The unexpected Hamas attack on Israel in early October 2023 put many Arab states in a difficult situation. It should be recalled that a number of states signed the Abrahamic agreements on pacification with the Israelis in 2020, while the remaining states maintained a tough course towards the Jewish state. Thus, this process is most visible within the Gulf Cooperation Council of Arab States (GCC). The Arabian monarchies are divided. Kuwait, Oman and Qatar accused the Israeli authorities of aggression and violence. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which normalised relations with Israel in accordance with the Abraham Accords of 2020, took a more cautious stance.
Saudi Arabia finds itself in the most difficult position. The fact is that a number of Arab states see hidden reasons behind the Hamas attack, including blocking attempts to bring the KSA and Israel closer together and then move towards the “normalisation” of relations. In order to avoid image losses and dispel the doubts of its countrymen, Riyadh demonstrated the most vivid reaction to the escalation of the conflict by declaratively suspending any movement towards Tel Aviv.
In telephone conversations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the King of Jordan and the President of Egypt, the Saudi Crown Prince expressed solidarity with the Palestinians and his desire to contain the violence. In particular, according to official Saudi authorities, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud told the Palestinian leader that “the Kingdom is making every possible effort to communicate with all international and regional parties in order to stop the ongoing escalation and prevent its expansion in the region.” The same agreement was reached between the Saudi prince and Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. During the phone call, the two sides “agreed on the need to intensify international and regional efforts to stop the escalation in and around Gaza and prevent its expansion in the region.”
This layering of fiery statements calling for “immediate de-escalation”, launched by the KSA on 7 October itself and echoing warnings of the consequences of “continued occupation and deprivation of Palestinian legitimate rights, as well as repeated systematic provocations against their holy sites” saved the Saudis from enormous political damage. The kingdom’s harsh rhetoric was echoed by Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, declaring their support for the establishment of “an independent [Palestinian] state in accordance with the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.” Qatar’s foreign ministry on 7 October “placed all responsibility on Israel” for the escalation and called on the international community to “compel Israel to stop its blatant violations”. And Kuwait said the violence was “the result of the blatant violations and attacks by the [Israeli] occupation” against Palestinians. Kuwait’s emir also expressed his “unwavering and principled” solidarity with the Palestinian people.
However, as discussed above, the Gulf has different approaches to the same issue. The United Arab Emirates clearly distinguishes between trade and politics. This was confirmed by the country’s trade minister, Thani al-Zeyoudi, when asked whether the conflict between Israel and Hamas would affect economic agreements.
Formally maintaining solidarity with the Palestinian people, the UAE became the first Gulf country to normalise relations with Israel in 2020. This decision was dictated solely by the state’s economic interests. The government’s priority is not to maintain a single political line with Arab states, but to develop global trade and maintain sustainable economic ties with all countries of the world, in order to turn the Emirates into a global financial and trade centre of attraction for foreign investors and international companies.
On this basis, Abu Dhabi on 7 October expressed concern over the “escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians” and condolences to “all the victims”. And Bahraini authorities warned that “continued fighting” between “Palestinian factions and Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip” would have “negative consequences for the security and stability of the entire region.” The relatively neutral stance taken by Bahrain and the UAE probably reflects a stance related to normalising relations with Israel.
They are counterbalanced by Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, whose criticism of Israel reflects a rejection of normalisation in the absence of a solution to the Palestinian issue, while rejecting any ties with Tel Aviv. Saudi Arabia stands apart as the mediator between the two Gulf camps. The kingdom, not without US influence, decides first and foremost to realise its own geopolitical interests through a deal with Israel. In exchange for establishing official ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia demanded from Washington a mutual defence agreement modelled on NATO with the US, assistance in establishing a nuclear programme on Saudi soil and the supply of modern American weapons. Riyadh also insisted on “concessions” related to the Palestinian cause.
Meanwhile, officials close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have denied receiving any conditions from Saudi Arabia to normalise relations with the Kingdom. However, some Israeli security officials have spoken out against any US-backed Saudi nuclear programme that could result from a normalisation agreement.
Thus, the escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has exposed the rift within the GCC, as well as intensified the competition between the opposing centres of power represented by Abu Dhabi and Riyadh. The UAE and Bahrain are likely to continue to distance themselves from issues related to the Middle East settlement, while formally maintaining solidarity with the Palestinian people. On the other side are Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, which, following the example of the KSA, will continue to criticise Israel. Being the majority in the GCC, they can set the tone for the whole organisation, which will clearly not be to the advantage of the Emirates, which, thanks to the economic recovery, are now considered the leaders of the association.
For Saudi Arabia, the fighting in Gaza is both a challenge and an opportunity. The security of the entire region depends on the Crown Prince’s future strategy. Thus, getting closer to Israel to get what he wants from Washington, Mohammed bin Salman, with a high degree of probability, can put other Arab countries at risk and provoke a conflict with Hamas. At the same time, Riyadh is able to ensure security in the entire region by setting the necessary vector and smoothing out the contradictions in the current ambiguities between the leaders of the Arabian monarchies.
Madi Khalis MAALOUF, political observer, especially for online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”