The recent Israel-Hamas war in Gaza carries significant implications for the Gulf States, the United States, and the broader Middle East that extends beyond the military and diplomatic realms into the public opinion. Israel’s war in Gaza serves as a stark reminder of the complexities involved in gauging public opinion in the Gulf, particularly in relation to the general populace’s support for the Palestinian cause. Gulf citizens have reacted with outrage at American support for Israel, despite previous polling that indicated a decrease in public support for the Palestinian cause. The public’s initial horror at Hamas’ killing of innocents in southern Israel has been erased by what they see as Israel’s wildly disproportionate retaliation against civilians in Gaza. Now, Gulf Arabs and many of their expatriate residents are also outraged at what they see as Israel’s attempts to repeat the 1948 expulsion of Palestinians in Gaza today. Gulf citizens direct much of their anger at the United States for failing to reign in the Israelis. These factors risk undercutting the Gulf’s dramatic diplomatic shift toward the Jewish state and enhancing the geopolitical position of Iran.
Jeopardizing Diplomatic Progress
As its leaders try to cope with this new reality, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states find themselves forced to reevaluate their traditional reliance on American security guarantees, upon which rapprochement with Israel relies. The countries of the GCC are concerned about the potential for the Gaza crisis to undo Iraq’s already precarious relationships with its neighbors, not to mention its capacity to maintain domestic order. The past three weeks have seen an upsurge in threats to American military units in Northern Iraq and those deployed in support of the Kurdish militias in Syria. To further complicate matters, Turkey, a U.S.-aligned NATO member that has expressed outright support for Hamas, stepped up attacks on Kurdish militias aligned with the United States. All these trends indicate that the United States’ ability to respond to multiple regional flashpoints may be diminished for the foreseeable future.
Elsewhere, internal discord sparked by the Israel-Hamas conflict threatens to undermine the stability of regional nations that boast historically friendly relationships with the Gulf Arab states. The situation in Jordan should be of particular concern to the GCC states and Iraq. Jordanian police have fired tear gas to disperse thousands of people protesting at the Israeli embassy in Amman after the deadly Gaza hospital strike that killed hundreds of people. Anecdotally, Jordanian friends tell me that the situation in the Hashemite Kingdom has reached a boiling point, so much so that Jordanian security forces have taken the extraordinary measure of blocking the roads to the Jordan Valley to prevent enraged young men from taking it upon themselves and attacking Israel directly. The Jordanian economy has teetered on the edge of collapse for years, providing fertile ground for unrest; the war will only aggravate Jordan’s existing weaknesses and further destabilize the region.
Moreover, the GCC states’ mixed responses to the unfolding crisis indicate that these countries are riven by their own internal divisions. Qatar was the first to condemn Israel, denouncing its 60-year occupation of Palestinian lands without any hope of relief or resolution. When the crisis began, Saudi Arabia criticized Hamas and Israel in equally harsh terms. Now, Riyadh is calling for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the siege of Gaza, shifting against the Israeli and U.S. position. The UAE has temporized—condemning the violence, calling for a ceasefire, and maintaining communications channels with Iran.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Gaza crisis highlights the conceptual disconnect between American expectations for the Abraham Accords and normalization and those of the GCC states. Bahrain, one of the first Abraham Accords signatory from the GCC has now withdrawn its Ambassador to Israel, and others may yet follow. While the Americans argue that the GCC states joined the Accords primarily to protect themselves from Iran, this is a misunderstanding of the Arab states’ motivations. Arab governments in the region have worked assiduously to reduce tensions with Iran, even as they pursue normalization with Israel. Those states have made it clear that access to investment opportunities and Israeli technology—not primarily security concerns—drove their diplomatic overtures. Improving relations with both Israel and Iran helps the GCC states stay out of any future conflict between the two rivals. Indeed, the crisis has already shown the benefits of Saudi-Iran rapprochement. Both Riyadh and Tehran are likely relieved that they have established channels of communication. Along with the rest of the GCC, Saudi Arabia does not want to become an unwilling participant in an Iranian Israeli war, not to mention a war between the United States and Iran. An Israeli (or American) attack on Iran could provoke an asymmetric response from Iran that would strike at the GCC states’ critical state oil and gas infrastructure, undercutting state revenues and domestic stability.
All of this is not to say that Iran and Israel necessarily desire direct conflict with one another. War with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a member of Iran’s “Axis of Resistance,” is not inevitable despite a recent spate of clashes with the Israel Defense Forces. Israel’s priority right now is carrying out its military campaign in Gaza. Tel Aviv does not desire a full-scale war with Hezbollah, and, in fact, may not be able to prosecute it effectively given the deployment of most of the Israeli military in the Gaza Strip. It is quite possible that the Israeli leadership understands this reality. By evacuating thousands of Israelis from northern border villages, Tel Aviv may avoid civilian casualties that could further aggravate an already inflamed domestic public opinion and push the Israeli government to open a second front in Lebanon
Hezbollah faces pressures at home that make direct conflict with Israel unlikely, too. Despite the outpouring of anger against Israel’s heavy-handed bombardment of Gaza in recent weeks, the Lebanese population remains frustrated about an array of grave domestic crises that a military engagement with the Jewish state would only worsen. Hezbollah may also be wary of escalating the conflict with Israel in part because a full-scale war could draw in the United States, which has deployed several carrier strike groups to the Eastern Mediterranean in recent weeks. On the other hand, this is a rapidly evolving situation and an upsurge in violence on the Israeli Lebanese border could get out of hand.
Rather than provoke an all-out war, the primary aims of Hezbollah’s recent skirmishes are two-fold. First, it seeks to signal its solidarity with Hamas, and second it hopes to divert resources and attention from Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. For its part, Iran would appear to have little incentive to open a Lebanese front and risk severe losses to its most capable ally. Indeed, Hezbollah is far more effective as a potential threat than as a belligerent to this conflict. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah essentially confirmed these comments in his November 3rd speech, in which he declared that Hezbollah will not go to war unless attacked or Israel commits an unspecified outrage that cannot be ignored.
GCC-Israel Normalization Falters as Iran’s Influence Grows
Outsiders often forget that not one, but two normalization processes were on the table before October 7. The first, to which the United States paid the most attention, was the normalization between Arab States and Israel—the Abraham Accords. The second, which has no official name but is equally important, is the general rapprochement between GCC states and Iran.
The war in Gaza has put the kibosh on the Abraham Accords, as the GCC states find it increasingly difficult to pursue normalization with Israel. The United States placed enormous emphasis on the Abraham Accords assuming the framework would build an alliance aimed at deterring Iran. To the contrary, none of the Gulf States have any interest in military conflict with Iran; they do not have to normalize ties with Israel to prevent conflict. Instead, moving closer to Israel at a time when public opinion within the GCC has swung decisively behind the Palestinian cause would be disastrous. Nor should observers ignore the sentiments of individual leaders when reacting to the carnage in Gaza. For Saudi Arabia, as the Custodians of the Two Holy Shrines, the status of al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem affects the legitimacy of the regime, even one as liberalized as Mohammed bin Salman has created.
By contrast, support for improved ties with Iran has blossomed as the bombardment of Gaza continues. Every GCC state but Bahrain has reestablished diplomatic relations with Tehran and exchanged high level visits, and there is little to suggest that the geopolitical and strategic benefits of rapprochement will dissipate any time soon. Although the United States remains an important actor in the Gulf region, it can no longer leverage its influence over the GCC states to prevent its partners from growing closer to Iran. Indeed, Washington’s support for Israel will likely cause deep damage to its ties to the Gulf states. Just how far U.S. standing among the GCC states falls, of course, depends on two factors: how soon the fighting stops, and what political situation emerges after the guns fall silent.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.