue was once again brought front and center into the decision-making calculus of Riyadh. As Israel launched and expanded its military operations in Gaza, Saudi Arabia concluded that the cost and potential blowback of a normalization deal with Israel would be too risky without first addressing the Palestinian issue in a substantial way.  

This informs the feverish pace of diplomacy that has been taking place between various regional and global players ever since the Israel-Gaza conflict began. While the United States, along with mediation support from Qatar and Egypt, has sought to negotiate a ceasefire agreement to end the fighting in Gaza, Washington has also pursued a parallel diplomatic outreach with Saudi Arabia to advance the security and economic deals that they have been negotiating and ensure that they do not get upended by the conflict. However, this has been an uphill battle, as the Netanyahu government and Hamas remain far apart on the terms of a ceasefire, much less a two-state solution. Meanwhile, the United States and Israel have diverged over the latter’s offensive in Rafah in particular and the large-scale civilian casualties of Israeli military operations in general, which in turn have led to domestic protests and inflamed political polarization within the United States in an election year for Biden. 

For Saudi Arabia, the conflict has not only complicated its normalization process with Israel, but it has produced regional spillover in a way that directly threatens its interests. This has included the spread of regional insecurity via tit-for-tat strikes between Israel, the United States, and Iran-aligned groups in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, while pro-Iranian Houthis in Yemen have disrupted global shipping in the Red Sea through drone and missile attacks. Given that the Red Sea is a vital shipping corridor, accounting for 30 percent of global container traffic and 12 percent of oil transit (much of which comes from Saudi Arabia), this is a significant liability to Riyadh and its broader position.

This escalation has brought with it other risks, as was seen in Iran’s first direct strikes against Israel in April following Israeli strikes against a key IRGC leader in a diplomatic compound in Damascus. However, Saudi Arabia played a key yet quiet role in shaping that response—Riyadh reportedly passed on key intelligence on Iran’s plans to the United States and its allies prior to its attack. Due in part to Saudi involvement, the risk of escalation in direct fighting between Israel and Iran has been contained—at least for now.

Thus, Saudi Arabia has played a vital role in both shaping and being impacted by the Israel-Gaza conflict, and its importance is only likely to grow in the future. From a diplomatic perspective, any signs of a resumption in the normalization process between Saudi Arabia and Israel could serve as an indicator that movement is being made towards a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. The same can be said of progress between the United States and Saudi Arabia in their own economic and security deal. However, a recent visit by the U.S. National Security Advisor to Riyadh suggested that progress in their own arrangement could happen before or independently of a deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. And if and when a ceasefire is reached, it is likely that Riyadh will play an influential role, along with Washington and other regional states, in the reconstruction and political evolution of a post-conflict Gaza.

From a security perspective, Saudi Arabia could also provide clues on the manner in which the Israel-Gaza conflict could escalate further. Like the Red Sea on its west coast, the Persian Gulf on Saudi Arabia’s east coast could also become subject to significant security disruptions in the event of an escalation of the war. In the case of the Persian Gulf, the disruption could be even more dramatic—the Strait of Hormuz accounts for 30 percent of global crude oil flows and 20 percent of global LNG flows, which would impact not only Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf energy exporters like UAE and Qatar, but the global economy as a whole. Any preparatory moves by Riyadh—such as moving naval assets, preparing alternative energy export routes, or ramping up diplomatic channels to Iran—could serve as key indicators for such an escalation.

As such, the role of Saudi Arabia could prove unexpectedly consequential in shaping the course of the Israel-Gaza conflict and its ripple effects throughout the region. Whether via a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, a major military escalation, or a broader diplomatic realignment in the region, Riyadh’s position will be crucial to watch moving forward.

Eugene Chausovsky is the Senior Director for Analytical Development and Training at the New Lines Institute. Follow him on X: @eugenechausovsk.

Image: murathakanart / Shutterstock.com.