On 7 October, Hamas began Operation Al-Aqsa Flood with rocket barrages firing from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel and Hamas militants breaching the border. At least 1,400 Israeli citizens were killed and over 220 more were kidnapped. Since then, Israeli forces have cleared Hamas militants from southern Israel and launched airstrikes at the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces have also implemented a total blockade of Gaza. Over 4,300 Palestinians have been killed since the start of the war.
The impacts of the war are already extending beyond Israel and the Gaza Strip. Israeli forces are exchanging rocket fire with Iran-backed Hezbollah militants at Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. In an effort to block the transport of weapons from Iran, Israel launched airstrikes at Damascus International Airport and Aleppo International Airport in Syria, leading to injuries and fatalities. Worldwide demonstrations have taken place, with some escalating into civil unrest. Islamic extremists killed citizens in Belgium and France. A Palestinian boy and his mother were killed in Illinois, USA in a racist attack. A rise in Islamophobic and anti-Semitic attacks are happening across the world.
The war also threatens to escalate into a direct confrontation between the US and Iran. While Western allies have provided resolute support to Israel, many Arab nations have condemned the response from Israel. Increased tensions have steered the region closer to a broader conflict involving the West, Iran, and Russia.
Not only has the US pledged its support to Israel and have historically provided funding weaponry, they have also deployed aircraft carriers to the eastern Mediterranean and a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) battery, as well as additional Patriot battalions to the Middle East. On top of this, the US increased the number of troops on prepare-to-deploy orders.
On 18 October, the US became directly involved in the conflict when the USS Carney intercepted drones and missiles bound for Israel, launched by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Iran and Russia have provided both political and tactical support to Hamas. Iran provides funding, weapons and training to Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad and its other proxies, like Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels. Similarly, Russia is suspected to be a provider of weapons to Hezbollah. On the diplomatic front, both Russian and Iranian officials are in contact with Hamas leadership and have warned Israel and the US from escalating the conflict. The Biden administration confirmed yesterday that they will “retaliate” if American troops are targeted in the Middle East. All of this raises the risk of the war escalating into a broader conflict and therefore, travel to the Middle East should be reconsidered.
Stance of Saudi Leadership
Before the start of the Israel-Hamas War, Saudi Arabia and Israel were on track to finalising a historic normalisation agreement. Central to that agreement was a two-state solution and increased security guarantees from the United States to Saudi Arabia. Many see the surprise offensive from Hamas as an attempt to disrupt the Saudi-Israel stabilisation, which also jeopardises Saudi Arabia and Iran’s rapprochement.
Since the start of the war, Saudi Arabia has suspended normalisation negotiations and met with representatives from Iran. However, there is good reason to believe that the Saudi-Israel agreement is still on the table. President Biden’s support for Israel shows the benefits that Saudi Arabia could receive from a security partnership with the US. Security and stability in the region are a necessity if Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud wants to accomplish his Vision 2030 plan for attracting investors and tourists to Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi Arabia does not want to compromise its religious standing in the Islamic world by abandoning support for Palestinians as the future of their statehood is in question. For this reason, Saudi leadership is avoiding burning any bridges in their efforts to de-escalate the situation. There have been reports from Western and Arab officials that say the “Iranian are privately seeking a way out of the escalation”. So, what we could see is both Riyadh and Tehran working together to end this conflict as soon as possible, meaning that their rapprochement is still ongoing.
Risk of Travel to Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is under a Level 3 Travel Advisory by the US State Department. This is the second highest level of advisory and urges people to reconsider travel to the country.
The most recent advisory was issued in July 2023 and warns of “a significant risk to civilian areas and populations” due to the threat of attacks by terrorist groups and airstrikes orchestrated by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. While Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia have declined since the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March 2023, recent events threaten to return the region to a state of instability.
The travel advisory has not changed since the start of the Hamas-Israel War on 7 October 2023. However, the security of the region has undeniably changed. On 19 October, the USS Carney intercepted multiple projectiles in the Red Sea, coming from Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, that were heading towards Israel. Increased regional tensions threaten to reignite conflict between Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabia.
The cautious rhetoric of Saudi officials when discussing the Iran-Hamas War reflects the sensitivity of the country’s position. Abandoning stabilisation agreements with Israel would undermine efforts to “de-risk” the region, while limited support for Palestinians could compromise Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the Muslim world. This makes Saudi Arabia vulnerable to outside actors looking to weaken its influence in the region.
Potential for Escalation into a Wider Conflict
The Middle East is in a very delicate situation. The Israel-Hamas War is threatening to drag other countries into a wider regional conflict. An Israeli ground offensive could be a turning point in the conflict as Iran has vowed to respond if Israeli troops enter Gaza. Senior Israeli officials signalled that a ground offensive is imminent as airstrikes intensified over the weekend and residents of northern Gaza were urged to evacuate.
If involvement from Iran extends beyond cross-border fire from Hezbollah militants, it is likely that the US will respond. While de-escalation and negotiations for a two-state solution are at the core of the US agenda, Biden will not hesitate to combat any threats to Israel’s existence.
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