If the conflict in Gaza escalates into a direct showdown between Iran and the United States, the Gulf states could find themselves on the front lines, caught between two conflicting priorities.
The Gulf countries have declared public support for the Palestinian cause, which is backed by popular sentiment in the Arab world and upheld by Iran and its regional allies. Meanwhile, they forged an essential security alliance with the US, a steadfast supporter of Israel, which has structured in recent years an anti-Iran front that includes Israel.
“Policy makers in GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) states are extremely concerned about Iran becoming directly involved in this fighting and the GCC states being collateral damage,” said says Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a US-based geopolitical risk consultancy.
Careful détente with Iran
The petro-monarchies are well aware of the potential harm Iran and its allies can inflict.
The September 2019 attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco facilities serve as a vivid memory. At the time, the attacks halted a significant portion of the kingdom’s oil production for several weeks without eliciting any response from the US.
This is a scenario that the Gulf states are eager to avoid experiencing again, as any decline in production could negatively affect their revenues, especially at a time when oil prices have remained high since the onset of the Ukraine conflict in February 2022.
Presently, this windfall from high oil prices supports hydrocarbon-producing nations in funding their expenditures and ambitious mega-projects, all intended to contribute to a competitive process of economic diversification. Achieving progress in this direction necessitates a stable environment that can attract foreign investments and skilled labor.
This might explain the reasons behind Abu Dhabi’s and Riyadh’s decisions to normalize relations with Iran, which had been severed in 2016.
“One of the main motivations that countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE had in pursuing the détente with Iran was related to their security vulnerabilities,” said Cafiero.
Before the recent developments, several Gulf countries initiated the normalization of relations with Israel, beginning with the UAE and Bahrain in 2020. They signed the Abraham Accords during the tenure of US President Donald Trump’s administration.
This move was seen as a means of bolstering the anti-Iranian coalition in the region, although the Gulf nations did distance themselves somewhat from their new ally when its aggressive rhetoric became more pronounced, such as during US President Joe Biden’s regional tour in July 2022.
In response to the conflict in Gaza, Abu Dhabi denied the “allegations circulating in some international media about the arrival of military aircraft at al-Dhafra base to provide support to Israel,” as stated in a Saudi Defense Ministry announcement on Oct. 12.
“The countries that are in the toughest position are the signatories to the Abraham accords,” said Randa Slim, director of the DC-based Conflict Resolution and Track II Dialogues program at the Middle East Institute. “They are trying to strike a careful balancing act opposing Israeli targeting of Palestinian civilians while opposing behaviors by regional parties that endanger stability in the region including Hamas and Hezbollah.”
After condemning the Hamas attacks on Israeli civilians on Oct. 7, the UAE and Bahrain changed their tune following the strike that hit al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City on Tuesday, killing nearly 500 people, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in the enclave and triggering a wave of popular anger in the region.
While just a few weeks ago, Saudi Arabia was getting “closer every day” to an agreement with the US and Israel, which would have included American security guarantees to Riyadh, the latter announced it was suspending these talks last week.
Greater regional coordination
For the Gulf states, it’s a question of maintaining a delicate balance. “There are limits in terms of what the GCC countries can do to prevent further escalation,” said Cafiero.
“However, some of the countries in the GCC such as Qatar and UAE and Saudi Arabia are taking steps to increase coordination among global and regional players in an attempt to rally the international community behind efforts to deescalate this crisis before it exacerbates further.”
UAE President Mohammad bin Zayed spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last Sunday, in his first appeal to an Arab partner to open humanitarian corridors to Gaza.
For his part, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) had his first telephone call with Iranian President Ebrahim Raissi — officially invited to Riyadh, although no date has yet been set — to reaffirm his “unshakeable position in defense of the Palestinian cause.”
Seemingly aware of the uncomfortable position of his Arab partners in the face of this war, US President Joe Biden said via X (formerly Twitter) on Sunday that he was not giving up on a two-state solution.
“As Israel wages a destructive military campaign on the Gaza strip, the Arab Gulf states are converging on calling for a ceasefire, a resumption of humanitarian aid, and support for Egypt and Jordan,” said Hasan Alhasan, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Beyond that, however, the Arab Gulf states lack cohesiveness in their diplomatic efforts, working individually rather than as a group.”
Yet there are signs of better coordination.
The Emirati head of state visited Riyadh on Friday for the first time in a year as part of the GCC-ASEAN summit and was warmly welcomed by the Saudi Crown Prince despite rumors of discord.
“The visit signals that the two leaders assess that the current escalation in the region represents a major threat to their policies including normalization with Israel,” said Slim. “If GCC countries were to pull their respective networks & sources of leverage together, this crisis could enhance their regional role even more.”
This is particularly true for the Sultanate of Oman, a traditional mediator in the Middle East, and Qatar, a major US ally that is not a NATO member, as well as NATO itself, which is also on good terms with Iran and Hamas, some of whose leaders are based in Doha.
Indeed, Qatar contributed to Hamas’s release of two American hostages in Gaza on Friday evening, just before humanitarian aid was allowed into the coastal enclave.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.