Key players: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani at a summit in May 2023. Image: Associated Press / Alamy
As Israel’s war in Gaza rages on, the Gulf Arab states continue to try to strike a balance between working to contain and end the violence and maintaining momentum for their respective national projects.
On 5 December, Qatar hosted the annual summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional grouping that includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Inevitably, Israel’s ongoing war against Hamas in Gaza topped the agenda of the discussions between Gulf leaders, which were also attended by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The message from the summit was straightforward and unsurprising. The six Gulf monarchies called for ‘an immediate cessation of hostilities and Israeli military operations’, demanded ‘the release of civilian hostages and detainees’, and backed efforts to ‘revive the peace process in the Middle East’ and ‘the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital’.
Besides the various agreements to adopt joint positions and work together – in areas going far beyond the war in Gaza, from efforts to remove trade barriers and collaborate on tourism, to shared commitments to investing in oil and gas as well as renewable energy – recorded in the lengthy 122-article final statement, the summit ultimately appeared to be intended to signal one thing above all: Gulf unity.
Pragmatic Gulf Unity
Indeed, with the Middle East in the midst of a crisis defined by the long-standing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, it is perhaps easy to forget that until just three years ago, a deep fracture between the Gulf Arab states – specifically between Qatar (backed by Turkey) on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other – was one of the defining features of regional instability. Today, things are different. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have become particularly close over the past year or two. Differences and intra-Gulf competition still persist, perhaps especially between Saudi Arabia and the UAE these days, but the overall mood is one of pragmatic alignment – certainly vis-à-vis the war in Gaza.
Saudi Arabia has clearly assumed the mantle of regional leadership. It hosted an extraordinary Arab-Islamic summit in Riyadh in November, notably with the attendance of Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi; and Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud has led a group of his counterparts from across the region on an international tour with stops in Beijing, Moscow and London, among others. Qatar has led mediation efforts with Hamas to facilitate the release of hostages, which resulted, for example, in the seven-day truce at the end of November. The UAE – which has the closest ties with Israel of all Gulf states – has remained quieter thus far, but it appears poised to play a key role whenever there is eventually a more permanent ceasefire in Gaza, precisely because it is probably the Arab country Israel trusts the most.
Crucially, Riyadh, Doha and Abu Dhabi have thus far worked together and vocally endorsed each other’s efforts. They have looked to leverage their different relationships with the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as across the region, rather than to compete with one another. The eventual question of helping to establish and strengthen a future Palestinian leadership could well bring intra-Gulf competition back to the fore, but for the moment at least, the three monarchies are clearly aligned in their view of the conflict.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are in very similar positions and share very similar interests with regard to the current crisis
All three were clearly horrified by Hamas’s 7 October attack. Saudi Arabia and especially the UAE have long been critical of, and even hostile towards, Hamas. Qatar has a different relationship with the group, hosting its political office in Doha in coordination with the US and the Israeli government, but it clearly also did not support the attack. However, what Israel has done since 7 October has, form the perspective of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha – and the wider region, for that matter – gone far beyond exercising a legitimate right to self-defence. In their view, Israel’s operation to go after Hamas has become a brutal all-out assault on the Palestinian people. The attempt by US President Joe Biden to equate Russia and Hamas as evil aggressors and Israel and Ukraine as victims worthy of support does not resonate in the Gulf (or indeed anywhere in the Arab world). Rather, if there is any relation between the wars in Ukraine and Gaza from the Arab perspective, it is between Ukrainian civilians and the Palestinian people.
The Ongoing Quest for Stability
Ultimately, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar are in very similar positions and share very similar interests with regard to the current crisis. While the war is taking up a lot of their bandwidth, Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha are united in their determination to maintain the overall strategic course they were on before 7 October. All three are pursuing highly ambitious domestic agendas.
In Saudi Arabia, Vision 2030 – a root-and-branch transformation of the Kingdom – is the all-important North Star for all decision-making, including on foreign policy. The UAE wants to consolidate its position as the most dynamic regional power and a hub for global affairs; its hosting of the ongoing UN Climate Change Conference COP28 is illustrative of this. Qatar, meanwhile, is looking to build on the success of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, including by expanding its gas production capacity to solidify its status as the world’s most important exporter of liquified natural gas.
Critical to all of these ambitions is the maintenance of a modicum of stability in the wider region. In many ways, the war in Gaza erupted just as Gulf leaders felt like their regional strategy to de-escalate and reduce tensions wherever possible was working. Not only had they buried the hatchet of their intra-Gulf dispute, but they had also managed to steer their relations with Iran into calmer waters. In fact, in the effort to contain the war at least geographically, the new channel of communication between Riyadh and Tehran has undoubtedly been crucially important.
Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar remain worried about the violence in Gaza stoking regional instability, even if the spectre of a wider regional war can be kept at bay. While they are confident that they can manage popular anger about Israel’s conduct in Gaza at home, they are aware that their counterparts in Egypt and Jordan – two countries whose stability they regard as pivotal for the region – might have a harder time doing the same.
The Gulf states have seen the US’s strong support for Israel as another sign that Washington’s strategy in the Middle East is out of step with the regional mood
Furthermore, even if Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha are feeling more confident about their ability to manage tensions with Tehran, they nevertheless see – and have always seen – a great risk in Iran’s ability to use the Palestinian cause and its claim to leadership of the resistance against Israel to shore up its regional position. The attacks on commercial ships supposedly linked to Israel by the Yemeni Houthis – one of Iran’s partners in the region – obviously worry Saudi Arabia, for example. For now, these activities are not directed at the Kingdom, but with the Red Sea central to Riyadh’s economic development plans, they clearly represent a long-term threat.
The Gulf states are therefore likely to continue to emphasise the need for pragmatism and de-escalation. They will try to protect the gains they have made in their relations with Iran, even if this proves to be an uphill battle. Similarly, they are unlikely to fundamentally change their approach towards Israel. The UAE has made it clear that it has no desire to give up what has been from its perspective a tremendously beneficial expanding relationship with Israel since the conclusion of the Abraham Accords in 2020. Saudi-Israeli normalisation may have become a more distant prospect due to the war, but it remains on the horizon. The strategic drivers behind normalisation, ranging from shared security interests vis-à-vis Iran to the promise of lucrative economic opportunities, remain unchanged. Even Qatar will continue to maintain its pragmatic arms-length relationship with Israel, not least because it is precisely its ability to talk to the Israeli government and security services, as well as to Hamas, that makes it such a valuable mediator and interlocutor, both in the current crisis and likely in the future too.
In their relations beyond the region, the Gulf states are also trying to stay the course. The war has re-emphasised the centrality of the US to regional security, as impressively illustrated by the extensive ramping-up of the US military presence in the immediate aftermath of the 7 October attack. At the same time, however, the Gulf states have also seen the US’s strong – and in their view uncritical – support for Israel as another sign that Washington’s strategy in the Middle East is out of step with the regional mood and their own priorities.
They have therefore continued to express their conviction that the world – and the region with it – is moving towards a multipolar order, and have done what they can to make this a reality. This has included the Saudi-led foreign ministers delegation’s demonstrative choice to make Beijing the first stop of their tour to build international consensus around a call for a ceasefire in Gaza, regardless of the fact that China has shown very little ability or willingness to make any meaningful efforts to resolve the crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia also fit into this pattern.
In sum, it is very clear that the war in Gaza has made life harder for the Gulf Arab states. Leaders in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha want to focus on developing their countries and claiming their places on the global stage, and they are determined not to let either the volatility of the region they happen to find themselves in or the unstable global environment prevent them from doing so. In this context, the war in Gaza is a setback, but not one that changes the overall strategic calculus in the Gulf.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Tobias Borck
Senior Associate Fellow