On October 7, Hamas attacked Israel in an assault that was unprecedented in its scope, scale, and ferocity. More than 1,400 Israeli civilians were killed in the attack, making it the bloodiest day in the 75-year history of the Jewish state. Israeli leaders vowed to respond with overwhelming force, and to date, over 7,000 Palestinians—mostly civilians—have died in the subsequent bombardment of Gaza in the bloodiest military attack on the strip in the 16 years of Hamas rule of Gaza. The war between Israel and Hamas—erupting only days after U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that the region had been “quieter today than it has been in two decades”—goes sharply against the trend of de-escalation which has been a feature of geopolitics in the Gulf and the broader Middle East since 2021. Officials in Gulf capitals have responded to the war in a variety of ways designed to prevent any further spread of the fighting, as there is no appetite for renewal of the geopolitical confrontations that marked most of the 2010s.
The Israel-Hamas war exposes the Gulf States to multiple vulnerabilities. Any expansion of the conflict to draw in Iran, whether directly or indirectly through Iranian-aligned groups such as the Houthis in Yemen, would pose an immediate and severe threat to Gulf security. Such an eventuality would impact high-profile events such as COP28, which begins in Dubai on November 30, and jeopardize the Saudi strategy of ‘de-risking’ the region as the delivery phase of the ‘giga-projects’ begins to kick into gear. The fact that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) held a telephone call with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi—the first such call since Riyadh and Tehran restored diplomatic relations in March—on October 12, only five days after the Hamas attack, spoke volumes about the Gulf states’ desire to avoid an escalation that could threaten regional stability.
Qatar’s Risky but Useful Mediation
Of all of the GCC states, Qatar is certain to be involved most deeply in the ongoing war. Because of its friendly relationship with Hamas—it has hosted the group’s senior leadership in Doha since 2012—it is uniquely vulnerable to media and political criticism from Israel and its allies in the West. In order to preserve its reputation and its credibility, Qatar has presented itself as a mediator in the conflict, presenting its good relations with Hamas as an opportunity for diplomacy. It comes as little surprise that the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other Western nations have thus turned to Doha to help secure the release of the more than 200 hostages seized on October 7. Qatari officials have leveraged the working ties they have built with the political leadership of Hamas to establish diplomatic backchannels and play an intermediary role that has been critical in the release of some of the hostages. The ability to mediate between adversaries that cannot engage directly builds on the credibility Qatar gained as a facilitator of dialogue with Taliban officials both before and after the 2021 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
For Doha, however, the challenge going forward will be that Israeli and American views of Hamas changed irrevocably on October 7. In the years preceding the invasion, many policymakers believed that Hamas was like any other political actor, and could be persuaded or coerced into keeping a workable peace with Israel with the right incentives. This illusion has been firmly dispelled; the overwhelming consensus in Israel and the United States is that Hamas will continue to carry out similar atrocities against Israel as long as it exists, and therefore must be destroyed as a prerequisite to peace. Once the mediation to release the hostages ends, Qatar may come under pressure to expel the Hamas representatives and reassess the modalities of its financial and humanitarian aid for Gaza.
Stress Testing GCC-Israel Normalization
An altogether different challenge faces the UAE and Bahrain, which established relations with Israel in 2020 as part of the “Abraham Accords.” These negotiations violated the post-1967 consensus that there could be no peace with Israel as long as the Palestinian issue remained unresolved, but Emirati and Bahraini leaders justified them on the basis that the two countries could do more for the Palestinians through direct negotiations with Israel than indirect action. Three years later, this hypothesis has not worked out; Israel’s current government is the most ideologically extreme and anti-Palestinian in its history, and the “two-state solution” is effectively moribund—leading to frustration across the Arab world with Manama and Abu Dhabi, perceived in many corners to have given up on the Palestinian cause.
This year, the UAE has sought to balance its holding of the ‘Arab seat’ on the UN Security Council—and therefore its responsibility to speak out against atrocities against the Palestinians—with the maintenance of its political and economic ties with Israel. Emirati officials recently criticized a draft U.S. resolution on Israel and Gaza as ‘severely unbalanced’ and may seek to leverage their working relationships with their Israeli counterparts to moderate their policy response. To be clear, Bahraini and Emirati policymakers are unlikely to abrogate or abandon the Abraham Accords, but they could use the rise in public anger across the Arab world over Gaza to press for a greater Palestinian component in the weeks ahead.
In the run-up to October 7, a series of leaks to U.S. media had outlined the contours of a potential normalization agreement that the Biden White House was brokering between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The war outbreak made such an arrangement impossible; Saudi officials informed reporters on October 12 that these talks had been ‘paused,’ and the Kingdom then hosted an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation which met in Jeddah on October 18. The crisis in Gaza may enable MBS to further cement the Kingdom at the heart of regional and international diplomatic initiatives, as seen this year in his outreach in Syria, Sudan, and even Ukraine. At the same time, the knowledge that Israeli and U.S. officials still want normalization to happen may give room for Saudi officials to request far greater concessions to the Palestinians if the talks are to resume. Saudi officials clearly have leverage in this regard; if, and how, they choose to exert it will be significant, not only for Israel and the United States but also for the task of ‘selling’ any eventual agreement domestically and regionally.
Oman, like Qatar, has no desire to see the Gaza war escalate into a regional conflict. It has long maintained a careful balancing act in its regional relations, and its ability to keep open channels of communication and pass on messages allows Muscat to continue working discreetly to dial down tensions and de-escalate points of friction with Iran or the Houthis in Yemen, both of whom could complicate the situation by attempting to strike Israel with its attentions focused elsewhere. Omani assistance may be significant in addressing the regionalization risk and ensuring that acts of provocation do not become escalatory triggers in the Gulf or on the Arabian Peninsula.
Finally, the one regional actor that has largely remained absent from the diplomacy surrounding the Israel-Hamas violence has been Kuwait. The late Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah was widely regarded as the “father figure” of regional diplomacy in the Gulf during his lifetime, but since his death in September 2020, a conundrum of domestic pressures has meant that Kuwait is no longer as active abroad as it once was. Even so, Kuwait is keenly aware of the situation in Gaza and interested in seeing a long-term peace there, and could play a substantial role in Gaza’s post-war recovery and reconstruction through development and infrastructure funding.
Within these diverse stances in the Gulf, a common thread emerges: a shared aspiration among GCC states to prevent the war from spiraling into a broader regional conflagration. The desire for stability, coupled with the acknowledgment of the profound human cost of the conflict, is palpable. In this intricate web of diplomacy, each GCC state is poised to influence the region’s trajectory in the aftermath of the war in Gaza. As the international community observes the unfolding events, the actions and decisions of these Gulf nations will undeniably shape the future of the Middle East.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.