Why are the Arab Gulf countries silent on Gaza?


Instead of aiming their diplomatic guns at each other, the Gulf states must use their influence to shore up support for Gaza

Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Sa with Barack Obama
Saudi Arabia’s king, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, with the US president, Barack Obama. ‘The US-Gulf relationship should also come under pressure as a result of the former’s financial and military support for Israel. Oil exports should not be off the bargaining table.’ Photograph: Mido Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images

After hopes of a lasting truce fade again today, the intense pressure on Gaza continues. We are used to hearing voices across the world raised against the conflict. But, perhaps surprisingly, the Gulf has scarcely reared its head to protest.

Gulf thinking towards Gaza is mixed up. Upon joining the ruler of Dubai’s central government office in 2007, its Palestinian head of strategy told me to steer clear of Palestinian politics. “For Sheikh Mohammed, policy comes before politics. We don’t put the cart before the horse. We must get our house in order and then we can change things.”

Her attitude, however, contrasted with the material help being provided. “Palestinians have received more humanitarian aid [in the form of budget support] from the United Arab Emirates than from any other nation. The UAE has always stood by us,” the Palestinian Authority’s man in charge of reconstruction told me in 2010.

True to form, through the latest period of violence, 18 Boeing 747s and C130s were dispatched from Dubai laden with meals, blankets and medicine. Saudi Arabia pledged US$80m (around £48m) in aid. Yet this humanitarian effort stands in stark contrast to Gulf foreign policy. Saudi Arabia’s king took three painful weeks to even criticise Israel’s offensive. The UAE then concurred; its foreign minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, had earlier condemned Israel on Twitter.

But not one concrete, punitive action against Israel was called for by either country. That Gulf Arab silence – in policy, thought and strategy – has not gone unnoticed. It has reverberated in the west, where Spain and Latin American nations have done more to shore up support for Gaza than their Arab counterparts.

Instead of taking action, Gulf nations aimed their diplomatic guns at each other. A spat raged between Qatar, Saudi and the UAE: the Middle East Eye depicted an Israel-Saudi-Egypt troika conspiring against Gaza. The UAE denied it had ever normalised relations with Israel “as others did” – a dig at Qatar’s now defunct 1990s relationship with Israel.

What are some of the reasons for this state of affairs? Partly, fatigue has set in after a decade of pressing the Gulf’s definitive position on Israel, the Arab Peace Initiative, to little avail. But domestic political concerns inevitably play a part for regimes that are constantly wary of their own populations.

As Dr Kristian Ulrichsen of Rice University has said, “Gulf states are also caught in a difficult balancing act as their commitment to the Palestinian cause clashes with their campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood across the region”.

This may be the case. But it’s hard to see what Gulf states could lose in the long term from a resolution of this most divisive problem. If only they attacked the problem of reaching a lasting settlement with the same vigour they show in attacking each other. The UAE has augmented its standing at the UN with time, energy and resources. In the interest of deterring Iran, the UAE now has the world’s highest military spending per capita at $14bn a year and Saudi Arabia outstrips the UAE for defence imports. It is time to develop a formula for Gulf Arab intervention backed by diplomatic and defence credibility.

Aid is useless if reconstruction materials cannot get through. The Gulf ought to pursue an end to the blockade, in alignment with Jimmy Carter’s and Mary Robinson’s recent proposal for a UN security council resolution. Saudi Arabia and the UAE could either pay for, send or politically back peacekeepers; the precedent exists in Afghanistan alongside western allies. The question of a UAE-funded Iron Dome to protect Gazans has not so far been contemplated. It should be.

The US has said it will “strongly oppose” a Palestinian push for an investigation by the international criminal court into Israeli actions. A credible Arab plan to back efforts at the international criminal court is overdue; Palestinians should not be going it alone. The US-Gulf relationship should also come under pressure as a result of the former’s financial and military support for Israel. Oil exports should not be off the bargaining table.

This could be the Gulf’s smart-power moment. It must use its influence where it is needed most.

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