HONG KONG, SAR: On April 17, Qatar announced that it was ‘re-assessing’ its role as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, a “re-assessment,” officials said, that was made necessary given how some players have manipulated Qatar’s mediation for their “narrow political interests.”
While Qatari officials didn’t specify the relevant actors involved in “misusing” the otherwise ‘good-intentioned’ mediation, there is little denying that Israel’s war on Palestine has neutered many Gulf states insofar as they find themselves unable to shape the course of events in any direction, let alone to their own favor.
Qatar’s re-assessment decision came after US lawmaker Steny Hoyer accused Doha of siding with Hamas, saying  Washington would re-evaluate its ties with Doha if the latter doesn’t put enough pressure on Hamas to accept Israel’s proposed ceasefire plan.
Qatar’s position is symptomatic of the wider region. During the recent Iran-Israel exchange of strikes, no visible diplomatic activity took place in Gulf capitals to prevent an all-out war. It was mostly in Western capitals on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, that moved their diplomats around to send messages, including via Gulf states, to prevent a bigger escalation.
Gulf states looked irrelevant in their own backyard, reduced as they were to mere messengers. This is even though any all-out war in the region would involve them since most US bases are located in their territories and a lot of Arab countries are located in between Iran and Israel.
But the reason these states are unable to take a clear-cut position or put themselves in the driving seat of tension-management are their ties with Israel (e.g., the UAE) or aspirations to have those ties (e.g., Saudi Arabia) with Israel.
Despite this, Qatar made no hostile moves – or allowed them from its territory – against Iran despite hosting the largest US base in the Middle East. Equally, no US F-35s flew from Dhafra air base in the UAE. While Kuwait could have allowed US planes into the sky, those were not used to attack Iran's missiles, but to gather intelligence. Saudi Arabia’s airborne warning and control system was operational, but it did nothing more than provide intelligence.
Second, many states in the Gulf have undergone “normalization” with Iran recently. While these states could still have criticized Tehran, such criticism would have been politically costly – especially in the domestic arena – for three reasons: a) Israel targeted Iran first, b) this targeting was a result of Tehran’s support for anti-Israel groups, including Hamas, resisting Israeli apartheid for decades, and c) because Iran’s overtly pro-Palestine position carries a lot of support among the masses in the Muslim world. Criticizing Tehran would have made Gulf states overtly ‘pro-Israel’.
Complicating the Gulf states’ position even more is the fact that Iran has managed to raise its profile massively by directly attacking Israel. Although the attack was symbolic, it did send a powerful message: Israel is not untouchable. For the Gulf states, this means a massive boost to Iran’s ability to influence, if not directly shape, regional geopolitics much more than they can.
Therefore, out of this scenario, the key question that emerges for them is: what will, or can, the Gulf states do about Iran in the future? As it stands, Iran’s growing military potential might just push these states more towards consolidating, although unofficially, the US-Gulf-Israel nexus. If Israel could be attacked, the Gulf states are much more vulnerable.
After all, these states don’t have the sophisticated air defense systems that Israel and the US have, nor do they have a strategic alliance with the US of the sort that would quickly involve Washington’s military sources to protect them from Iran.
While many Gulf states, hypothetically speaking, could use the alternative route i.e., the one that goes through Beijing and Moscow, to manage ties with Iran, these are less likely for several reasons. Even though these states have deep economic ties with China, and Saudi Arabia has been cooperating with Russia to manage oil production via OPEC+, the Gulf states don’t have strategic alliances with either Russia or China.
Therefore, while they can use their ties with Moscow and Beijing to manage, diplomatically, any tensions with Tehran, they cannot rely on them for defense. For defense, Gulf states are more likely to continue to look towards the West.
Many Arab states have other reasons too for keeping a pro-Israel disposition. Jordan, for example, depends upon Israel to meet its water-related needs. As one of the most water-scarce regions in the world, Jordan needs a lot of fresh water. Since the 1994 agreement, it has been buying 50 million cubic meters of water annually from Israel. In 2022, this was upgraded to 200 million cubic meters.
Jordan, in return, is going to supply 600 megawatts of electricity, produced via a UAE-funded solar plant, to Israel. In addition to that, Jordan also receives a lot of gas from Israel’s Leviathan field to meet its domestic electricity and energy demands.
Egypt, due to its fast-depleting domestic gas reserves, also buys gas from Israel. The UAE and Saudi Arabia see a lot of strategic and economic benefits from ties with Israel – something they don’t immediately see coming out of their ties with Tehran. Because they continue to value ties with Israel, none of the Gulf states have joined Turkey in banning exports to Israel. (Turkey made the announcement on April 9).
Therefore, even though Gulf states didn’t openly support Israel or openly criticize Iran in line with the West, these states will still make some strategic shifts in the near future in the sense that they will be seeking to grow even closer to the West than they currently are, seeking to develop the sort of alliance that Israel has. Will this move make the Middle East any safer?
That’s unlikely since it could push Iran a) towards the nuclear option and b) towards a similar alliance with Russia and China. Meanwhile, any strategic alliance without first resolving the Palestine question will only add fuel to the ongoing fire that could still engulf these states.