The Gulf countries and Gaza war: divergent positions and distant trajectories
On the 7th of October, Hamas launched a large-scale attack on the Gaza perimeter fence area, where its militants succeeded in breaking through the border fence in a scene that caught the world’s attention.
The militants of the organization, which is classified as a terrorist organization in the United States, Britain and other Western countries while the majority of Arab countries consider a legitimate resistance movement to the Israeli occupation, were able to control areas and points of concentration of the Israeli army along with other residential areas. Moreover, Hamas militants and the Islamic Jihad Movement, a close ally of Hamas, were able to escort more than two hundred Israeli captives into the Gaza Strip.
In response to Hamas’ operation known as “Al-Aqsa Flood,” the Israeli government took a series of urgent measures. These measures included mobilizing reserve forces and launching ground military operations to pursue Hamas operatives and secure areas outside its control. It called the operations the “Iron Swords.” In parallel, the air force began large-scale bombing operations under political cover from the United States, Britain and France, in what countries and international human rights organizations considered to be retaliatory operations that violate international law. They targeted residential complexes, schools, and mosques, making them tantamount to collective punishment. Tragically, the Iron Swords operations resulted in thousands of Palestinian civilian casualties, the majority of them are women and children.
With the launch of the operations of the Israeli ground forces inside the Gaza Strip with the aim of eliminating Hamas, as the Israeli government announced, the total number of casualties on the Israeli side reached about 1,500 dead compared to about 10,000 dead Palestinians. This coincides with difficult humanitarian conditions, with water and electricity cuts, fuel shortages, and some hospitals ceasing to function.
As tension escalates in the region, there is a growing concern about the potential for the armed conflict to broaden its scope. This expansion could involve Lebanese Hezbollah, which has escalated border skirmishes, and Iran on one side, and the United States, which has deployed military reinforcements to the Mediterranean Sea and established an air bridge to provide Israel with military equipment and ammunition, on the other, the various parties, without exception, are trying to avoid expanding the war and making it confined to Gaza.
In the Gulf, both Bahrain and the UAE strongly criticized the Hamas attack, particularly its targeting of Israeli civilians. Later, the two countries joined the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries in denouncing the Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip and demanding the immediate cessation of military operations, adherence to international law, and the rapid entry of humanitarian aid. In contrast to Saudi Arabia’s decision to freeze Saudi-Israeli negotiations under American auspices in order to normalize relations between them, neither Manama nor Abu Dhabi took any punitive measures affecting political or economic relations with Israel. However, Saudi Arabia and Oman also didn’t make efforts to restrict Israeli civilian aircraft from flying over their territories.
Kuwait took the most unequivocal stance in condemning Israel, whether it was from the government or the National Assembly, with Qatar and Oman closely following suit. Notably, Riyadh issued strong statements denouncing Israel and attributing responsibility to it for ongoing actions such as its settlement policies, the blockade on the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the targeting of Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia launched a donation campaign to aid Gaza—a campaign that is believed to be the largest in the Gulf and the Arab world. For its part, the UAE has led diplomatic efforts at the Security Council aimed at halting military operations, but the US veto was on the lookout.
Undoubtedly, American support is expected to significantly aid Tel Aviv and help offset the substantial political, military, and economic losses incurred. However, it’s important to note that this support is not boundless or unconditional, as there is increasing criticism emerging from various institutions within Washington. This criticism calls for an end to the conflict and reminds Israel that it does not have carte blanche to act without restraint. Ultimately, this raises doubts about Israel’s ability to achieve the goals it announced for its counter-military operation.
On the opposite shore of the Gulf, despite the claims from political and military leaders in Hamas that Iran or the resistance axis had no role in determining the timing, nature, and objectives of the military operation carried out by the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, a stance later confirmed by Washington and Secretary-General of Lebanese Hezbollah, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, on November 3rd during his first appearance since the events began. Nevertheless, it’s important to note that the ‘Al-Aqsa Flood’ operation has undeniably provided significant benefits to Iran. The most prominent of these gains include restraining Israel and hindering the momentum of Gulf-Israeli normalization.
Over the past three years, Tel Aviv has succeeded in forcefully penetrating the Gulf region, leading to the signing of the Abraham Peace Accords (August 2020) with both the UAE and Bahrain. Additionally, Israel has conducted intricate assassination operations within Iran, underscoring its achievement in reshaping the geographical scope of the Israeli-Iranian conflict, now reaching Iran’s borders and even penetrating its territory. Today, Gulf appetite for normalizing relations with Israel or broaden their alliances with Israel will decrease. Furthermore, the confidence of these Gulf nations in the strength of the Israeli military and the effectiveness of Tel Aviv’s intelligence services has been called into doubt following what Israelis themselves regard as a devastating and astonishing intelligence and military setback.
In the short term, while it’s improbable that the UAE and Bahrain will reverse their decision to normalize relations and maintain their strategic alliance with Israel, it is expected that integration projects and economic and military cooperation will proceed slowly. This possibility is endorsed by the fact that Israel will certainly undergo fundamental political changes after the war that will consolidate the presence of the far-right. Indeed, the Israeli public opinion and the opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be eagerly ready to begin procedures to hold the political and military leadership accountable for the failure of the seventh of last October, which would fuel internal disputes in Israel.
Under these conditions, the UAE and Bahrain will be in an embarrassing position regarding the issue of networking with Israel in front of both domestic and Arab public opinion, which will bring them back to square one.
As for the path of normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations, which was temporarily halted due to the Al-Aqsa Flood operation, the White House is expected to take swift action immediately following the conclusion of military operations. It will take the initiative to present urgent proposals and a larger basket of incentives to the Saudis in the hope of reaching a Saudi-Israeli normalization agreement prior to the US presidential elections scheduled for late 2024. This agreement holds particular significance as one of the key electoral assets that could enhance President Biden’s prospects for securing another term in the White House. From the Saudi perspective, Riyadh might leverage this opportunity to demand greater incentives from the Americans, improving the terms of the deal beyond what was initially offered.
Finally, for Oman and Qatar, which are under sharp Israeli criticism for hosting Hamas leaders on their soil, it is unlikely that either country will change their stance towards Israel. According to Doha, the hosting of Hamas leaders was done at the request of the United States. Therefore, it is expected that Muscat and Doha will either maintain their current understandings with Hamas or minimize their involvement with the organization.