National interests and regional turmoil: The Gulf states’ view on Gaza and the Red Sea

The Gulf states have loudly condemned Israel’s offensive in Gaza. But beneath the rhetoric – and amid unfolding regional escalation – many Gulf capitals are hesitant to put their national interests at risk

A Qatari man is walking past the flags of the Gulf Cooperation Council at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha, Qatar, on December 3, 2023, two days prior to the start of the GCC leaders’ summit. (Photo by Noushad Thekkayil/NurPhoto)
A Qatari man is walking past the flags of the Gulf Cooperation Council at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha, Qatar, on December 3, 2023, two days prior to the start of the GCC leaders’ summit
Image by picture alliance / NurPhoto | Noushad Thekkayil
©

Since the outbreak of the war in Gaza, the Gulf states have collectively expressed strong criticism of Israel and its close ally, the United States, and called for an immediate ceasefire. Their stance gives a rare impression of unity and suggests that these regional middle powers could play a decisive role in finding a political solution to the conflict. But behind the public diplomacy, the Gulf states are divided on how to achieve a ceasefire and how Palestine should be governed after the war. They are also hesitant to risk their own national interests to launch the political initiatives required. And in recent weeks, the Gulf states’ attention has rapidly shifted from Gaza to the risk of confrontation in other regional theatres and including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and, most importantly, the Red Sea.

The Gulf states’ position on Israel has not always been so critical. In recent years, the Gulf capitals had gradually sidelined the Palestinian issue to allow for US-backed Arab-Israeli normalisation. But Israel’s offensive in Gaza has sparked an unprecedented wave of public mobilisation in the Gulf and brought the Palestinian cause back to the centre of Arab politics. In part, such public outcry pushed the Gulf states to take a strong diplomatic position against Israel, while making some wary of a mobilised population – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have strictly controlled protests and displays of Palestinian symbols, from flags to keffiyehs.

But behind the Gulf states’ calls for a ceasefire and strong condemnation of Israel and the US, there is a noticeable lack of initiative to even substantiate a ceasefire agreement, and most Gulf states find themselves in an extremely uneasy position. For the UAE and Bahrain, their inability to play a substantiative role in appeasing the conflict exposed their lack of leverage towards Tel Aviv on the Palestinian issue, in spite of their normalisation with Israel. And while Hamas’ popularity has exploded in the Arab street, the Gulf states would be happy to see Hamas militarily defeated and some of them, such as the UAE, openly describe it as a terrorist organisation. More importantly, despite strong rhetorical support for the Palestinian cause, no Gulf state seems ready to put at risks their national interests to pressure the warring sides into a ceasefire.

So far, Qatar has been the most active of the Gulf states. In November, Doha leveraged its hosting of Hamas’s political branch to lead negotiations for the release of hostages in exchange for a humanitarian pause. However, as a small state with limited diplomatic resources, Qatar may have reached the limits of what it can do as negotiations hit a wall in December. Qatar is also increasingly conscious of the bad press it is getting in the West for hosting Hamas’s political branch, despite the fact that the US had originally pushed for this hosting in the hope of retaining a reliable channel with Hamas. This context may lead Qatar to further scale back its activism and limit its effectiveness, even in a humanitarian capacity.

Saudi Arabia remains similarly hesitant to push for more ambitious political initiatives, despite being the Arab country with the most leverage over Israel and the US. Rather, the kingdom has treaded carefully, moving mostly at the level of high politics. In November, it led a delegation of Arab and Muslim countries to the capitals of the permanent security council members to gather support for a ceasefire. By doing so, Riyadh tried to reaffirm its role as a diplomatic leader of the Arab-Islamic world on the Palestinian cause, neutralising potential challenges from Turkey and Iran. It obtained however very little from these visits – including from China – and did not achieve any change in American positioning. During the Arab-Islamic meeting, Saudi Arabia even moderated more extremist anti-Israeli positions, including by making sure an oil embargo – raised by other countries – was off the table.

This is largely explained by the fact that Riyadh is balancing its defence of the Palestinian cause with the need to preserve its own national security interests and advance its economic and social reforms. In particular, Riyadh’s immediate focus has been preserving de-escalation with Iran. The kingdom fears that a widening conflict, including more direct clashes between Iran and the US, could force it to actively support the US without being able to count on US protection in the case of Iranian retaliation. The growing frictions in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq serve as a warning to Saudi Arabia in this regard. In response, Riyadh has accelerated its diplomacy with Tehran – hosting the first meeting between Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi – to try and prevent itself from getting sucked into the conflict.

But escalating Houthi attacks against international shipping in the Red Sea, and the recent retaliation by the US and the United Kingdom, complicate Saudi efforts to extricate themselves from the war in Yemen. For now, the US-led international maritime security mission Operation Prosperity Guardian did not stop the Houthis from escalating their attacks, and the US and UK retaliatory strikes on 11 January are unlikely to restore deterrence. Fearing becoming a target of Houthi attacks themselves, the Saudis refused to join the US-led operation and have called for US restraint. Meanwhile, they accelerated their talks with the Houthis, offering greater concessions regarding the war in Yemen and obtaining in late December an initial commitment towards a ceasefire. Unless Saudi interests, territory, or assets are targeted, Riyadh is unlikely to change course and offer greater support to the US, which it sees as neglecting the interests of its Arab partners for Israel’s military agenda.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is keeping the door open to normalisation with Israel, and negotiations are likely to eventually resume, with the kingdom hoping to extract an even higher price from the next US administration. Doing deals with the current Israeli government may be a diplomatic impossibility for Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, deterring Iran through engagement with Israel and obtaining greater US security guarantees, remain a long-term priority.

Similarly, the UAE and Bahrain remain keen to protect their new relations with Israel, despite having temporarily frozen them. The UAE intends to eventually use its position as the most trusted Arab interlocutor with Israel to play a key role in the political future of Palestinian governance. Its potential plan is to engineer a political transition from the outside, reshuffling the current Palestinian Authority – largely seen as incompetent – with individuals trusted in Abu Dhabi, such as former Fatah leader turned consigliere to the Emiratis, Mohammad Dahlan. While the UAE is working to bring on board Qatar – the country with the strongest links to several Palestinian factions – the Emirati strategy for Palestinian governance still lacks serious support from other Arab or Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia, who is largely unconvinced of the necessity to deeply reform the Palestinian Authority, is firmly opposed to it.

The Gulf states are unwilling to engage in post-conflict planning without a ceasefire and a clear international commitment to pressure Israel towards a political settlement

Ultimately, the Gulf states are unwilling to engage in post-conflict planning without a ceasefire and a clear international commitment to pressure Israel towards a political settlement. But these calculations, combined with the deep-seated idea that very little can be accomplished until the US toughens its stance on Israel, are limiting the Gulf states from taking a more active role in the Gaza war.

Europeans will need to take these limitations into account when engaging with the Gulf capitals, whose financial and diplomatic support for a solution to the crisis is crucial. Europeans should have realistic expectations on what their Gulf partners can – and are willing to – put forward. They should not expect them to risk their national interests, nor shoulder most of the post-conflict reconstruction effort in absence of clear US and European guarantees to underwrite these funds. In recent years, the Gulf states have signalled a decreasing appetite to financially rescue neighbouring countries in distress without the perspective of concrete economic returns or a greater say in the recipient countries’ political trajectory. Moreover, Europeans need to consider that intra-Arab rivalry – chiefly, between Saudi Arabia and the UAE – plays a role in their political posturing in Gaza and beyond.

Finally, the strong perception in the Gulf that Europeans align with the US on its strong support for Israel limits opportunities for European-Gulf cooperation. Europeans will have to navigate all of these complexities to find a clear common interest between them and the Gulf states which they are also able to operationalise together. This could begin on the more realistic front of preventing a regional escalation in the Levant, Iraq, or the Red Sea, than on tackling the core Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, Europeans can leverage the fact that their position on the conflict is less biased towards Israel than the United States’ to position themselves as an alternative partners, both on regional diplomacy and on maritime security. The Saudi and Emirati reticence towards the US-led maritime operation in the Red Sea could also open the space for alternative parallel engagement between Europeans and the Gulf states in a format that would be perceived as less hostile by Iran and a more moderate alternative to the US and the United Kingdom bombing Houthi targets in Yemen, while still containing the ballistic threat to international shipping. This would be largely welcome by all Gulf monarchies, and address European and global economic interests.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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