In the aftermath of Hamas’ brutal assault on Israelis, several regimes across the Middle East have gone on the record publicly supporting the plight of Palestinians, a community of people who have been stateless since the Nakba of 1948. The Iranian regime praised the “anti-Zionist resistance” and pledged its support for the terrorist group Hamas. The Saudi kingdom, meanwhile, released a statement blaming this historic escalation on “the continued occupation” and “the deprivation of the Palestinian people of their legitimate rights.”
But don’t let these statements fool you. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia have the Palestinian people’s best interests at heart right now. Quite the opposite. As Israel masses troops around the Gaza Strip and begins a missile bombardment, Iran and Saudi Arabia are once again using Palestinians and the provocative narrative of occupation to further their own goals.
Iran’s long-standing support for Hamas is a matter of self-interest. A Persian country with a Shia Muslim government, Iran has for decades used proxy organizations across the region to expand its tentacles. By helping to arm a violent organization that also chants death to Israel, Iran gains a foothold on the Mediterranean side of the Middle East, advancing multiple foreign policy objectives. The Iranian government is not truly pro-Palestinian, instead it exists in opposition: The regime is antisemitic, anti-American, and anti-Sunni.
Iran is in fact capable of diplomacy, spending more effort in recent years nurturing its energy sector aspirations than it has for anything resembling a diplomatic solution in Israel. If the regime wants to protect Palestinian civilians, it could, for one, stop arming terrorists in Gaza. Attacks from Hamas have historically been met with a blistering response from the Israeli military, continuing a cycle of violence that further limits the livelihoods of all Palestinians. This cycle is almost certain to repeat, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu warns Gazans to abandon their homes ahead of attacks he vows will “reverberate … for generations.”
Meanwhile, the Saudi regime under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has sought to normalize relations with Israel. The kingdom is moving toward formally recognizing the reality that Israel is a fully functioning state with deep roots in the region. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia also are supported by the same military benefactor, the United States, and all three have a common adversary in Iran. In its own pursuit of riches, the Saudi royal family is looking to build trade and diplomatic relationships that can help it move beyond its soon-to-be limited oil economy. This should be a good thing.
The last few years have provided multiple opportunities for the Saudis, as the dominant Sunni Arab nation in the region, to lead the Arab world’s push for diplomatic solutions for various Palestinian problems. This could include decrying the encroachment of settlers on Palestinian homes, providing stateless refugees with a national identity and economic support, or negotiating Palestinian rights as concession from Israel for the normalization of ties.
But in a telling pivot, the Saudis cozied up to then-President Donald Trump, tacitly enabling his desire to change the landscape in Israel. At the end of the day, despite being an Arab state with significant power, helping oppressed Muslims like the Palestinians does not advance Saudi national interests. And Saudi leaders have acted accordingly.
That the regimes in Saudi Arabia and Iran delivered mealy mouthed statements about occupation highlights a harsh reality for Palestinians. Once again, they are being used as a political tool by Muslim-majority countries. When it is opportune, the richest Muslim nations rally the masses in support of the “ummah” — the concept of a Muslim community transcending national boundaries — and use the emotion to support their own repressive regimes. But when it comes to putting economic or diplomatic skin in the game and actually working toward political progress in the region, Saudi Arabia and Iran tend to disappear. Self-interest, not global altruism or allyship, is the true motivator here.