Where Can Palestinian Leaders Turn as Gulf Arabs Turn Away?

The recent normalization agreements between the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Israel have sent shock waves throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds and have been panned by Palestinian leaders as a betrayal of Palestinians. The Donald Trump Administration is aggressively seeking more normalization agreements by other Arab countries and is pressuring Sudan and courting Saudi Arabia. It is not inconceivable that more announcements will follow ahead of the American election in November. Even after the election and regardless of the result, the Emirati and Bahraini agreements have broken a taboo that might well lead others to follow in their footsteps.

Most recently, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, a former ambassador to the United States, launched a public broadside against the Palestinian leadership in a widely disseminated multi-part interview. Bandar continues to play a leading role in Saudi Arabia’s national security apparatus and is well connected regionally and internationally, which makes his attacks extremely impactful and consequential. His comments and criticism thus beg the question: as Gulf regimes turn away from the Palestinians, where do Palestinian leaders turn next?

Why the Gulf Matters for Palestinian Leaders

While the Palestinian leadership has sought to maintain good relations across the Arab and Muslim worlds, the role of the Gulf has been particularly important. There are three important ways in which the relationship with Gulf Arab countries has been particularly important for the Palestinian leadership.

The first is the emphasis on consensus in the League of Arab States. It is important to keep in mind that the League, with its support of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) early on, granted the organization a degree of international legitimacy by recognizing it as “the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.” This is one of the reasons why the diatribe of Saudi Arabia’s Bandar is particularly dangerous for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders around him. Under Riyadh’s influence, the Arab League could bring significant pressure to bear on the PLO to change its position on peace with Israel, either partially or entirely.

Under Riyadh’s influence, the Arab League could bring significant pressure to bear on the PLO to change its position on peace with Israel, either partially or entirely.

The Gulf countries, and in particular Saudi Arabia, play a crucial role in bringing the Arab consensus together. In recent decades, especially as the influence of Egypt waned in the Arab world and after it signed a separate peace treaty with Israel in 1979, the center of gravity in the Arab world began to shift. After the first war to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in 1991 and then the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, exercised greater sway in the Arab League than they previously had. Finally, after the Arab Spring began in 2011, which was suppressed in Bahrain and Oman while it bypassed other countries, the Gulf states emerged as the Arab world’s most consistent and stable. Instability in other Arab countries was often compensated with financial support from Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which allowed these rich benefactors to extend further levers of influence across the region. Without the Gulf, and especially Saudi Arabia, an Arab League consensus would not exist nor would the organization’s position be worth very much internationally.

The second reason the Gulf was so important for Palestinian leaders is financial backing. Historically, this support has come from three main sources: Gulf regimes, Gulf citizens, and Palestinians who have been gainfully employed in Gulf countries. This support has ebbed and flowed over the years but has always been crucial for the PLO and its successor Palestinian Authority (PA), especially in recent years as western aid waned, starting in the years of the Barack Obama Administration. As Zaha Hassan notes in a recent analysis on this topic:

The kingdom is the PA’s biggest funder, providing $20 million per month since 2013. Saudi money also … allows for the continued operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the UN body providing essential services to Palestinian refugees in the region. With U.S. withdrawal of funding impacting one-third of the UNRWA’s total budget, Saudi Arabia became the agency’s third-largest donor, providing $160 million in support in 2018. According to the Saudi ambassador to the UN, over a period of two decades, the kingdom has provided Palestinians with $6 billion in humanitarian relief and development assistance and an additional $1 billion for Palestinian refugees.

Third, and of high significance, the Gulf countries mattered for the Palestinians in part because of their strong relationships with Washington. Despite differences between some Gulf countries in their approaches to various issues, almost all have maintained good relations with the United States and have been steadfast American allies and clients. For Palestinian leaders, these bilateral connections served to help convey the Palestinian message to Washington even in moments when the Palestinian relationship with Washington was at a nadir, as is the case during the Trump Administration.

For these three key reasons, the standing of Gulf countries and the maintenance of good relations with them have been of great import to Palestinian leaders. The shifts that are taking place now, though, are testing those links in unprecedented ways.

The Gulf is Changing

Although the idea that the Gulf is changing is perhaps one of the most clichéd themes in Washington-based political analysis, there is actually some truth to it. While some have argued that the region is warming to Israel and prepared to turn away from the Palestinians, the evidence of consistent public opinion indicates otherwise. Numbers from the most recent Arab Opinion Index, the most extensive survey in the Arab world, show that respondents overwhelmingly oppose their countries normalizing with Israel without a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. Further, respondents continue to strongly believe that the Palestinian issue is one that concerns all Arabs. These results hold true even in the Gulf countries that were surveyed (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar).

Numbers from the most recent Arab Opinion Index, the most extensive survey in the Arab world, show that respondents overwhelmingly oppose their countries normalizing with Israel without a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement.

What is changing, however, are regime interests and attitudes, even if the Arab publics are not shifting as dramatically. Still, regime-driven messaging over time, especially in environments without independent media, is likely to have an impact on public opinion. More important than public attitudes, however, is regime threat perception; indeed, for certain Gulf regimes that fret about their internal legitimacy and security, this concern is paramount. For these reasons, and especially after the Arab Spring, Gulf countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia have sharpened their focus on Iran and on dissident movements in the Arab world. They do not see Israel as a threat to regime security; rather, they see it as an asset in that regard, in part because it can serve as a partner in repression and also because of its strong relationship with Washington.

In addition to the changes in Gulf perceptions of threats, other important changes in leadership are taking place. Several monarchical regimes have gone through (or are going through) transitions in leadership that effectively pass power to the next generation. This year brought the deaths of the sultan of Oman and the emir of Kuwait at the ages of 79 and 91, respectively.

Each of these leaders played important and, at crucial moments, unifying diplomatic roles in the Gulf. In Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, crown princes a generation or more younger than their respective monarchs are increasingly acting as de facto rulers. This generational turnover in leadership is a turn away from an era when their predecessors came into political consciousness, a time in which the 1948 and 1967 wars were defining moments shaping Arab politics. Mahmoud Abbas, who was forced to flee his home in 1948, turns 85 next month and he will soon find himself as the elder statesman at the Arab League table. Given the changing approach of some Gulf regimes and the extent of their influence across the Arab world, Abbas might find his seat at the table increasingly uncomfortable.

Where to Turn if the Gulf Turns Its Back?

If the center of gravity in the Gulf continues to shift away from the Palestinian leadership—a development that would have implications across the Gulf region, the larger Arab world, and at the Arab League—where, if at all, should Palestinian leaders turn in response? There are several options, each with its advantages and disadvantages.

Stay Put. One response would be to continue business as usual and press forward with the same approach—of hoping to keep what remains of the Arab consensus—as a form of leverage vis-à-vis Israel. There are few if any advantages to this path; it would be a familiar one that would require no significant strategic shift. The disadvantages are significant, however. There is little denying how much leverage the approach has lost after more Arab states normalized with Israel. Moreover, whatever leverage it had, it brought few dividends anyway. The approach required wholesale reevaluation before this year’s remarkable shifts. Staying put at this point would simply signal total resignation.

Turn to International Institutions. Another option would be to redouble efforts to work through international institutions to hold Israel accountable for its unjust policies or to pursue statehood (or some combination of both). The International Criminal Court (ICC) is one of several international institutions the Palestinian leadership can work through. But while a judgment at the ICC would be significant for historical and moral reasons, it is unlikely to break the political deadlock, at least not in the short term. Advancing initiatives at other international institutions would also require a coordinated push by international allies, and traditionally members of the Arab League would have been among them. While the Palestinians will certainly be able to continue to count on some international partners to help them advance actions through international institutions, the moves toward normalization will have an impact there as well. The relationships Israel is developing with Arab countries like the UAE and Bahrain are new, and the extent of cooperation at the international diplomatic level is yet to be seen—but it is hard to imagine how it could work in the Palestinians’ favor.

While the Palestinians will certainly be able to continue to count on some international partners to help them advance actions through international institutions, the moves toward normalization will have an impact there as well.

Turn toward a Different Axis. Palestinian leaders can respond to this shift in the Gulf by turning toward a different axis, specifically that of Turkey, Iran, and Qatar. While making a demonstrative pivot in this direction might be more likely today, and while the steps taken by the UAE to normalize with Israel may have contributed to it, such a shift would come with tremendous risks for the Palestinians. First, it would reinforce the notion that the support for the Palestinian cause is a function of regional geopolitical rivalries, and this is a very dangerous idea for Palestinians as these alliances can shift over time and quickly leave them hanging out to dry.

Second, it would stress the growing gap between the Palestinian leadership and the Gulf countries that have normalized (or welcomed normalization) with Israel. Third, it would further complicate the Palestinian relationship with Washington and such a vulnerability would surely be exploited by the Israelis as well. Finally, by turning toward non-Arab powers in the region like Turkey and Iran, the Palestinians would create unnecessary vulnerabilities for their own legitimacy in Arab eyes, making them more susceptible to Arab-backed regime change initiatives. In this hyper-factionalized moment in the region, Palestinian leaders would do best to aim to maintain good relations with all Arab and Muslim states, even if the efforts are not fully reciprocated.

Turn Inward. Palestinian leaders could choose to turn inward and focus instead on rebuilding institutions that would strengthen legitimacy and representation. While such a change in orientation would not provide immediate answers for how to respond to changes on a diplomatic level, it could well be the best use of the leadership’s time and energy in this particular political moment when few other avenues are available to it. Furthermore, given the way in which some of the language from Gulf states points the finger at Palestinian leaders for having failed the cause, one would be right to be wary of efforts aimed at reshaping the Palestinian leadership from the outside. In this moment, the most important task for Palestinian leaders is not at the Arab League or in a foreign capital but rather at home, by ensuring that the Palestinian people themselves have an opportunity to direct their own struggle.