‘Hamas popularity explodes in the Gulf’ amid Monarchy passivity towards Israel

Emirati sociologist Mira al-Hussein analyzes the attitudes of Gulf citizens towards normalization with Israel amid the Gaza war.

‘Hamas popularity explodes in the Gulf’ amid Monarchy passivity towards Israel

Protesters wave Palestinian flags during a Gaza solidarity sit-in. Manama, Bahrain, Nov. 17, 2023. (Credit: Mazen Mahdi/AFP/Getty Images)

The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have been aloof since the start of the Gaza war until recently. They are now busy putting forward a post-war plan — one that holds the prospect of granting Israel Saudi Arabia's recognition.

Anxious to avoid the same mistakes as the United Arab Emirates, which signed the Abraham Accords in 2020 with virtually no quid pro quo from Tel Aviv, Riyadh insists on making recognition of Israel conditional on the creation of a Palestinian state. But this has never been so difficult. Local Gulf populations have expressed frustration at their leaders' “wait-and-see” attitudes amid the carnage which has claimed 25,700 Palestinian lives to date, and most do not endorse normalization. A survey conducted by the Doha Institute in 16 Arab-Muslim countries between Dec. 12, 2023 and Jan. 5, 2024 revealed that 89 percent of those surveyed oppose the recognition of Israel.

The results are particularly striking in Saudi Arabia, where this rate has risen from 38 percent in 2022 to 68 percent after the start of the war.

So what might the consequences of this growing dissatisfaction among Gulf populations towards the stance of their leaders, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, look like? Mira al-Hussein, Emirati sociologist and Associate Professor at the University of Edinburgh, takes stock.

Q- The UAE (which has normalized relations with Israel) and Saudi Arabia (which wants to normalize) have taken no concrete steps to defend the Palestinians or to push for a ceasefire. What do the citizens of these two countries think of their leaders' policies regarding the war in Gaza?

A- There is certainly a lot of anger and a lot of citizens who question the passivity of their leaders. Because in this conflict, the Gulf regimes made a strategic decision to do nothing and wait in the hope that Hamas would be defeated. But it is no longer acceptable that we witness all these massacres without anyone talking about them. In the UAE, people have been vocalizing their anger, with a few key figures calling on the governments to withdraw from the Abraham Accords, but you will see people like the former Commander-in-Chief of Dubai Police, Dhahi Khalfan, talking about it very publicly on his Twitter, saying: "This country [Israel] does not want peace. It has repeatedly shown its true intentions." And a lot of Emirati public figures and academics have been very vocal about it, too. We have actually returned to pre-normalization levels of tolerance when it comes to the criticism of Israel. Before the war on Gaza, people could not comfortably criticize Israel or any relationship with Israel, but now we have reached this equilibrium whereby the state tolerates the criticism of Israel, which has become globally mainstream really, as long as the criticism is directed at Israel alone and not the regime's decision to maintain diplomatic and commercial ties with it.

Q- And how do you explain that the government tolerates this?

A- They understand that there is so much anger and they want to give people a way to express it, to prevent people from going completely underground and organizing themselves politically, because this scenario is frightening for the regimes of the Gulf. So it’s a way to monitor people, but also to give them a relief valve. Especially since criticizing Israel does not in itself constitute a threat to the survival of the regime. On the other hand, there are some fairly subtle red lines on how to formulate these criticisms. For example, at the start of the war, an Emirati academic who was very active on social media called for suspending the Abraham Accords. But he used the expression “the people want,” very emblematic of the Arab Spring, and therefore very controversial in the Emirates and the Gulf. He quickly deleted his tweet. But it is clear that in the signatory countries of the Abraham Accords and the Gulf generally, people want ties with Israel to be severed. For Gulf citizens, it is outrageous to think that Israeli soldiers or reservists could simply put away their military uniforms after the war and visit the Gulf countries as tourists, businessmen or work colleagues, even though they have contributed to killing more than 25,000 Palestinians.

Q- So we're talking about this anger. How do you think it could materialize on the ground? It is difficult to imagine protests, which are not common in this part of the world.

A- Protests are not the popular choice of expression in much of the Gulf. Where there are no civil societies that organize gatherings and rallies of solidarity, there are other forms of resistance. A new phenomenon I have observed lately is 'desertion', which stems from a growing detachment of Gulf citizens to their countries. The idea of staying behind to defend their country or contribute to it is no longer a priority for many citizens. One of the ways in which citizens resist is therefore to leave, for lack of freedom of expression and to find safety. Gulf states are unable to determine the numbers of leavers and lurkers, as they do not have a precise count of the number of citizens who have left or continue to visit the country but do not live there full time. In the short term, this may seem like a solution for the government in terms of reducing welfare expenditure, including subsidies and pensions. But in the long run, this phenomenon might become an external challenge for Gulf regimes. What would happen, for instance, if Gulf citizens became naturalized citizens in Western countries and created political lobbies or political interest groups? What if there is a shortage of civil servants or soldiers in Gulf armies? The naturalization of foreigners has always been the go-to remedy, the short-term remedy to overcome skill deficits, but it is unclear if Gulf regimes could count on naturalized dual citizens to fight in the army. The problem, therefore, is that if there is neither attachment nor loyalty to the homeland, which are no longer perceived as homelands but private properties in which citizens live as tenants. Gulf states might not be able to count on their citizens to defend their country in the event of external aggression.

Q- Isn't the situation different in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf country with the most nationals (18 million)? Maybe they can mobilize under the Palestinian cause?

A- I don't think we'll necessarily see mobilization happening in Saudi or the Gulf. It is simply not the wisest decision to mobilize in the Gulf. There are many constraints to mobilising internally, with much of it owing to the growing wealth disparity between the rich and the poor in Gulf states. The grievances of different classes of citizens do not always intersect, which would make it difficult to mobilise over any one issue. Gulf regimes have also made deterring examples out of the wealthiest and most prominent citizens and members of the ruling elites too (Ritz Carlton in the case of Saudi, and the jailing of dissenting sheikhs in the UAE) as a means to discourage dissent or any form of alliance-building outside the parameters of the regime.

Q- Could expand on this? I find it hard to imagine that Saudi Arabia's case can be so similar to that of the Emirates. It is the only Gulf country with a high number of nationals, and not all are wealthy like in Qatar or the Emirates. Doesn't this affect the way the Saudis can mobilize, and organize politically? For example, there have already been protests in certain tribes against the Neom project, because they risked losing their land. Doesn’t KSA take public opinion into account more than its neighbors?

And in your work, you say that the war in Gaza creates favorable terrain for religious militancy and radicalization in the Gulf.

A- Absolutely. Religion is a very important factor for largely conservative societies. This is something that Gulf regimes continue to be dismissive of, as they determine religiosity by outward appearances and public practice. Recent surveys by UAE-based Arab Youth Survey and Princeton's Arab Barometer have stated the same. While across the way, Secretary of State Blinken going to Israel in the first week of the war and saying, "I'm here today not only as Secretary of State, but I'm also here as a Jew,” and Westerners support Netanyahu who makes references to the Amalek, the biblical soldiers to destroy the enemies of the Jews. So this rise of religious dogma and religious rhetoric in the West leads Arabs to want to reaffirm their religious identity. Our leaders present us as progressive, liberal, secular because that is the kind of direction they are taking, but they are disconnected from their society. Society is becoming more and more religious because when the UAE normalizes its relations with Israel, when it changes the weekend to Saturday, and Sunday when it liberalizes and allows the public consumption of alcohol, the reaction of people, even if they are not very religious, is to become defensive and overly protective of their identities. And identities, primarily in the Gulf, are religious, more than nationalist, more than Arabist, because despite the common belief that the Gulf is ethnically monolithic, it truly is a diverse region, and the main thing that binds people in the Gulf is not ethnicity but religion.

Q- Does this also explain the popularity of Hamas in the Gulf?

A- In part. It is true that the popularity of the movement has exploded in our countries since October 7. A lot of people in the Gulf, a lot of design studios are now printing t-shirts and hoodies with a red triangle, which has become a symbol of Hamas. This is particularly visible in Gulf states with no active civil societies. We've seen Bahraini people in marches wearing t-shirts that bear the image of the Hamas spokesperson. But this popularity can be explained by several factors. First, all Gulf states have political prisoners, some of whom have been in prison forever and will probably never get out. So the idea here is: if Hamas can negotiate a prisoner exchange with Israel, which is considered the most powerful state, that has the United States behind it, why can't we? Another element, young Khaleejis, who are big fans of video games, were fascinated by Hamas' displays of virility and military prowess in their videos. And the most popular videos circulating in the Gulf are of a Hamas fighter running towards a tank, placing an explosive on the tank and escaping unharmed. This Hamas fighter has a GoPro camera on him. We see his hand place the explosive and run. It’s as if those viewing the images were playing the video game themselves. The introduction of military service in 2014 has also contributed to the glorification of warrior culture. The dramatization of Hamas's victories affects young people.

Q- What could be the repercussions of this phenomenon?

A- Since it is difficult for Khaleejis to mount an insurgency internally, the most likely scenario would be for people to leave and join militant groups abroad. There is no official documentation or admission of this, but there were significant departures of Emirati and Gulf citizens to Syria to join the Islamic State at the time. We don't talk about it much because it's a taboo, but it is a reality and a real concern, and presents an extremely destabilizing prospect for Gulf regimes.

Q- Do the Emirati and Saudi regimes consider this a serious threat?

A- They are very worried, especially since they currently have no plan to identify or contain such a scenario. These regimes are not necessarily accustomed to foresight in thinking. They have always been reactionary. The first thing to do would be to think outside of the repression framework as a means of survival for the regime, to reconnect the State and society. Having lost against an unconventional army in Yemen, Gulf states could perhaps learn from them. The pragmatic way forward is to incorporate guerrilla warfare into the defense strategies of Gulf states. If Hamas could engage Israel - a military superpower backed by other military superpowers - and stall its ability to control the strip, chances are they know what they're doing, and we should want to know what they're doing, too. Ideological differences aside, prioritizing state and regime survival warrants new thinking. A reconciliation between Gulf regimes and their societies will require some concessions and a new balancing act that foregoes repression as the default response to any grievance; religious, political or otherwise.  

This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour

The Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have been aloof since the start of the Gaza war until recently. They are now busy putting forward a post-war plan — one that holds the prospect of granting Israel Saudi Arabia's recognition. Anxious to avoid the same mistakes as the United Arab Emirates, which signed the Abraham Accords in 2020 with virtually no quid pro quo from Tel Aviv, Riyadh insists on...