That some of the Gulf monarchies, in the past few years, have been quietly but surely interested in normalising relations with Israel, is no longer much of a secret. A convergence of geopolitical visions and interests have encouraged some warming up to the Israeli leadership, first and foremost Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in some Gulf capitals. However, Israel’s unilateral decision to annex 30-40 percent of the West Bank could turn back the clock on this process, as Gulf monarchs navigate a firmly pro-Palestinian public opinion both in the Gulf and in the wider Islamic world.
That public opinion is particularly impactful in Kuwait. Lacking any convergence of geopolitical visions as well as the interest towards Israeli channels in Washington, the Kuwaiti government has conceded space on the Palestine file to the National Assembly (i.e. the Parliament). Reflecting the views of the “Arab street”, Kuwaiti parliamentarians have decisively led the government on keeping a consistent position on Israel, rejecting any prospect for public and private engagement. In this sense, annexation will not impact Kuwait significantly.
Stakes may be a bit higher in Oman. The late Sultan Qaboos had invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for an official visit in Muscat in October 2018. At that time, Sultan Qaboos faced some rare public criticism, as Omanis took to social media to condemn the move. While Netanyahu has no supporters in Muscat, Oman’s outreach to Israel should be viewed in the context of deteriorating relations between the Sultanate and the administration of Donald Trump. Enjoying solid and long-standing relations with the US, Oman was caught by surprise as it realised the new President viewed Omani relations with Iran unfavourably to the point of snubbing Muscat. The new Sultan, Haitham bin Tariq, confronting serious financial challenges that come with dire geopolitical implications, still needs warmer relations with the US but cannot afford to test public loyalty as Sultan Qaboos, ruling for four decades, could. Annexation is therefore likely to bring some more distance between Muscat and Washington, at the worst possible time.
Very different perspectives across the border, as the UAE is the country viewing normalization with Israel more strategically. Beyond the value of coordinating against Iran and of using Israeli sympathies to cement an already outstanding diplomatic position in Washington, the UAE sees Israel as an important partner on two additional fronts. Firstly, Abu Dhabi is very interested in remaining ahead of the security game by developing strong cyber capabilities, a field where Israel excels. Secondly, the UAE is increasingly bent on seeing the Islamist front, led by Turkey and financed by Qatar, as the priority threat in the region, and coordination with Israel remains pivotal to contain Turkish ambitions, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean. If the UAE has been trying to stop annexation, or at least condemned it unequivocally, is exactly because annexation could turn this cooperation from asset into liability. Abu Dhabi anticipates that the Islamist front will hugely capitalise on annexation to try and galvanize the Islamic public opinion against the UAE, accusing them of having betrayed the Palestinian cause. That would add fuel to fire in an ongoing infowar between the two sides - fought on traditional and social media - to which the Emiratis are increasingly sensitive. The “betrayal of Palestine” would be a battle that the Emiratis would not win. It is in this context that one should read the Yedioth Ahronoth op-ed of Abu Dhabi’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, pleading Israel, in Hebrew, not to proceed with annexation unless they want to see the ongoing process of normalization “undermined”.
Undermined will certainly be an apt term to describe the tentative process of establishing some ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel after annexation. Testing the waters of talking to Israel has been one of the risky bets made by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Flexibility towards Israel and the idea to craft some Arab consensus around the Deal of the Century have certainly contributed to make Mohammad bin Salman a “friend” of Donald Trump. Riyadh is as interested in coordinating with Israel against Iran and the Islamists as the UAE, if not more. Saudi Arabia has been putting much pressure on Hamas, asking them to cut ties with Turkey, Iran and Qatar and arresting 60 Palestinians, Jordanians and Saudis accused of fundraising for the organization. Rest assured, the Palestinian cause has lost some traction even in Saudi Arabia, especially among the younger generations. During Ramadan 2020, there was some interesting testing of the “Saudi street.” A social media campaign formed around the hashtag “Palestine is not my cause” as Palestinians were accused of being untrustworthy, ungrateful and full of hatred towards Saudi Arabia. A Saudi TV series debated the topic of normalization openly. However, due to its position as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Riyadh is in a uniquely vulnerable spotlight on the issue. Voicing concerns from senior clerical establishment and royals, King Salman has been diplomatically but clearly critical of the Deal of the Century, advocating for the Palestinians’ right to their own state. As stated by Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan during a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in June this year, annexation would be a step in the opposite direction. To an even greater extent that in the UAE, whatever communication may survive between Riyadh and Tel Aviv, will be pushed even further underground, possibly at the level of intelligence, just like the good old days.
An interesting and unique role in this sense is played by the small archipelago Kingdom of Bahrain. While Bahrain does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, Manama has long and consistently been available to engage politically with Tel Aviv, including on behalf of other, more reluctant, regional players. It is no coincidence that Bahrain was chosen to host the Peace to Prosperity economic workshop, part of the United States’ efforts to bring about a Deal of the Century, in 2019. Former Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa was one of the few Gulf officials to publicly acknowledge meeting with his Israeli counterpart and talking about core issues, such as Iran, that same year. Like other Gulf officials, Bahrainis will use harsh rhetoric to condemn the annexation of the West Bank. However, the unique, more flexible, position of Manama vis-à-vis Israel is viewed as an asset by so many different regional and international players, that the Kingdom will likely continue to be a safe space to talk politics, albeit more covertly, with the Israelis.
A player that is expected to do much talking in the coming weeks is Qatar. Opening an Israeli trade office in Doha in 1996 and having solid ties to Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, Qatar has long tried to position itself as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After the 2017 intra-Gulf crisis, while simultaneously doubling down on outreach efforts towards the US, Qatar has come even closer to Turkey and Iran. This delicate position, requiring a monumental balancing act, will likely be upset by annexation. Speaking out against it, Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdelrahman Al-Thani described annexation as “catastrophic for the entire region” and amounting to “to planting the last nail in the coffin of the peace process”. Indeed annexation will pose a perhaps insurmountable challenge to Qatari inclinations towards balancing and push Doha further into polarization instead.
In the ten years since the Arab Spring happened fluidity has been the key word of regional geopolitics. Alignments have shifted, watershed changes have almost become routine occurrence, the unexpected has become reality. That some Gulf states were publicly discussing engagement with Israel was a sign of that. Yet fluidity also means some things can be reversible. Annexation will likely turn back the clock a few years on Gulf-Israel ties.