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Saudi media responds to Israel-Hamas conflict with ‘I told you so’

Saudi media and official statements have retrenched to familiar stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the confrontation between Hamas and Israel escalated into a declaration of war and hundreds of casualties on both sides, in the wake of the Palestinian armed group’s attacks on civilians in southern Israel and the subsequent targeting of the Gaza Strip by the IDF.

The message from Saudi officialdom and the media that carefully toes its line could be summarized in four words: “I told you so.”

That doesn’t mean that Hamas achieved the goal that observers have attributed to the Islamist group—derailing the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel. It seems instead that it gave the oil-rich kingdom leverage to push for its long-held conditions for normalizing relations with Israel, pursue its own economic and political and economic interests, and defend its position as the leader of the Islamic and Arab worlds.

Saudi official statements and media conspicuously avoided any mention of Hamas, instead focusing on shoring up the rival, sclerotic Palestinian Authority, as well as diplomatic efforts by the Saudi foreign minister and allies in Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf.

On the day of the attacks, the Saudi Foreign Ministry issued a short statement, saying the kingdom is “closely following the developments of the unprecedented situation between a number of Palestinian factions and the Israeli occupation forces, which has resulted in an increase in a high level of violence on several fronts there.” The foreign ministry called for restrain, a “credible” international push for a peace process, a two-state solution, and reminded of its “repeated warnings of the dangers of the explosion of the situation as a result of the continued occupation.”

However, in a subsequent statement recapping a phone call between Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the ministry highlighted “the Kingdom’s rejection of targeting civilians in any way and the need for all parties to respect international humanitarian law.”

Although the conflict was featured on the front pages of Saudi newspapers on Oct. 9, it was relegated to the lower bottom, as domestic newspapers Al-Riyadh, Okaz, and Al-Madina led with an increase in welfare payments to Saudi citizens–a preemptive tactic the government has repeatedly deployed when regional tensions spike, for example during the Arab Spring uprisings a decade ago. Domestic papers echoed the official reports about diplomatic efforts in coordination with the U.S. and Arab and European allies to de-escalate the situation.

Meanwhile, Saudi-owned regional newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat led with the headline “A large increase in the number of casualties. Saudi Arabia recalls its repeated warnings. Washington sends military aid to Tel Aviv: Israel was shocked by its losses so it declared war.”

Two major Saudi media figures also penned columns to the same effect: blaming Israel for not heeding Saudi suggestions. The paper’s current editor-in-chief opined that “Israel’s hubris has pushed it to miss several opportunities”—notably Saudi Arabia’s 2002 peace initiative—and urged “deep revisions” of Israel’s current policies. Its former editor editor wrote a column to the same effect, blaming Israel for undermining the Saudi-supported Palestinian Authority in favor of Hamas.

For its part, business daily Al-Eqtisadiyah highlighted the losses of regional stock markets and oil price increases.

Saudi Arabia’s main regional news channel, Al-Arabiya, spent the day on continuous coverage of the situation on the ground, with live feeds of Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip and back-to-back phone interviews with Israeli and Palestinian analysts. In its review of international reactions, it led with (and praised) OPEC+ partner Russia’s statement—mainly for mirroring the positions of the Arab League.

Conspicuously absent from Saudi discourse was the usual blaming of regional tensions on archrival Iran, which was barely mentioned. Instead, most of the coverage focused on the effect of the growing violence on Gaza’s civilian population. Even Saudi online outlet Elaph, which signaled early overtures to Israel in 2017 by interviewing then Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen Gadi Eisenkot, steered clear of highlighting the common Saudi-Israeli enmity towards Iran.

Saudi Arabia seems to be seizing the moment to pursue several objectives: extracting concessions for the Palestinian Authority, shoring up a struggling Arab establishment as an alternative to Iranian proxies, managing domestic sentiment, and regaining a level of popularity among the masses across the Middle East.

But ultimately, the kingdom’s desired outcome is still to obtain a major peace deal and avoid further regional destabilization. The editor of Saudi English-language Arab News daily put it the most plainly: “It is time for the world to double down. As the statement by the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs clearly indicated, the international community must act now to activate a credible peace plan that enables a two-state solution, which is the best means to protect civilians. Easier said than done? Perhaps, but at least Saudi Arabia can say it tried its best, and has been for decades.”

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