The end of the year usually brings forth a wide array of religious and secular anniversaries and celebrations around the globe. In the Arab world, and particularly in the Gulf, this time of the year is also characterized by several countries commemorating their independence from colonial powers. As the climate in these nations cools for the winter, the end-of-year calendar also fills up with numerous music and film festivals and other public revelry.
However, this year’s celebrations are overshadowed by the ongoing war in Gaza—the images of which have resounded around the region and led to a combination of shock, anguish, and fury. These emotions, shared among millions across the Middle East and the Gulf, have made celebration of any kind difficult to stomach, and have led to a wave of cancellations or delays of traditional events. At the same time, the ways in which the different Arab states have approached their end-of-year calendars highlights their complicated priorities, as they seek to cash in on cultural diplomacy while also seeking to calm simmering public anger.
Between Active Solidarity and Politicking
Whether through flag displays or car processions, National Day celebrations in the Gulf hold substantial importance in normalizing the concept of a nation. Between November and December, four out of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations mark their national days. Their significance has grown lately, as certain Gulf states have extended their military involvement beyond their borders and stoked patriotic fervor in order to justify these campaigns. Many of these nations have established organizing committees, allocated specific budgets, and developed dedicated websites to oversee and promote events that highlight the importance attributed to these national commemorations.
With the Arab public clearly not in a mood to celebrate, the GCC states have rethought these festivities. The Sultanate of Oman, which commemorates its national day on November 18, was the first Gulf country to announce that it had canceled its celebrations in solidarity with the Palestinian suffering in Gaza. The government’s terse statement on the issue read, “The 53rd National Day celebrations will be limited to a military parade under the high patronage of His Majesty Sultan Haitham bin Tarik and raising the flags of the Sultanate of Oman in solidarity with the Palestinian people.”
Qatar was the other Gulf state that postponed the National Day celebration for the Armed Forces by a directive given by the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of State for Defense Affairs Khaled Al-Attiyah said, “This postponement is the least we can do regarding what is happening to our brothers in Gaza in terms of genocide and crimes against humanity.” Similarly, the Embassy of Qatar in Washington cancelled its national day celebrations, previously planned at the United States Institute of Peace on December 6, without providing a reason.
The island nation of Bahrain, whose National Day falls on December 16, also canceled its national day celebration. In a statement, the Bahraini government announced that the funds allocated to the celebrations would instead be transferred to the Royal Humanitarian Foundation. Bahrain, which normalized its relations with Israel under the “Abraham Accords” in 2020, also reacted to Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza by recalling its ambassador in November.
Perhaps the most complicated display of solidarity by a Gulf state in the aftermath of the conflict in Gaza has been that of Saudi Arabia, which had been engaged in serious normalization discussions with Israel prior to the October 7 attack. Although Saudi Arabia, jointly with Jordan, Egypt and Qatar, are spearheading diplomatic efforts to end the Gaza war, and publicly and loudly supported the establishment of a Palestinian state under 1967 borders after the war began, it simultaneously pressed ahead with hosting the Riyadh Season, touted as one the largest music festivals in the world, only two weeks after the war began. Despite facing backlash, Saudi Arabia’s grand opening ceremony on October 29 witnessed record-breaking attendance, the highest since the event’s inception in 2019. While Egypt and Qatar canceled or rescheduled their respective end-of-year film festivals, the third edition of the Red Sea Film Festival duly took place in Jeddah on November 30, with NEOM as the main sponsor.
On October 29, Türkiye was also poised to celebrate the highly anticipated 100th anniversary of the republic’s proclamation. However, after the announcement of a 3-day mourning period following the rocket attack on the Al Ahli Baptist Hospital, numerous celebratory events marking the milestone were canceled.
Gaza Becomes a Backdrop to the COP28 Summit
As an elected member of the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) and also the host of the COP28 summit, the UAE has had to navigate an extremely delicate path of diplomacy since October 7. Shortly after delivering a robust statement of support for Gaza at the UN Security Council and denouncing Israeli collective punishment measures against the Palestinians, the UAE President was seen receiving Israeli President Isaac Herzog during the COP summit. Reports suggest that Herzog urged MBZ to aid in the release of Israeli hostages during their meeting. Abu Dhabi has also conspicuously declined to recall its ambassador from Israel, a step that Bahrain, Jordan, and Turkiye all took. It appears clear that the UAE’s position on Israel has evolved significantly, marking a departure from its past role in implementing the oil embargo fifty years ago in October 1973.
The decision to either cancel celebrations, postpone cultural events, or tone down the fervor of national day celebrations demonstrates the strategic dilemma Arab states frequently face whenever violence erupts between Israelis and Palestinians. These actions often serve as a way to deflect the Arab states’ genuine accountability concerning the Palestinian question. With a growing number of Arab and Gulf states normalizing relations with Israel in the post-Abraham Accords era, the issue has grown steadily more divisive, creating a major point of contention between the Arab governments and their people—and prompting those governments to seek new ways to assuage public anger without implementing real policy changes.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.