Saudi hosts Gaza summits, Iran president as regional fears mount

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  • Reading time:8 mins read
  • Post author:AFP
  • Post category:News Room

The emergency meetings of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation come after over one month of Israeli bombardment has killed more than 10,000 people in Gaza, many of them children, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

Israel’s campaign to destroy the Palestinian militant group has come in response to the bloody October 7 attack by Hamas militants that Israeli officials say left more than 1,400 people dead and around 240 taken hostage.

With Israel’s leaders rebuffing talk of a ceasefire until the captives are freed, anger in Saudi Arabia over the Palestinian death toll comes amid worries the war could destabilise the wider region and fears this could thwart the kingdom’s attempts to transition the economy away from oil.

An Israeli flag flies in southern Israel while across the border in the Gaza Strip a fireball erupts during Israeli bombardment on November 8, 2023
An Israeli flag flies in southern Israel while across the border in the Gaza Strip a fireball erupts during Israeli bombardment on November 8, 2023 © RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP/File

The world’s biggest oil exporter and its neighbours are “united in fearing one thing in particular, which is a broader escalation”, said Elham Fakhro of Chatham House.

Two Gulf countries — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — normalised relations with Israel in 2020, while Saudi Arabia has considered doing so, and all three cooperate with Israel’s staunch ally the United States on security matters.

“They’re very worried that they’re going to be targeted by Iranian proxy groups who are seeking retaliation against Israel and the United States,” Fakhro told a panel organised by the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Saudi analysts said the Arab League meeting Saturday would do well to go beyond statements condemning attacks on Gaza’s civilians, though it was unclear how the bloc might shape events on the ground.

Palestinian women grieve as the bodies of relatives are collected for burial from the al-Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 9, 2023
Palestinian women grieve as the bodies of relatives are collected for burial from the al-Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on November 9, 2023 © MAHMUD HAMS / AFP

“This (Arab League) meeting will be a success if it leads to any framework to pressure Israel to stop the war. Otherwise it will not be a success,” said Saudi analyst Sulaiman al-Oqaily.

“The urgent need now is to stop the war.”

‘Above the fray’

Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam, has voiced support for the Palestinian cause while denouncing incidents like the Israeli bombing last week of Gaza’s largest refugee camp which killed dozens of people.

Israeli troops during combat operations in northern Gaza on November 8, 2023
Israeli troops during combat operations in northern Gaza on November 8, 2023 © Daphné LEMELIN / AFP

But it has simultaneously forged ahead with events intended to highlight de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform agenda, notably a major investment forum, Riyadh fashion week and a heavyweight boxing bout.

The back-to-back summits in Riyadh could signal the start of a higher-profile diplomatic push, with Saudi Arabia taking advantage of its position as a historic champion of Palestinians combined with its interest in potentially recognising Israel one day.

An official familiar with Saudi thinking told AFP in mid-October that talks on possible normalisation with Israel were paused, yet analysts say they could be revived after the Israel-Hamas war.

Relatives and friends of David Carroll who was killed by Palestinian Hamas militants on October 7, in Kibbutz Beeri, mourn during his funeral in Revivim on October 22, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas
Relatives and friends of David Carroll who was killed by Palestinian Hamas militants on October 7, in Kibbutz Beeri, mourn during his funeral in Revivim on October 22, 2023, amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas © Aris MESSINIS / AFP/File

Saudi Arabia is “trying to strategically position itself above the fray”, said Bader al-Saif at Kuwait University.

“I think it’s very smartly trying to position itself for the day after — how are we going to use this to the best advantage not only for Saudi national interests, which is front-and-centre, but also to advance a sane Palestinian-Israeli peace process.”

Raisi in Saudi

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s expected attendance at the OIC summit on Sunday will bring an unusual level of attention to the 57-member bloc of Muslim-majority countries.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi will attend the OIC summit in Saudi Arabia on Sunday
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi will attend the OIC summit in Saudi Arabia on Sunday © – / Iranian Presidency/AFP

It will be Raisi’s first trip to Saudi Arabia since a surprise, China-brokered rapprochement deal announced in March ended seven years of severed bilateral ties.

Iran is a backer not just of Hamas but of Hezbollah and Yemen’s Huthi rebels, who have been at war with a Saudi-led coalition since 2015.

However, the Middle East heavyweights agree on publicly supporting Palestinians, a point stressed in official communications on the first call between Raisi and Prince Mohammed on October 12, five days after the war erupted.

Because the OIC’s membership extends from Africa to Asia, any statement coming out of Sunday’s summit could also underscore how support for Palestinians is growing well beyond the Middle East, said Saudi analyst Aziz Alghashian.

Palestinians flee northern Gaza towards the southern areas amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas
Palestinians flee northern Gaza towards the southern areas amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas © Mohammed ABED / AFP

“Non-Western countries are not accepting this any longer and not buying the American narrative, the Western narrative” of the conflict, he said.

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