The war on Gaza has for all intents and purposes reinstated the centrality of the Palestinian issue to the regional and international politics of the Middle East. Both the death toll and the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe make the 2023 conflict the most serious outbreak of fighting in the Israel-Palestine arena for decades. The scale of the Hamas attack on Israel and the killing of civilians on October 7 has fundamentally altered the discourse in Israel vis-à-vis Palestinian issues in ways that likely will last for years to come. Concerns have arisen at the prospect of a mass displacement of Palestinians from Gaza into Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and of a significant increase in violence against communities in the occupied West Bank. Above all, the war on Gaza has tested to the limit the ‘outside-in’ approach to Arab normalization with Israel that lay at the heart of the Abraham Accords of 2020 and the Biden administration’s pursuit of a Saudi Arabian-Israeli deal.
While the conflict has been contained primarily to the occupied Palestinian territories and to tactical skirmishing along the Israel-Lebanon border—and has not (thus far) taken on a regional dimension—the war already has had an impact on wider relationships such as those between the Gulf states and Israel. There is not, and may never have truly been, a single ‘Gulf-wide’ position on Israel (or Palestine for that matter). Instead, the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states straddle a spectrum of positions toward Israel from no ties (Kuwait) to pragmatic coexistence (Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) to full normalization (Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates). Initial statements by Gulf governments in response to the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel echoed these positions, as the UAE and Bahrain condemned Hamas for the eruption in violence while the other four states, including Saudi Arabia, placed greater focus on the Israeli occupation as a contributory factor.
Tracking GCC States’ Positions
The positions of the GCC states since the October 7 Hamas attack have evolved according to developments on the ground. Country positions have hardened as the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip intensified into a second month and initial variations in tone have gradually aligned in favor of support for a ceasefire. A rough division of labor also has emerged as leaders in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have assumed roles consistent with each country’s accumulation and projection of diplomatic capital. Thus, the Saudis have drawn on their convening power in the Arab and Islamic worlds, the UAE has worked through its presence as a non-voting member on the United Nations Security Council, and Qatar has concentrated on mediation with Hamas. The other three states—Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman—have lower profile positions, albeit all officials across the Gulf must balance political stances with high levels of public anger over the situation in Gaza.
A rough division of labor also has emerged as leaders in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar have assumed roles consistent with each country’s accumulation and projection of diplomatic capital.
To the extent that any reaction to October 7 was a surprise, it was that the Saudi leadership took and maintained a line that was harder and more critical of Israel than external observers (and advocates) of Saudi Arabian-Israeli normalization prospects may have expected. October 7 was, after all, less than three weeks after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Fox News interview in which he said that “every day, we get closer” to what he asserted would be “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.” The fact that the issue in the US-brokered dialogue which remained unresolved was the level of Palestinian concessions (and involvement) was somewhat overlooked in the coverage of MBS’s remarks. In the aftermath of October 7, the Saudi leadership sought to lead a collective Arab and Islamic response by organizing an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) states in Jeddah on October 18 and a joint Arab League-OIC summit in Riyadh on November 11, albeit with limited results.
Splits within the Arab League and among OIC states (which explained why the two separate summits initially planned were combined into one) highlighted the lack of regionwide consensus on how far to go in backing away from Israel and imposing retaliatory measures. Whatever their intra-regional differences over normalization, none of the Gulf states formed part of the ‘radical’ camp at the summit, composed of Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Algeria, or have approached the level of statements from Libyan and Turkish leaders. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE have embraced the demands for tougher action, even as officials have adopted harder language in their criticism of Israeli actions, and issues such as aid for reconstruction and recovery or participation in any post-conflict arrangements in Gaza have yet to be worked out in detail.
Whatever their intra-regional differences over normalization, none of the Gulf states formed part of the ‘radical’ camp at the summit, composed of Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Algeria, or have approached the level of statements from Libyan and Turkish leaders.
The UAE has convening power of a different sort by virtue of the country’s presence on the Security Council, which comes to an end on December 31. As holder of the ‘Arab seat,’ it has fallen on Emirati diplomats to bridge regional and international responses to a series of major developments that have overshadowed their two-year stint at the United Nations, which began with Houthi missile and drone strikes on Abu Dhabi in early 2022 and continued with the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and its fallout. Israeli officials provided intelligence support to the UAE in the aftermath of the Houthi attacks, in contrast to the anger Emirati leaders showed at what they felt to be a lackluster and delayed American response. Concern at the perceived US disengagement from the Middle East and a desire to diversify and expand security and defense (as well as political and economic) partnerships, explain why officials in the UAE have, so far, maintained public support for the Abraham Accords and the longer-term relationship with Israel.
Qatari officials have found themselves in a markedly different position, not to say the eye of a storm of media interest, as Doha has become the heart of diplomatic negotiations to secure the release of the more than 200 hostages taken by Hamas on October 7. Article 7 of Qatar’s 2003 constitution puts ‘the settlement of international disputes’ at the heart of the state’s foreign policy, and for two decades Qatari officials have performed the role of intermediaries connecting parties that cannot or will not engage directly. Qatar’s role was central in the latest ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas according to which Israeli and Palestinian prisoners will be freed and a four-day truce will come into effect. Qatar’s mediation was prominent in its response to the 50-day Israeli war on Gaza in summer 2014 when Qatari diplomats engaged extensively with US, Turkish, and Hamas officials during the conflict. A delegation of Hamas political leaders has been based in Doha, with US approval, since 2012, when they relocated from Damascus in the early stages of the Syrian civil war. Their presence in Doha has been the subject of intensive rounds of Qatari meetings with US and Israeli officials and backchannels with Hamas.
Challenges to a GCC Role
Multiple challenges face the Gulf States as their engagement with Gaza moves forward. Political leaders may be reticent to break publicly with Israel at the highest level but they must contend with enraged publics and a landscape in which terms such as ‘genocide’ are increasingly used to describe Israeli actions. In Bahrain, the elected lower chamber of parliament issued a statement that the kingdom had cut economic ties with Israel, which would have amounted to the first country withdrawal from the Abraham Accords signed in 2020. Although the statement appears to have been walked back later, it was an indication of the depth of anger which leaders now have to balance as they consider next steps, especially in Bahrain with its far livelier and more contested domestic political arena compared to the UAE.
Political leaders may be reticent to break publicly with Israel at the highest level but they must contend with enraged publics and a landscape in which terms such as ‘genocide’ are increasingly used to describe Israeli actions.
Anger and deep dismay at the perceived double standards of Western responses to Israel and Ukraine has also been evident in statements by public figures in countries with less active (or vocal) parliaments. Former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to the United States Turki al-Faisal used an address in Houston in October to criticize Israel as well as Hamas, and the Manama Dialogue in November to declare pointedly that the Gaza war had exposed “the hypocrisy and double standard of those claiming to be the guardians of what they call the rules-based international order.” In Qatar, the Minister of State for International Cooperation, Lolwah Alkhater, took to X (formerly Twitter) to ask a US audience, rhetorically, “How do you think we should feel right now as we see your reaction to #Gaza_Genocide? Where did your humanity go? Principles? Women’s rights?” Statements from Oman, from officials and public figures alike, have also displayed levels of outrage significant inasmuch as they depart from the normally measured Omani preference for conducting regional diplomacy.
The fact that there is unlikely to be any going back to the status quo ante, as it existed on October 6, presents a separate set of issues for normalizers and non-normalizers in the Gulf. No longer can Emirati or Bahraini (or Moroccan for that matter) officials maintain any pretense that the decision to recognize Israel without any meaningful progress on Palestinian issues has made the region more secure or stable. Saudi officials may have announced a pause in their own dialogue about normalization but the fact that they have left the door open for them to resume gives the kingdom potential leverage if and when they do. Whether an updated version of the Arab Peace Initiative unveiled by the Saudis in 2002 is presented, or more specific and actionable steps toward a viable two-state reality are proposed, may become clear in the coming months. What has become abundantly clear is that October 7 and its aftermath have shown that Arab-Israeli integration could not sustainably be decoupled from the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Questions will also be raised about the future of Hamas, not only as any type of rational actor—which the group has likely squandered for the foreseeable future in Israeli, US, and other Western eyes—but also in relation to its political bureau’s location in Doha. Evidence from other conflicts, notably Northern Ireland in the 1990s, points to the utility of maintaining channels of communication to political wings of otherwise armed non-state movements. Dialogue with Hamas representatives in Doha over the release of hostages would not be possible were the group to return to Syria or relocate to a state such as Iran. What happens next to the Hamas political leadership will be one of the many ‘day-after’ issues for consideration, especially if it is determined that the figures in Doha have been outflanked by harder-line militants in Gaza. A broadly similar dynamic unfolded in Afghanistan after the fall of Kabul in 2021 when it became clear that the Taliban representatives who had been based in Doha did not wield influence over the movement at home.
The longer-term impact of the war in Gaza, and the disquiet in regional capitals over the Biden White House position, may be to accelerate the multipolarity of international relationships in the Gulf and the broader Middle East.
The longer-term impact of the war in Gaza, and the disquiet in regional capitals over the Biden White House position, may be to accelerate the multipolarity of international relationships in the Gulf and the broader Middle East. The Saudi Foreign Minister joined his counterparts from Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and Indonesia, as well as the head of the OIC, in a meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Beijing on November 20. Although the visit to China was only a part of a tour that includes other countries, it signaled a willingness to involve others in discussions of great concern to the United States. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also received invitations to attend a virtual summit of BRICS leaders on November 21 in advance of affiliating with the larger BRICS+ grouping in 2024.
While it is too early to tell whether greater participation in such multilateral initiatives will yield outcomes of substance (rather than signaling), the attempts to achieve a ‘force multiplier’ effect by augmenting the diplomatic weight of GCC states with major non-Western partners is something to watch. On the other hand, the GCC states’ willingness to broaden the circle of influencers in the global arena beyond their traditional affiliation with the United States may be an indication of an attempt to urge the American administration to be a more honest broker of peace in the Middle East.