To adapt to the post-October 7 environment, Qatar may need to abandon some long-standing policies and reemerge as a truly neutral broker and mediator.
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As the weeklong cease-fire and hostage releases in Gaza have come to an end, it is useful to assess how Gulf states have responded to the crisis. So far, efforts have seemed aimed at responding to deep public anger over Israel’s military actions that have killed over 15,000 people, including some 6,000 children, and devastated much of northern Gaza – with similar prospects apparently in store for the south, with hostilities resuming. At the same time, governments have used flexible messaging, diplomatic and related maneuver, and ambiguity, to shelter their strategic calculations and prevent any crisis responses from foreclosing longer-term objectives.
Messaging the Crisis to Criticize and Demonstrate Influence
Messaging on the crisis has varied somewhat from country to country and over time, as the fighting in Gaza intensified and momentarily subsided. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, countries that have normalized relations with Israel, have adopted somewhat more tempered language for the most part, even in moments of crisis and consensus condemnation of Israel, and have been willing on occasion to also specifically condemn Hamas for its actions – taking hostages and targeting civilians – as Bahraini Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa did at the Manama Dialogue November 17. At the same time, the two countries have not been shy about singling Israel out for its devastating military operations that have displaced over three-quarters of the population of Gaza and deprived a population – 80% of which was already dependent on international assistance before the war – of basic food, water, shelter, and medicine. At the United Nations November 29, UAE Minister of State Khalifa Shaheen Al Marar offered harsh criticism of Israel, referencing “Israel’s collective punishment” policies and attempts to displace Palestinians in Gaza from their ancestral lands. The Emirati statement also referenced “violations of international humanitarian law” and “indiscriminate bombing of civilians,” although connecting these latter criticisms more abstractly to a call for “unified rules” in the enforcement of international law rather than specifically attributing them to Israel.
Gulf countries that have not joined the Abraham Accords have gone further in the condemnation. An Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs statement in late October described Israeli actions in Gaza as war crimes and crimes against humanity. In a November 4 statement posted on X (formerly known as Twitter) and carried in local media, the Omani government called for investigation into Israeli actions by the International Criminal Court.
In many other respects, there have been common notes articulated in the messaging of the Gulf states on the crisis, including a litany of calls for a cease-fire rather than mere humanitarian pauses. Many Gulf officials have routinely referred to the conflict as a dangerous development and humanitarian catastrophe while criticizing Israel for not allowing unfettered humanitarian access.
Gulf officials have also used the Gaza situation to highlight the importance of dealing comprehensively with the Palestinian issue. At the Manana Dialogue, Saudi senior statesman Prince Turki Al Faisal insisted the conflict made clear that previous efforts, failing to address the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, are based on an illusion. At the same event, Emirati analyst Anwar Gargash made clear that what he termed the policy of “containment” of the Palestinian issue has been a failure. A number of officials have also emphasized that the history of the conflict does not begin October 7, and that the violence that occurred that day must be understood in the context of the long, violent occupation of the Palestinians.
Gulf officials have regularly expressed concerns that the war in Gaza is likely to generate dangerous levels of extremism and is giving militia groups and other extremists a dangerous platform. Some, especially earlier on in the conflict, have made the case that Hamas as an extremist player, “does not represent the Palestinian people or the people of Gaza,” although as the conflict has gone on, this point has been heard less frequently. In some instances in the broader region, such publicly voiced criticisms of Hamas have been quietly excised from subsequent written accounts in government-controlled media. Many officials, publicly and privately, have called on the United States to exercise more leadership and use its leverage to rein in Israel, compel a cease-fire, and move the parties to an international conference. Perhaps seeking a fresh piece of condemnatory language, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently called for a halt in arms exports to Israel.
This messaging – in addition to trying to shape or respond to diplomatic maneuvering in a fluid situation and attempting to read and respond to their various publics, so as to maintain control over volatile public opinion – also represents an effort to convince their publics these governments have some leverage and are using it to try to control the crisis. While some of the criticisms are harsh, governments do seem to be taking care not to overly antagonize the United States or permanently damage relations, formal or informal, with Israel.
Efforts at Diplomatic Maneuver and Mediation
In addition to messaging, Gulf governments have engaged in a degree of diplomatic maneuver to further their efforts to message some degree of management of the conflict. The most high-profile such effort was the November 11 Joint Arab Islamic Summit in Riyadh. The summit called for an immediate end to military operations in Gaza and for the International Criminal Court to investigate “war crimes” that Israel is committing. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, spouting a diatribe that called attention to his presence as the first Iranian head of state to visit Saudi Arabia in over a decade, said, “We kiss the hand of Hamas for its resistance against Israel.” As a follow-on measure, Saudi Arabia led a small group of mostly Arab foreign ministers on a diplomatic tour of U.N. Security Council capitals.
In more concrete diplomatic impact, Qatar has served as a key mediator in hostage negotiations between Israel and Hamas. News coverage has highlighted Doha’s influence with Hamas leaders and its hosting of significant exchanges, such as the November 28 meeting among CIA Director William J. Burns, Mossad Head David Barnea, and Egyptian Head of Intelligence Abbas Kamel. The administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and senior Israeli officials have lauded Qatar’s pivotal role in the effort to free hostages in Gaza, although there have been voices insisting that Qatar will eventually be called to account for its relations with Hamas, given the heinousness of the October 7 violence.
Beyond diplomatic maneuver and behind-the-scenes mediation, Gulf countries have also used more local efforts to navigate the crisis and provide citizens a controlled way to show support for Palestinians. Several countries have launched high-profile fundraising efforts, such as the Saudi launch, three weeks into the war, of a relief campaign to show solidarity with the Palestinians. Significant donations by King Salman and Mohammed bin Salman made clear the initiative was officially sanctioned. The UAE launched a similar humanitarian fundraising campaign weeks earlier. The UAE has also received severely injured Gazan children for medical treatment in Abu Dhabi and set up a field hospital at the Rafah crossing.
Channeling Protests and Curating Social Media
Some Gulf countries have allowed pro-Palestinian protests, including Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait. In addition to sanctioned protests, Bahrain, for example has also witnessed numerous unauthorized protests that have been confronted by riot police. While some Gulf governments have felt the need to allow protests, as a means to siphon off intense anger about Israeli military operations in Gaza, they have done so guardedly, recognizing that historically, the Palestinian issue has been “a gateway into politics” and activism in the region. Protests, sanctioned or otherwise, have not been reported in Saudi Arabia or the UAE.
Gulf countries have also kept a close eye on social media expression over the course of the conflict. While some pro-Israel influencers have reportedly been able to post regular content criticizing Hamas and voicing support for Israel in Saudi Arabia and UAE, there have been reports that pro-Palestinian influencers have been compelled to remove content and in some cases apologize.
Taking Refuge in Ambiguity
Gulf governments have sometimes taken refuge in ambiguity to keep options open and send different messages to different audiences. In Bahrain, for example, the Parliament, which normally would have little voice about international affairs, issued a high-profile November 2 statement, insisting the Bahraini government had recalled its ambassador from Israel, expelled his Israeli counterpart, and cut economic ties. The government issued a subsequent cryptic statement saying the Israeli ambassador had returned home “some time ago” without providing further clarification, which created ambiguity about exactly what action the Bahraini government had taken. The UAE avoided such ambiguity on official relations as the crisis progressed, underscoring it would not consider any downgrade in relations with Israel and making clear high-level contact would continue, with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan receiving Israeli President Isaac Herzog November 30 in Dubai.
In these Gulf efforts to confront the Gaza crisis, there is significant diversity in action and attitude as well as signs of evolution in responding to moments of heightened public anger. For now, there remains a good sense of control, as governments shelter long-term strategic priorities and decision making, whether to protect accords that have been signed with Israel or to avoid foreclosing such an option in the future. The big unknown here is time: How long will Israel’s military operation continue? And how long will it take Israel to address the Hamas issue? The time factor will dictate the number of casualties, extent of Palestinian internal displacement, and volume of wrenching coverage in Arab media that will shape public anger in the Gulf and broader region.
For now, Gulf countries have, with disparate but somewhat synched strategies, successfully navigated the current crisis, protected their interests, and avoided being singled out for being insensitive to or overly influenced by the Gaza crisis. The current mix of strategies is likely to continue working effectively in the short and intermediate term, assuming the crisis can be resolved in the coming weeks. The next great dramas will involve which Gulf countries will exercise the most leverage and influence once the Israeli military operations cease and how specific day-after scenarios in Gaza – long-term Israeli occupation, empowering of the Palestinian Authority, or other developments – affect that Gulf leverage and impact. Day-after scenarios in Gaza and any signs of rising extremism in the region could also provide early warning indicators of questions regarding normalization paradigms and related strategic calculations. While any such questions are unlikely to lead to reversals of strategic direction regarding the normalization of ties with Israel, they might prompt more aggressive championing of the Palestinian issue.
Ambassador William Roebuck is the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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