As War Looms Over Mideast, Saudi Arabia Tries to Keep the Music Going

As the curtain rose this week on an annual investment forum hosted by the Saudi crown prince, dancers in silver bodysuits undulated through the crowd, and a teenage boy in a sequined suit sang an operatic solo while an image of a white dove — a symbol of peace — flew across the screens surrounding the darkened room.

For the international bankers, executives and officials who had gathered in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, to make deals, the war raging in Gaza and Israel felt like a distant backdrop. Instead, when speakers took the stage, they praised Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to remake Saudi Arabia and focused on the future: artificial intelligence, longevity science, renewable energy.

“I appreciate that many of you journeyed far to gather here, especially with the challenging times that we see in different parts of the world,” said Yasir al-Rumayyan, governor of the kingdom’s $700 billion sovereign wealth fund — making a single, oblique reference to the conflict in his opening speech at the Future Investment Initiative conference on Tuesday. “While today’s world seems uncertain, we continue with our mandate to inspire.”

Since gunmen from the Palestinian armed group Hamas in Gaza staged a surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7, the threat of a widening war has loomed over the Middle East. Israel has laid siege to the Gaza Strip and unleashed a fierce bombardment.

That has prompted protests across the region, reinvigorating vocal Arab support for the Palestinian cause — including among many Saudi citizens.

Yet Saudi officials have made it clear that they are determined to prevent all of that from casting a pall over Prince Mohammed’s plans for the kingdom, which include reshaping the economy to reduce dependence on oil and turning the country into a global hub for business and tourism.

Jared Kushner, a son-in-law and an adviser to former President Donald J. Trump, and Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister of Italy, speaking at the investment conference on Wednesday. Mr. Kushner was one of a handful of speakers at the conference who directly addressed the war.Credit…Fayez Nureldine/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Those plans hinge on reducing tensions in the region, not inflaming them, and to this end, Saudi Arabia recently re-established ties with its regional rival Iran, which backs Hamas and several other militias across the Middle East. Behind the scenes, Saudi officials are scrambling to contain the fallout of the conflict, which they fear could destabilize the whole region.

“Before the 7th of October, a lot of de-escalation had happened, which brought a lot of hope for the region, and we don’t want the recent events to derail that,” the Saudi finance minister, Mohammed al-Jadaan, said during the three-day conference, which ended on Thursday.

Five years ago, Prince Mohammed sat in the same gilded conference hall where the forum was held this year and declared that the Middle East would become the world’s “new Europe.” Since then, he has rendered the conservative Islamic kingdom nearly unrecognizable, ending many social restrictions and pushing forward a sweeping economic plan, while at the same time increasing political repression and cracking down on dissent.

Since the war began, life in the kingdom has been a split screen. On one side, many Saudis are glued to their social media feeds in horror, scrolling through videos of weeping parents and dead children covered in dust from the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

On the other side, the flurry of festivals, announcements and events that has marked Prince Mohammed’s rule has moved ahead at full speed.

Last weekend, models with bare shoulders and slicked-back hair strutted the runway at the inaugural Riyadh Fashion Week. And between visits from foreign officials keen to discuss the war, Prince Mohammed juggled his typically manic schedule.

On Monday, at an event attended by FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, and the soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, Prince Mohammed announced that the kingdom would create a new “Esports World Cup.”

Buildings damaged by airstrikes in Gaza on Monday. The Saudi government had historically been a defender of Palestinians, but has gradually shifted its stance in recent years.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

The Saudi government had historically been a defender of the Palestinians and like many Arab states, it long refused to recognize Israel before the creation of a Palestinian state. But in 2020, neighboring Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates established ties with Israel in deals known collectively as the Abraham Accords, brokered by the Trump administration.

Under Prince Mohammed, the country’s de facto ruler, the Saudi stance has gradually shifted. He has refocused the official narrative around a Saudi-first patriotism — sidelining the Islamic and Pan-Arab sentiments that had long dominated his country’s national identity.

Over the past few years, former Saudi officials and pro-government social media influencers have openly criticized the Palestinians for squandering opportunities for a resolution to the conflict, declaring “Palestine is not my cause,” in strident posts.

“The current Gaza war poses a real challenge to this Saudi First policy,” said Sultan Alamer, a Saudi postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. “It showed that all previous attempts by Saudi ultranationalist influencers and media outlets to demonize Palestinians could not diminish a strong sense of solidarity and support among Saudis with what was taking place there.”

In the months before the war broke out, Prince Mohammed and his advisers had been holding talks with Biden administration officials over a complex deal to establish diplomatic relations with Israel in exchange — partly — for a security pact with the United States and concessions from Israel toward the Palestinians. In an interview last month, however, the crown prince seemed to signal that those concessions might fall short of creating a Palestinian state.

“We hope that it will reach a place that it will ease the life of the Palestinians and get Israel as a player in the Middle East,” he told Fox News, adding: “Every day we get closer” to a deal.

A pro-Palestinian demonstration in Doha, Qatar, last week. Protests relating to the war have been noticeably absent in Saudi Arabia, where they are essentially illegal.Credit…Karim Jaafar/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Since then, the war has placed major obstacles in the way of any such deal.

For one, Saudi officials have renewed calls for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. And the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said this week it was essential to push not only for a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, but a return to an Israeli-Palestinian peace process — arguing that a resolution to the conflict was essential to regional security.

In almost all of the countries neighboring Saudi Arabia, protesters have taken to the streets to oppose Israel’s siege on Gaza, and governments and businesses have canceled concerts and other events in solidarity with the Palestinians.

In Bahrain, a series of demonstrations called for the government to end ties with Israel. In the Qatari capital, Doha, where some of Hamas’s political leaders are based, men and women wore scarves in the colors of the Palestinian flag to malls and sporting events.

In the United Arab Emirates, organizers canceled several events or called for their proceeds to be donated to an Emirati relief campaign for Gaza.

But such public displays have been conspicuously absent in Saudi Arabia — where any kind of protests are essentially illegal — even as grief, fear and outrage on behalf of the Palestinians simmers just below the surface, Saudis said in interviews.

Guests, including FIFA’s president, Gianni Infantino, and Cristiano Ronaldo, cheering Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the launch of the Esports World Cup in Riyadh on Monday, in a photo released by the Saudi Press Agency.Credit…Saudi Press Agency, via Getty Images

Publicly, Saudi officials have denounced the thousands of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, calling for a halt to the siege and urging an immediate cease-fire and the delivery of aid to the Palestinians. But some Saudis say they have picked up signals that displays of pro-Palestinian sentiment are not entirely welcomed by their government.

Last week, the Saudi soccer team al-Hilal shared a post on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter, featuring one of their players wearing a Palestinian kaffiyeh around his neck. The post received an outpouring of positive responses — until it was suddenly deleted.

Saudi sports journalists who had reposted it soon made a series of apologies for mixing politics with sports, and pro-government accounts attacked them,accusing them of naïvely falling for emotional pleas to support Palestinians pushed forward by extremist groups that target the kingdom.

Israeli soldiers stationed in Northern Israel on Wednesday.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

For many Saudis, uncertainty over the state’s shifting red lines has pushed their expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians into the private sphere, including onto social media accounts closed to all but trusted friends.

When Saudis gather in their homes, Gaza is the topic of the hour, said Abdulhamid, a Saudi man who asked to be identified by his middle name only for fear of government retribution.

“People don’t want to say anything because it would get them in more trouble,” he said.

In a Facebook post on Wednesday, Turki al-Asheikh, head of Saudi Arabia’s entertainment authority, defended continuing to host events as usual, arguing that life goes on even during wars.

“Every Saudi, and I’m one of them, is busy developing his country,” he said.

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