This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2019, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa,” held on December 12, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Most Gulf Arab countries responded to President Donald J. Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan announced January 28 with cautiously worded statements that balanced thanks and encouragement for U.S. efforts with a noncommittal stance toward the details of the proposal. This delicate balance reflects the intricate mix of political and strategic interests these countries are seeking to juggle more than emotional or ideological ambivalence, illustrating the underlying concerns for Gulf Arab states on one of the Middle East’s most volatile and intractable conflicts, as well as relations with Washington.
Gulf Reactions to the Trump Plan
The most supportive among the Gulf Arab states of Trump’s proposal have been the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain, which sent their ambassadors to attend the announcement ceremony. And though these countries, as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait, issued formal statements that struck appreciative and encouraging notes, they avoided embracing the plan itself, let alone any of its specifics.
The most important of these countries from the U.S. and Israeli perspectives, Saudi Arabia, set the tone by issuing a statement that was appreciative of U.S. efforts and urged Palestinians and Israelis to re-engage in direct negotiations. It did not endorse the plan or any of its details or even say it should be the basis of new talks. But, notably, neither did it repeat the centrality of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that Saudi Arabia has championed in the Arab League for over 15 years, and the provisions of which stand in stark contrast to Trump’s proposal. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia issued a second statement reporting a telephone call between King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in which Saudi Arabia says its monarch reiterated its “steadfast stance on the Palestinian issue and the rights of the Palestinian people.” Palestinians have said that the Saudi monarch confirmed that the kingdom would support any decision taken by the Palestinian people regarding their future.
Saudi Arabia has been notably silent on the status of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem under the Trump plan, which remains unresolved. On the one hand, Trump and other U.S. officials have repeatedly emphasized that there will be no changes to the status quo at the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, the third holiest site in Islam, which is under the control of a Muslim Waqf religious trust. Under current arrangements, Jews and other non-Muslims can visit the site, which many believe once contained the holiest of Jewish temples, but they cannot pray or hold religious ceremonies there. The written version of the Trump plan appears to suggest that people of all faiths should be allowed to pray at the site, which would be a radical deviation in the status quo. Under agreements from the 1990s, Jordan is designated as the custodian of Muslim holy places in occupied East Jerusalem, but there have been rumors that the United States, and possibly Israel, have been trying to entice Saudi Arabia into supporting the new U.S. approach by offering to replace Jordanian custodianship with that of Saudi Arabia. Nothing of the kind has been referred to in public by any of the parties, and there is no mention of it in the Trump proposal. However, Riyadh’s silence on these questions reflects the uncertainty of the U.S. position and the delicacy of these questions regarding the kingdom’s relations with Washington, Israel, and even Jordan.
Other Gulf Arab states fell on either side of Saudi Arabia’s down-the-middle approach. The three most invested in better ties with Israel, and hence more leverage with Washington and ballast against Iran, are the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Bahrain. By dispatching their ambassadors to the Trump plan rollout event, they were signaling stronger investment in the bid to restart negotiations, if not the specifics of the proposal itself. All of them have urged Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. Their positions tend to put the onus on Palestinians to agree to a new round of talks in the context, if not on the basis, of the new U.S. initiative. The UAE’s foreign minister even retweeted a New York Times article highly critical of the Palestinian position by former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens – “Every Time Palestinians Say ‘No,’ They Lose.”
Qatar and Kuwait, feeling more vulnerable than their neighboring monarchies to various Arab and regional pressures, also applauded U.S. efforts, but hedged much more toward reiterating traditional Arab baseline positions. Both emphasized the importance of previous agreements, implicitly the 1993 Declaration of Principles and its five permanent status issues framework that the Trump proposal effectively abrogates. They cited the need for peace based on the 1967 borders, a reasonable agreement on Palestinian refugees, and the necessity of a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and respect for non-Jewish holy places there. These traditional Gulf Arab touchstones were generally missing from the other four formal responses.
This caution comes from specific interests that distinguish Qatar and Kuwait from the other Gulf Arab states, but also from each other. Kuwait, with a relatively open political system and a delicate balance between ideological and religious constituencies, is loath to be dragged into any regional or transnational controversies. Kuwait, therefore, feels a stronger need than many other Gulf countries to protect its pro-Palestinian bona fides. Meanwhile, no Gulf country has been more forthcoming on building closer ties to Israel than Qatar, and the high point of Israel’s diplomatic representation in Gulf Arab states was its formal presence in Doha in the 1990s. Since then, however, and particularly after the boycott by three of its Gulf Arab neighbors and Egypt was launched in the summer of 2017, Qatar has had to pay careful attention to its increased dependence on Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Iran for support. Qatar also has strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood movement and Arab nationalist groups, including leading Palestinian politicians and commentators, to which it must attend. Qatar’s regional strategy for years, including during the period when it grew much closer to Israel, has included consistent outreach to populist groups and movements throughout the Arab world, almost all of which are categorically anti-Zionist and anti-Israel.
Competing Concerns in the Gulf
Gulf Arab countries are keen on maintaining the strongest possible relations with Washington, especially considering the United States’ “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. They are aware that Trump’s modus operandi can involve sudden reversals in which former enemies, like North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, suddenly are portrayed as beloved friends. Therefore, it is not just a matter of encouraging Washington to be tough with their Iranian rival; they are also hedging against any potential sudden shift by the White House if a dialogue with Tehran abruptly develops.
Israel has become an important factor in staving off Iranian hegemony in the Middle East and the potential rise of Turkey as another regional power with interests often opposed by many Arabs and Israelis. Israeli spokespeople and officials exaggerate when they speak about an “alliance” with various Arab countries against Iran, or even “our Sunni Arab allies,” but there is a potentially viable understanding between them to counter Iranian, and possibly Turkish, influence in the region. There is more quiet cooperation than is publicly acknowledged by Gulf Arab countries, especially on security and intelligence matters. Therefore, a degree of sensitivity about Israeli, as well as U.S., perceptions influence Gulf Arab responses to the White House proposal.
Yet three broad sets of issues ensure that even the most enthusiastic of the Gulf Arab countries remain unwilling to engage in a broader and open rapprochement with Israel.
The first is the potential political blowback they face, largely from domestic opposition groups. After decades of fulminating against Israel and the occupation, to grow closer to Israel without any major progress on Palestinian rights or the occupation would be politically dangerous.
The second consideration involves values. Even if they privilege their national interests and personal and political concerns, they remain Arabs and Muslims with genuine sympathies for the dispossession and exile of the Palestinians. Even those leaders or individuals who lack patience with the Palestinian leadership nonetheless remain moved by many decades of suffering by the Palestinian people and are deeply concerned about the fate of Muslim holy places, particularly in Jerusalem.
Third, and most important, these governments are concerned about the strategic threat posed by the continued Israeli occupation that began in 1967 and the persistence of the Palestinian plight as a destabilizing political variable in their region. The unresolved question of Palestine remains highly contentious and allows a wide range of actors – from Iran and Hezbollah, to Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, to even al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant – to score political points through angry rhetoric and appearing to outbid others regarding opposition to Israel, Zionism, the West, and, therefore, the existing Arab political order. Gulf Arab governments understand that until there is a resolution of the Palestinian issue and a mutually acceptable end to the occupation, they will not enjoy the stability and security to which they aspire.
Israel May Be Squandering a Limited Opportunity
For these reasons, Gulf Arab countries cannot abandon Palestine or openly embrace a strategic alliance with Israel despite the evident incentives for doing so. Israel is arguably making a dangerous assumption that the Gulf Arab interest in pursuing closer relations will continue to intensify as it has over the past decade. This presumes that tensions with Iran, and possibly Turkey, will persist or increase in the coming years. That is possible. But there could alternatively be a change of government or policy in Tehran or some sort of reconciliation between Gulf Arab countries and Iran. And the rise of Turkey as a regional threat remains largely hypothetical.
Under such circumstances, Israel could find itself in much less demand in Gulf Arab countries and could discover that the leeway it has enjoyed of late on the Palestinian issue has diminished. Alternatively, Gulf Arab countries could find themselves in a crisis, including an existential armed conflict with Iran, in which the necessity of a closer strategic relationship with Israel becomes irresistible and considerations regarding the Palestinians are pushed even further to the margins.
No one can be sure in which direction this relationship is headed. But one thing is certain: The mutual attraction between Israel and Gulf Arab countries is, like all commodities, contingent on a range of variables and could become more or less intense depending on a range of factors. And while many Israelis may feel that the Trump administration’s proposal presents a historic opportunity for annexation and territorial expansion, taking advantage of that opening may badly damage the broader goal of reconciliation with key Arab countries and integration into the Middle East region. What happens in the coming months in the occupied Palestinian territories will be watched closely by the Gulf states. Several of them are evidently intent on exploring the possibility of a strategic arrangement with the Israelis. But the broader context will, no doubt, transform over time.
The Palestinian Authority has, not surprisingly, expressed disappointment at the Arab, and particularly Gulf, response to the Trump proposal, and will be pushing for greater unity behind its rejection of the plan at the upcoming Arab League summit. Despite their differences, all the Gulf Arab countries’ reactions shared certain features. They all welcomed the U.S. effort and called for more negotiations. But none of them endorsed any of the plan’s specific provisions, strongly suggesting that they aren’t preparing to abandon the Palestinians or embrace Israel anytime in the foreseeable future.
Sultan Haitham will need to balance powerful interests while engaging all parties, especially as he tackles economic policy.
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