Gulf Arab States Avoid Iran-Israel Tensions

Years of shadow conflict between Israel and Iran, which included targeted assassinations as well as cyberattacks, gave way in April to direct confrontation and left the Middle East on the brink of a broader regional conflict. This cycle of violence that began with the Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy compound on April 1 and continued with Iran’s large-scale missile and drone strikes against Israel on April 13 appears to be over, at least for this round. An early-morning breaching of Iran’s air defenses around Isfahan on April 19 was limited in scope, caused no casualties, and appeared to be designed to bring the tit-for-tat attacks to a close. While the strikes may have ended, they represented a significant escalation in the skirmishing between the two countries, and illustrated how the region remains a tinder box, six months into the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza that began after the horrific events of October 7, 2023.

For the Gulf Arab states, which have called for dialogue and diplomacy to prevent a regionalization of the war in Gaza, a full-blown conflict between Israel and Iran would place them firmly in the crossfire. Any such outcome would be a worst-case scenario that leaders in the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries have spent years seeking to avoid, as their defense and security ties with the United States and—in the case of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates—with Israel, would leave them vulnerable to direct and indirect blowback. After navigating their own decade of geopolitical rivalries in the 2010s, preference in the Gulf has shifted toward rapprochement and de-escalation of tensions that are now endangered by the not-so distant drumbeats of war.

Wishful Thinking of Alternative Schemes

In the weeks and months prior to October 7, policymakers in several of the Gulf states have focused their attention on regional initiatives of economic connectivity, such as the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) that was announced at the G-20 Summit in New Delhi last September. IMEC would have connected India and the UAE to Israel and Europe via Saudi Arabia and Jordan and was another obvious effort by the Biden administration to align regional partnerships around a new geo-economic center of gravity. The synchronous attempts to broker a normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel was pitched in much the same vein as the White House sought to counter China’s influence in the region and beyond.

Six months on, the war in Gaza has upended many of the assumptions that had appeared to gain traction among decision-makers in the United States, Israel, and certain quarters of the Gulf itself. The notion implicit in the Abraham Accords that an ‘outside-in’ approach to peacemaking was viable has been greatly undermined by the longest and deadliest Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1948-49. American officials, notably Brett McGurk, Biden’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, continue to hold a quixotic belief in the imminence of a Saudi-Israeli deal that calls into question their reading of regional dynamics. This was evident in the aftermath of the Iranian missile-and-drone attack on Israel on April 13, when much was made of the sharing of intelligence and Arab states’ participation in measures to intercept the strikes, acts that, for Jordan and the Gulf states, could be interpreted as defensive in nature rather than full displays of support for Israel.

No Appetite for Escalation

For the Gulf states, the series of strikes between Israel and Iran was the moment of highest risk that the October 7 war could spread and engulf the wider region, moving far beyond the spiraling violence against Palestinians in the West Bank and along increasingly deep segments of the Israeli-Lebanon border area. Oman and Qatar have engaged in diplomacy and mediation to maintain channels of communication between Iran and the United States, and between Israel and Hamas, respectively, in at-times thankless bids to ensure that the conflict does not expand further and that the search for a ceasefire in Gaza remains on the table. For their part, senior officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have called for restraint and have pointedly continued to engage with their counterparts in Iran over shared interests in regional security. Only Kuwait, where attention remains focused on domestic politics, and Bahrain, whose leaders have to tread a fine line in policymaking, have been less directly or visibly engaged in regional dynamics in recent months.

None of the Gulf states have an interest in provoking or inflaming regional tensions.

None of the Gulf states have an interest in provoking or inflaming regional tensions. The cautious reconciliation with Iran has proven more durable and resilient than many had predicted when China brokered the March 2023 Iran-Saudi agreement. Bahrain remains the sole holdout among the Gulf States that has not fully repaired ties with Iran. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi became the first Iranian head of state to visit Saudi Arabia in more than a decade when he participated in an Organization of Islamic Conference summit in Riyadh one month after October 7. The presence in Tehran and Riyadh of fully-functioning embassies, and regular meetings of Iranian and Gulf states’ officials, has been a rare success story for advocates of diplomacy in an otherwise difficult year. Gulf-Iran relations have thus survived the stress test of the regional dimensions of the war in Gaza.

Responses in Gulf capitals to the security situation in Yemen and the Red Sea demonstrate how positions have evolved and moved away from the dynamics that characterized the period between 2015, when a Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition intervened militarily in Yemen, and 2022, when the United Nations negotiated a truce in the country. Houthi attacks on international shipping, on the pretext of responding to Israel’s assault on Gaza, have disrupted economic and energy flows by effectively threatening a key world trade route through the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Suez Canal. It is noticeable, however, that the Houthis have focused on maritime targets in the Red Sea rather than on civilian and infrastructure targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Neither Riyadh nor Abu Dhabi wish to see renewed clashes with the Houthis at a time when the temporary ceasefire first announced in April 2022 has largely held and the near-decade-long fighting in Yemen appears finally to be winding down.

Only Bahrain has chosen to participate in a US-led naval task force (Operation Prosperity Guardian) that was formed in December 2023 to respond to the mounting Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea, and Manama’s involvement has been more administrative than operational. None of the other five GCC states has been willing to be publicly connected to the operation, just as the Gulf states have not wished to be associated with the US and British retaliatory strikes against the Houthis which began in January 2024. Notably, the operations have been launched from American carrier groups and naval ships in the Red Sea and British bases in Cyprus, rather than the network of defense installations across the Gulf countries, where officials have distanced themselves from the American-British campaign in Yemen. This also produced the somewhat surreal spectacle of Saudi officials urging the United States to exercise restraint after years of American criticism, including from Biden himself, over Saudi conduct of military operations in Yemen since 2015.

Walking a Tightrope

Gulf leaders are therefore walking a tightrope in maintaining the de-escalatory momentum with Iran, on the one hand, and minimizing the potential for an Israeli regional escalation, on the other. Just as the Biden administration appears caught in Gaza between warring protagonists with little evident interest in engaging with each other politically, so too are the Gulf states struggling to find a workable balance in regional relationships and preventing them from clashing in the most destabilizing manner possible. A challenge both for Biden and for the Gulf states is that they only have limited leverage to affect the calculus of decisions which are and will remain consequential. For Biden, the political damage may do irreparable harm to his chances of re-election in November. For the Gulf states, a war between Israel and Iran would place them literally and figuratively in the firing line and likely shatter attempts by officials to present the region as a safe place to live, work, and do business, just as major economic projects take center stage.

A war between Israel and Iran would jeopardize major economic projects that are about to take center stage in the Gulf.

De-risking has become the mantra in the Gulf states, and for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the progress on the giga-projects associated with Vision 2030 is a priority that any regional escalation jeopardizes. In their different ways, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar are all focusing on new development projects that cement and build upon their positioning as key hubs in the post-COVID-19 global economy. An immediate priority for officials is likely a close scrutiny of the performance of Israeli (and Jordanian) air defenses against the barrage of Iranian drones and ballistic and cruise missiles on April 13, in order to assess lessons learned for their own defense systems. There may also be consideration of the fact that by telegraphing the impending assault on Israel hours in advance, Iranian officials eschewed the type of surprise attacks that were launched at energy and maritime targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE in 2019. It was the shock of those attacks, especially the missile and drone strike against Saudi oil facilities and the lack of an overt American response, that more than anything shifted risk calculations in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.

It is too early to tell if the events of April 1-19 represent a decisive new phase in the Israel-Hamas war or a testing of the limits of escalatory dynamics. A previous cycle of violence— encompassing the US killing of Iran’s Quds Force Commander General Qassim Soleimani in Baghdad in January 2020, and Iran’s 2022 ballistic missile strikes on a base in Iraq housing American forces—ultimately did not lead to wider war, as many feared at the time. In 2020, senior officials in Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among the most vocal in calling for de-escalation, and the view in April 2024 may be that the region has managed to avoid a second potential conflagration. However, such periodic confrontations between determined regional adversaries amount to a high-risk game of geopolitical Russian roulette, and both Iran and Israel may draw conclusions from the latest round of strikes that make a future conflict more likely and only a matter of time. A sword of Damocles hanging over the region is not an ideal position to be in, but leaders in Gulf capitals do not lack agency. They can work backchannels and engage as intermediaries to reduce the risk of miscalculations or misunderstanding going forward while maintaining the push for a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Mohasseyn