As the Israel–Hamas war enters its fourth month, the Arabian Gulf is emerging as a crucial power for preventing its spread across the region. The Gulf states may hold the key to reviving a peace deal that many policymakers had long declared dead: the two-state solution.
Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been able to cultivate increasing leverage as mediators and strategic actors globally, even as their foreign policy strategies diverge. ‘We are at this inflection point where everything is possible,’ said Andreas Krieg of the School of Security Studies, King’s College London. ‘You could extract concessions from Israel that you couldn’t have extracted a year ago.’
The role each Gulf nation might play in securing concessions hinges on their unique positioning vis-à-vis Israel and the United States and, perhaps most importantly, whether they are willing to coordinate as a united front to bring a Palestinian state into being.
An adept negotiator
Qatar has particularly dominated headlines as an adept negotiator between Israel and Hamas in securing hostage releases and getting aid into Gaza. This is largely due to the connections it has built not only with western powers but Islamist groups, which led to a three-and-a-half-year diplomatic blockade by the UAE and Saudi Arabia from 2017-2021.
Nevertheless, Qatar’s relations with these groups, as well as with Iran, have enabled the small nation to ‘maintain relevancy on the global stage’ and ‘become indispensable for great powers,’ according to Krieg.
‘Dialogue is the number one ingredient of their foreign security policy. Being the middleman and connecting state and non-state actors is something no other state in the Gulf can do because they also have a relationship with the more juicy, non-state actors that nobody wants to have any contacts with,’ he said.
Qatar has established itself as a trusted intermediary beyond the Middle East, as seen with its successful mediation between the US and Venezuela and Ukraine and Russia. Mehran Kamrava, a professor of government and Middle East expert at Georgetown University Qatar, said this role has safeguarded the country against the region’s volatile political realities.
Doha’s relations with Tehran have allowed it to avoid being drawn into broader conflicts, for instance in 2020 when the US killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Iran struck back against US bases in Iraq.
‘In Iranian military calculations, the US was going to retaliate. They had already targeted five US bases to hit, in anticipation of American retaliation. What is instructive is that those bases did not include the two major US bases in Doha, which are really easy for Iran to hit,’ Kamrava said. ‘They had targeted bases in Saudi Arabia, in Iraq, in Jordan, but not in Qatar. One of the positive side effects is the Qataris have tried to minimize the risks that they face in this region.’
Saudi Arabia and the UAE occupy different roles from Qatar. The latter, in particular, has developed a more military-centric, muscular foreign policy that includes supporting proxy separatists in Africa. Both the Saudis and Emiratis are pursuing rapprochement with Iran and are growing closer with Russia and China.
America’s increasing unreliability
Analysts say these decisions were spurred by America’s increasing unreliability as a defender, as demonstrated by President Barack Obama’s failure to maintain a red line against Syrian President Assad’s use of chemical warfare, and the Trump administration’s lack of significant retaliation after Iranian networks bombed Saudi oil refineries in 2019.
America’s inability to rein in Israeli aggression in Gaza is only bolstering these decisions, said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House. ‘There is disappointment playing out under our very eyes where the Gulf States are surprised by the US yet again being unwilling to press Israel more, unwilling to protect human rights and push for a ceasefire or provide humanitarian aid. That disappointment is ongoing,’ she said.
The UAE’s drift toward Russia and China has disconcerted European leaders concerned it is becoming a proxy for Russian and Chinese interests.
‘The fact that the Chinese build joint ventures with Emirati businesses to gain access to chip manufacturing companies in America, or how the Russians are using the UAE as a platform to build proxies for Wagner that then can operate globally, bypassing sanctions, this is a very problematic side,’ said Krieg. ‘But it shows you that even great powers such as Russia and China require the Gulf as conduits to do things they can’t do because of their standing, particularly in the western world.’
Vakil said that as the world becomes more multipolar, the Gulf States and particularly UAE and Saudi Arabia seek to resist aligning with one power: ‘Yes, their security is still primarily tied to that of the United States … but they don’t want to have to pick sides currently, and they want to be able to pursue interest-oriented policies,’ said Vakil, adding that despite the Gulf states’ anger at Israel, the UAE does not appear interested in abandoning the Abraham Accords.
‘The Gulf states want durable bipartisan relationships with Washington and consistency. They don’t want fluctuations from Republican to Democratic administrations. Beyond that there are economic and strategic opportunities. The UAE has purchased radar and anti-missile equipment and intends to bolster its security cooperation with the Israelis through Centcom, the US central command. That was a very important part of the vision,’ Vakil said.
A push for a Palestinian state
Nevertheless, the Gulf’s leverage could lead its states, particularly Saudi Arabia, to eventually push Israel into accepting a Palestinian state in exchange for normalization.
‘People are very angry. It has brought home to governments across the Gulf that the public is not ready to normalize with Israel, especially if they feel there’s no gain for the Palestinians in doing so,’ said Kristian Ulrichsen, a fellow for the Middle East in the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
‘Clearly, the Saudis are now going to demand a very high price in terms of meaningful concessions towards Palestinians. Netanyahu is not going to want to do that at all,’ said Ulrichsen.
‘But there is an opportunity for [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman to position himself as the man who got the Palestinians their state – if he can do it. He knows that the Israelis and the US, especially the US, really want normalization to happen, regardless of whether it is Biden or Trump again.’