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Commentary

Regional and Global Dimensions of the War in Gaza

Against the backdrop of the US’ support of Israel and subsequent loss of legitimacy, to resolve the crisis in Gaza, Gulf States must be given greater regional agency to further equal rapport with the US.

Map of Gaza and surrounding Israeli territories.

The war in Gaza has polarized international opinion and deepened a sense of double standard in much of the non-Western world as leaders and publics alike have contrasted policy responses to Russian and Israeli bombardment of civilians in Ukraine, Syria, and the Palestinian territories. For nearly two years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, US and European officials emphasized the centrality of the rules-based international order as they sought to build global support against the Kremlin. Despite such calls, large parts of the Global South, including states across the Middle East and in the Gulf, did not fully buy into American narratives. To the contrary, they perceive these narratives as ringing hollow, especially in light of the Biden administration’s perceived support of Israel’s actions in Gaza and vis-à-vis Palestinian suffering.  

Daily scenes of carnage from Gaza have generated levels of perplexity not seen in the Arab world since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by US and coalition forces. The echo chamber of social media, which was not around twenty years ago, has further amplified public outrage. Notably, this has spanned the spectrum of Gulf States which have normalized relations with Israel (Bahrain and the UAE), may be willing to normalize (Saudi Arabia), maintain pragmatic ties with Israel (Qatar and Oman), and refuse to engage at all (Kuwait). While initial statements in response to the 7 October 2023 attacks by Hamas did reflect the normalization/non-normalization line, with the Bahraini and Emirati reactions focusing more on Hamas and the other four placing greater emphasis on the Israeli occupation, over time the reactions to Gaza have become more uniform in support of a ceasefire and in expressions of anger at US policies.

Close and longstanding American ties, especially in security and defense relationships which go back decades and continue to form the backbone of external and strategic partnerships, requires leaders to delicately balance their political positions and public stances. This was also a feature of the regional landscape in 2003, when large demonstrations against U.S. action in Iraq occurred in almost all of the Gulf States, including in the UAE with its usually quiet domestic political scene. Public pressure on ruling elites two decades ago contributed to their reluctance, Kuwait excepted, to publicly back the George W. Bush administration over Iraq, and created frictions which in some cases lasted for years. An example was seen in 2008 during President Bush’s last visit to the Gulf as president, when he pointedly did not visit Qatar – a snub some attributed to his administration’s frustration at Al Jazeera’s coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

A sense of drift in US-Gulf relations over the past decade has taken root in several regional capitals, as leaders in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, have questioned the direction of decision-making that has extended across three consecutive presidencies of Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Prior to 7 October, the questioning of US actions was mostly a political parlor game in Gulf capitals and was something that happened largely within the closed confines of senior political and diplomatic networks. What has changed since 7 October is that public opinion has again been supercharged, as it was in the period after 2003, only this time in a far more multipolar context in which the perception of different standards for Ukraine and Gaza is acutely and visibly palpable.

Officials in all Gulf States worked to depoliticize societal discourse in the period which followed the Arab uprisings in 2010-11. Taking politics ‘out of the equation’ took multiple forms and differed from state to state, but was in most cases accompanied by an increase in the use of suppressive tools which raised the bar of speaking out or of engaging in political, still less oppositional, activity. An objective of leaders in the Gulf was not only to minimize the risk of another outbreak of mass mobilization, such as was seen in the broader region in 2011, but also to pre-empt any issue that could spur people to collective action. It is precisely this latter point that the Palestinian cause still resonates so strongly among Arabs and Muslims everywhere, as was demonstrated during the FIFA World Cup in Qatar in November-December 2022.

US-Gulf relations will move forward in an atmosphere of deep polarization. Any hopes the Biden administration may have had of enlisting Gulf (and wider Global South) support for Ukraine is probably lost, and the fallout from the Israel-Gaza war may accelerate the deepening of ties with China and Russia. It was notable that the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, made a point of traveling to Beijing with other Arab and Islamic foreign ministers on 20 November and then continuing to other non-Western capitals to make the case for a ceasefire to a global rather than US-focused audience. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also attended a virtual meeting of BRICS leaders – to which the Kingdom as well as the UAE and Iran have been invited to join – on 21 November at which he urged all countries to cease weapons exports to Israel. These are not inconsequential moves that will hasten the process of multipolarity which have already been unfolding across the Gulf and much of the broader Middle East. 

Negotiations for a humanitarian pause and exchange of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners offer some hope that the conflict may begin to draw down. It is not in the interests either of the U.S. or of the Gulf States for the war to continue indefinitely, and attention must begin to shift toward the ‘day after’ question of what happens next in Gaza and the West Bank. Unlike previous eras of systemic change in regional geopolitics, such as the Madrid Conference after the 1991 Gulf War or even the post-2003 period, the Gulf States today have far greater agency and capacity to play active and assertive regional roles. If this is to happen in a constructive manner it will require all parties to work far more closely together. 

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