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Gulf states renew close ties amid Gaza war

Gulf states renew close ties amid Gaza war

Gulf Cooperation Council countries have seen their share of internal crises but regional instability tends to be a unifying force

Analysis | Middle East

Last year’s Hamas-led incursion into southern Israel and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza, which has killed roughly 35,000 Palestinians, have impacted relationships within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — members appear to be moving closer together.

As the Gaza war expands into Lebanon, Yemen, the Red Sea, and elsewhere, and while Iran and Israel’s hostilities brought the region into uncharted waters earlier this month, the monarchies on the Arabian Peninsula are strengthening ties within the larger Gulf Arab family.

In a historical context, this makes complete sense. To understand why, it is useful to first go back to the chaotic period of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

For the Persian Gulf’s Arab monarchies, 1979 was a terrifying year. To varying degrees, the Western-backed Gulf Arab leaders saw both Iran’s Islamic revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as dangerous developments. By 1981, the six conservative Gulf Arab states — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — came together to bolster their collective security by establishing the GCC.

Over the decades, the GCC states have put their ideological and geopolitical differences aside in the interest of growing Gulf Arab unity, particularly during periods of increased instability. Cases include the 1990/91 Kuwaiti crisis, the 2010/11 Arab Spring uprisings, the meteoric rise of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in mid-2014, and the Taliban’s return to power in 2021.

By the same token, at times of greater stability in the region and fewer threats to the Gulf Arab monarchies, internal divisions and differences between the GCC members have tended to elevate to the surface.

It was no coincidence that the first GCC crisis broke out in March 2014. At that time, the revolutionary tide of the Arab Spring had largely dissipated and the counter-revolutionary Gulf Arab states — Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain — felt the need to pressure Qatar into abandoning the pro-revolutionary and Islamist-friendly policies that shaped Doha’s approach to many of the 2010/11 uprisings which shook the Arab world. Yet, that GCC spat ended later that year after ISIL had usurped large portions of Iraq and Syria.

Then, the second GCC crisis, which was an outcome of basically the exact same issues that led to the first GCC crisis, erupted in mid-2017 when ISIL was significantly less powerful.

Although the Gulf Arab states — unlike Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria — do not share land borders with Israel-Palestine, all six GCC members are extremely worried about the situation in Gaza and its ramifications for the wider region, including the Persian Gulf. Among the Gulf Arab monarchies, there is much common cause and shared concerns about further regionalization of the Gaza war. These concerns have led to Gulf Arab officials becoming increasingly frustrated with U.S. leadership in the region and the Biden administration’s refusal to pressure Israel into agreeing to a ceasefire.

“[The] war in Gaza has unified GCC [states] in terms of moral, political, and diplomatic solidarity with Gaza and the Palestinians,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based Emirati political scientist, in an interview with RS. “Israel has become a killer machine in Gaza for the past 200 days and this is to nobody’s liking in the Arab Gulf states,” he added.

There are important domestic ramifications to consider too. Officials in the Gulf Arab monarchies fear the potential for the Palestinian cause to mobilize and/or radicalize their own citizens in ways that could upset the status quo in GCC states and the wider region. Palestine-related protests in Egypt and Jordan have potential to fuel significant unrest in those two countries, whose stability is vitally important to the Gulf Arabs.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) recently spoke by phone with the president of the UAE Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) and the emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim. In these two conversations, the Gulf Arab leaders discussed the heightening of regional tensions and threats to stability and security in the Middle East. MbS, MbZ, and Emir Tamim all agreed on the need to mitigate security risks and take measures to prevent the region’s crises from spiraling out of control.

On April 22, Oman’s Sultan Haitham paid his first visit to the UAE since he became his country’s head of state in January 2020. While in Abu Dhabi, Sultan Haitham and MbZ discussed a host of issues at the bilateral, regional, and global levels. During Sultan Haitham’s visit, companies from Oman and the UAE signed $35.12 billion worth of deals in various sectors such as transport and energy. The Omanis and Emiratis are focused on advancing their countries’ economic integration through various projects and initiatives, most notably the Etihad Rail which links Oman’s Sohar port to Abu Dhabi.

The GCC states have come a long way in terms of mending fences since the historic al-Ula summit of January 2021 officially ended the Emirati- and Saudi-led blockade of Qatar. Indeed, it was not long ago when a phone call between MbS and Emir Tamim, or between MbZ and the Qatari emir, would have created many headlines given the extent to which Saudi-Qatari and Emirati-Qatari relations had deteriorated. “The Gaza war has brought Qatar and the UAE closer,” Abdulla told RS.

These past rifts within the GCC were not only about Qatar. The UAE and Oman were having their share of problems in bilateral affairs throughout Sultan Qaboos’s final decade on the throne. Yet, Sultan Haitham’s recent visit to the UAE underscored how the leadership in both Muscat and Abu Dhabi are focused on both playing their diplomatic cards to try to bring regional crises under control while also pushing ahead with their economic transformations at home through ambitious visions aimed at eliminating their economic dependence on hydrocarbons.

In all GCC states, there is an understanding that more discussions between their leaders and growing levels of inter-GCC cooperation across a host of domains is necessary to achieve progress on both fronts. The Gulf Arab monarchies realize that this is not a time for internal divisions and friction between the different royal families to prevent the six GCC members from reaching their potential through greater Gulf Arab unity.

GCC states have strengthened their relationships with each other since October 7 because “there needed to be coordination given that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE are playing leadership roles in this conflict,” said Aziz Alghashian, a fellow with the Sectarianism, Proxies & De-sectarianisation project at Lancaster University.

Nonetheless, while the GCC members are bolstering their cooperation as Israel’s war on Gaza rages, some experts believe that competition between the Gulf Arab states vis-à-vis Gaza might emerge after the dust settles and the post-war phase begins in the Palestinian enclave.

“There is potential that it could be turbulent in the future once there is a real process of addressing the day after in Gaza and that could [relate to] aspects of burden sharing [and] aspects of competition,” Alghashian said. “So, there is that to look out for in the future. Maybe it’s speculative for now, but I don’t think we should count it out.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken poses during a group photo session with Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan bin Abdullah and other representatives of the Gulf Cooperation Council on the day of the Joint Ministerial Meeting of the GCC-U.S. Strategic Partnership to discuss the humanitarian crises faced in Gaza, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, April 29, 2024. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool

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