Gaza and the Gulf States

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy

 

The horrific attack on Israel by Hamas militants and other Palestinian fighters on October 7, 2023, and the months-long Israeli war on Gaza that followed, has presented a number of challenges to both policymakers and scholars of the Gulf States. Three challenges in particular stand out: the durability of the Abraham Accords and the fate of the momentum that seemingly had been building for the further normalization of ties between Israel and Arab states; the notion that had taken root in some circles, especially in Washington, D.C., that the Palestinian issue was no longer central to a region riven by different fault-lines in contemporary geopolitics; and whether the stresses in the international rules-based order exposed by responses to the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 have been blown wide open by the war on Gaza in ways that accelerate a likely rebalancing in Gulf States’ foreign policies.

First, the war on Gaza has reshaped the conversation about the prospects for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In the runup to October 7, a succession of curated leaks to U.S. media outlets laid out the contours of a three-way dialogue involving American, Saudi, and Israeli officials in pursuit of a U.S.-brokered deal to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Reports of negotiations over a defense treaty for Saudi Arabia and closer cooperation on energy prices and civilian nuclear power formed the backdrop to Mohammed bin Salman’s highly anticipated interview with Fox News on September 20.  The Saudi Crown Prince used his first English-language television interview to state that “every day, we get closer” to a breakthrough that he asserted would be “the biggest historical deal since the end of the Cold War.”[1]

Mohammed bin Salman balanced his prediction about a deal with Israel with a statement that ‘for us, the Palestinian issue is very important,’ and indicated that the details of an agreement remained elusive. On October 4, just three days before the Hamas attacks, an op-ed in Arab News by Faisal Abbas, the paper’s editor-in-chief, suggested that for the past two years, a team within the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs had been examining ‘every detail imaginable’ to ‘boost the Palestinian economy through exports to Israel and other neighbors,’ but did not elaborate on specific policy proposals.[2] Both the Saudi and the U.S. reports lacked any suggestion that the Palestinians themselves were part of the negotiating process, other than as an element in a broader package that was being put together without their direct participation.

Saudi-Israeli normalization would have built upon the Abraham Accords signed in 2020 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. President Trump took credit for the accords, which represented the outcome of an unconventional and transactional approach to policymaking, and was one of the few Trump-era policies that the Biden White House was committed to keeping. Support for the Abraham Accords appeared to seal the ‘outside-in’ approach that delinked recognition of Israel from a deal for Palestine and marked a shift away from the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. A prioritization of economic over political issues was a thread that linked the Trump and Biden approaches and was evident in the September 2023 announcement of IMEC, an India-Middle East Europe Economic Corridor. Launched at the G-20 Summit in New Delhi by the U.S., European governments, and Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and India, the plan was quickly overtaken by developments in Israel and Gaza just four weeks later.

IMEC and the dialogue with Saudi Arabia illustrated how, for members of the Biden administration, their approach to regional issues was conditioned by broader considerations of a perceived great power competition with China. After a decade of expanding economic and strategic ties between China and most Gulf states, senior administration officials seemed to sincerely believe that the U.S. could offer Mohammed bin Salman a set of concessions that would outdo anything the Chinese could put on the table, and thereby pull Saudi Arabia back into the U.S. orbit. IMEC was seen by many observers to be an attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative by developing alternative forms of connectivity. Both exposed a blind-spot in Beltway thinking in Washington, D.C., namely a tendency to see the initiatives through a zero-sum lens rather than as part of regional states’ balancing of competing interests and staying out of global rivalries.

Thus far, the Abraham Accords have survived the Israeli onslaught on Gaza. The UAE has insisted that the Accords are a strategic choice, and none of the countries which normalized with Israel has yet broken diplomatic ties, with the murky exception of Sudan’s vague and unimplemented declaration of support for the process in 2020. Saudi officials paused talks over a deal with Israel five days after October 7 but have left the door ajar for them to resume, potentially in 2025 once the Israeli war on Gaza has ceased and a new U.S. presidential administration is potentially in place. And yet, any eventual normalization agreement will need to feature Palestinian interests front and center and move beyond the premise of the Abraham Accords that a diplomatic and political relationship with Israel can be a sustainable alternative to addressing the roots of Palestinian dispossession and grievance. Moreover, any hope or expectation among Israeli officials that the Gulf States will take the lead on or finance the reconstruction of postwar Gaza has failed to gain traction in any of the six Gulf capitals. Nor, so far, has speculation that the UAE might push for the return to Gaza of Abu Dhabi-based Mohammed Dahlan as a ‘strongman’ alternative to President Mahmoud Abbas seemingly found any local support in Palestine.

Second, Gaza has shown that Palestine remains the central issue in the politics of the Middle East, however much officials in certain quarters believed it had been superseded by geopolitical changes in the 2010s that reshaped regional fault-lines and created new dynamics between Israel and Arab states. Particularly after the Arab uprisings in 2010-11 and amid rising frustration in Jerusalem, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi at U.S. policies toward the Middle East, a narrative took hold that they shared a common threat from Iran, political Islamism, and (more intangibly) perceived U.S. disinterest in the region. Concern with the Obama administration’s response to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 and willingness to work with the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi was followed by alarm at the secret U.S.-Iran negotiations in 2012-13 that expanded into the P5+1 negotiations with Iran in 2014-15. The exclusion of Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati officials from the negotiations for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) generated further connections among their security, defense, and intelligence officials.

The 2022 FIFA men’s World Cup in Qatar demonstrated how Palestine remained an issue with a mobilizing and ideational appeal like no other. When Arabs and Muslims from around the world gathered in Doha, displays of public support for Palestine and the Palestinian cause provided a constant and highly visible backdrop to the tournament. The sight of Morocco’s players and fans waving Palestinian flags on the pitch and inside the stadiums was especially symbolic, given that the Moroccan government was one of the four signatories to the Abraham Accords. Held nearly a year before the Hamas attacks and the Gaza War, the World Cup was a ‘bottom-up’ riposte to advocates of the top-down process of political normalization between governments, as well as an indication that Palestine retained potency among younger generations who had come of age long after the twentieth century era of Arab-Israeli wars.[3]

While political demonstrations over Gaza have been carefully handled by Gulf governments lest they become sites of wider protest, the buildup of public anger has been palpable and not something that leaderships could ignore or brush aside. Rallies for Gaza have been permitted to occur in Qatar and in Oman and have taken place more spontaneously in other Gulf States, and media coverage of the onslaught and statements made by governments and officials have hardened. In December 2023, Oman’s foreign minister, Badr Albusaidi, went so far as to tweet that “I deeply regret that the United States should sacrifice the lives of innocent civilians for the cause of Zionism. Long after we are gone the world will look back on today with shame.”[4] Given Omani officials’ traditional restraint in engaging with regional issues, the tone of Albusaidi’s comments made an impression on many observers, as did remarks by Lulwah Al Khater, Qatar’s Assistant Foreign Minister, which drew attention to international double-standards.[5]

Finally, the sense of a different standard applied to Russian actions in Ukraine and Israeli actions in Gaza has generated anger across the Arab world and indeed much of the ‘Global South.’ Even prior to October 7, it had become evident that many in the non-Western world simply did not buy into the campaign to isolate the Russian leadership through sanctions against President Putin and the oligarchical regime. Russian businesspeople and capital relocated from Europe to the Gulf as Dubai, in particular, became a safe haven, while Saudi and Russian officials worked closely together within the OPEC+ framework to sustain oil revenues at a high level, despite repeated entreaties by U.S. and European officials to do otherwise. In 2023, a former Qatari Minister of Energy was appointed Chairman of the Board of Rosneft in another indication that none of the Gulf States – even those, like Qatar, which have moved closer to the U.S. in recent years – were willing to pick sides in a dispute they felt did not directly concern them.[6]

Over the past decade, and partly in response to their concerns about U.S. decision-making across multiple presidencies, Saudi and Emirati leaders moved toward a foreign policy that carried echoes of the non-aligned movement and was a shift away from their stance during the Cold War in the twentieth century. Such an evolution is not in itself a surprise, as all the Gulf States were engaged in the process of state formation and oriented firmly toward a conservative status quothat marked them as distinct from most countries in the region and in the postcolonial world, and impeded ties with the Soviet Union and China. By contrast, the twenty-first century world of multiple centers of polarity is as different as the Gulf States’ positioning within it, and a rebalancing within the global order has been underway since at least 2008 and reactions in the Gulf to the global financial crisis and its aftermath.

Policy responses to Gaza have widened the divergence between the Gulf States and ‘the west’ writ large. The decade of geopolitical confrontations, between the Gulf States and Iran, deep intra-Gulf rifts, and across the broader region in Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and Libya, which marked the 2010s produced no clear winners and gave way after the pandemic to a pragmatic and at times uneasy rapprochement. Especially for Mohammed bin Salman, the need to ‘de-risk’ the region has assumed urgency as Vision 2030 and the deadline for delivering the giga-projects looms into view. The Saudi leadership is mindful of the optics that surrounded the Formula One Grand Prix in Jeddah in 2022 which took place with smoke billowing from a fuel depot near the racetrack struck by Houthi missiles fired from Yemen. For the (overly) ambitious targets to attract tens of millions of new residents and visitors to Saudi Arabia to be met, and mega-events such as Expo 2030 and the 2034 FIFA men’s World Cup to succeed, the Kingdom can ill-afford another bout of regional instability (much self-inflicted) as in the previous decade.

Gaza has thus seen multiple trends come together. The centrality of Palestine in regional politics has been restated and the limitations of the Abraham Accords exposed, especially the notion that inverting the sequencing of normalization could or would bring about a different and more sustainable policy outcome. The strains in the rules-based international order which opened up over the Russian war in Ukraine have been widened considerably by the Israeli actions in Gaza, and the threat of a regionalization of the conflict has highlighted the diverging priorities between an interest in escalation or a preference for de-escalation. Decisions such as the closure of the Texas A&M branch campus in Doha have also raised the possibility that regional states, especially Qatar, given its hosting of Hamas political figures and high-profile mediatory role in Gaza, may be drawn into the polarization and politicization of Israel-Palestine in the United States. These three streams have not yet led to a seismic break in US-Gulf relations, or an end to the normalization path with Israel, but they have introduced significant complications which seem unlikely to be quickly resolved – and which could grow much worse if the war is not quickly brought to an end.

[1] Nadeen Ebrahim, ‘Saudi Crown Prince Says Normalization Deal with Israel Gets ‘Closer’ Every Day,’ CNN, September 21, 2023. https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/21/middleeast/saudi-arabia-mbs-interview-fox-intl/index.html.

[2] Faisal Abbas, ‘But What About the Palestinian Cause?’, Arab News, October 4, 2023, https://www.arabnews.com/node/2385421.

[3] Feras Abu Helal, ‘Qatar World Cup 2022: Palestine 1, Israel 0,’ Middle East Eye, November 30, 2022, https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/qatar-world-cup-palestine-support-reject-israel.

[4] Badr Albusaidi on X, December 9, 2023, https://x.com/badralbusaidi/status/1733374636513964348?s=20.

[5] Lolwah Alkhater on X, January 5, 2024, https://x.com/Lolwah_Alkhater/status/1743317687206387996.

[6] ‘Dr. Mohammed bin Saleh Al Sada Elected Chairman of Rosneft,’ The Peninsula, July 3, 2023, https://thepeninsulaqatar.com/article/03/07/2023/dr-mohammed-bin-saleh-al-sada-elected-chairman-of-rosneft.