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MANAMA, Bahrain — The war in Gaza is testing recently strengthened ties between Gulf Arab countries and Israel, raising questions about a U.S.-backed vision of a regional order that emphasizes economic ties rather than political differences and historical divisions.
While the conflict is unlikely to lead to a breakdown in diplomatic relations, it has muddled the calculations of emerging Gulf powers who see Israel as a potential security partner and counterweight to its regional rival Iran. Today, leaders face a wave of public anger over a war that has killed more than 13,300 people and left much of Gaza in ruins.
In their speeches, statements and social media posts, Gulf leaders condemned the deaths and destruction in Gaza, but they were also careful to emphasize the importance of regional stability and lines of communication. Qatar, the country most diplomatically engaged in the crisis, does not maintain formal diplomatic relations with Israel, but managed to mediate a temporary pause in the fighting, allowing the release of Palestinian hostages and prisoners.
The United States has championed Arab normalization with Israel through two administrations. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain formalized their ties with Israel in 2020 under the Abraham Accords brokered by the United States, followed by Morocco and Sudan. Washington had hoped that Saudi Arabia – the dominant power in the Gulf – would be next. Today, these projects are on hold.
“I can’t prove what I’m about to say,” President Biden said earlier this month. “But I believe one of the reasons Hamas struck when it did was because they knew that I was working very closely with the Saudis and others in the region to bring peace to the region by recognizing Israel and Israel’s right to exist. »
The White House works to repair relations with Arab and Muslim Americans
Saudi Arabia has called for a comprehensive ceasefire in Gaza, calling the war a “dangerous development” and a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Domestically, the kingdom has taken steps to channel public expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians into relief and fundraising efforts.
Speaking on November 18 at the IISS Manama Dialogue in Bahrain, Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former ambassador to Washington and a senior member of the royal family, said the crisis in Gaza has shown that regional peace efforts that fail to resolve the problem The occupation of Palestinian land is an “illusion.”
“This war is a turning point in the process of seriously seeking a just solution to the Palestinian question,” he said. Going forward, any efforts must respond to “the legitimate Palestinian demand for self-determination.”
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have defended their ties with Israel, saying it allows them to act as a moderating force in the crisis.
Anwar Gargash, the diplomatic adviser to the president of the United Arab Emirates, said his country has leverage with Israel that would not otherwise exist. He said they have used their influence so far to lobby for humanitarian aid, “but that leverage will also grow at some point.”
Asked if anything could force the UAE to cut ties with Israel, Gargash was circumspect: “What we found through our diplomatic process is that instant gratification does not is not the solution in politics. Communication is the solution in politics.
But on social media, at protests and in dinner table conversations, many Gulf citizens say they want their leaders to do more.
“We didn’t see any benefit. We should put pressure on Israel, this is how we will end apartheid, through a boycott,” said a 45-year-old pharmacist who recently participated in an anti-normalization protest with her sister and daughter. niece in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. Like others in this story, she spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss politically sensitive topics.
“With normalization, what you are saying is that what is happening to the Palestinian people is normal,” she said. This woman, whose family is Palestinian, does not believe that diplomatic relations with Israel have helped the region.
“If we had stability, there would not be what is happening in Gaza. The instability has always been there, now it is in plain sight.”
As public anger grows, Israeli companies in the Gulf have adopted lower public profiles. They do not participate in trade fairs, eliminate advertising and reduce the number of official delegations.
“Beneath the surface, it’s business as usual. We just publicize our relationship less,” said a Gulf businessman who works extensively with Israeli companies.
“The commercial relationship was there before (the Abraham Accords) and it will be there after this crisis,” he said.
In the Middle East, many accuse the United States of being responsible for the devastation caused in Gaza.
But consumers speak with their wallets. A grassroots boycott movement against Western brands, including Starbucks and McDonalds, has gained support in the Gulf and Arab world.
A 30-year-old Kuwaiti social media consultant who has spent her entire life in Dubai has described dealings with Israeli businesses in the UAE as “uncomfortable”. She said she used to meet regularly with representatives of Israeli brands, but had taken a step back since the war began. She doubts things will ever return to the way they were before October 7, when Hamas militants killed at least 1,200 people in southern Israel.
Although on the surface life in the UAE appears to be continuing as normal, the woman said the war is all-consuming. It dominates conversations with friends and family. “Everyone just feels numb,” she said. Like thousands of others, she joined a government-organized aid campaign in Dubai.
“I wanted to have a way to feel like I’m making a difference, even if it’s insignificant,” she said. “It’s the best I can do. Your hands are tied, so you’re going to do whatever you can within your resources.
Although feelings of helplessness and frustration are widespread here, she said they have not translated into anti-government sentiment.
“Some people hope that the UAE will take a tougher stance, but ultimately they trust the government because there is information that we don’t know,” she said. “We know they prioritize security and stability because you only have to look at their track record. »
In Bahrain, the anger is more intense and potentially more worrying for the authorities.
A few kilometers from the five-star hotel hosting the security summit in Manama, hundreds of people marched against normalization, chanting “From Ramallah to Bahrain, we are one nation and not two” and “No to displacement, no to normalization, long live Palestine.” ! »
The march obtained a protest permit from the Bahrain government – a recognition, participants said, that public discontent is now an undeniable political force.
Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa warned against actions that undermine the “rules-based order” in his speech marking the opening of the summit. He said countries like his must work “with all parties involved to ensure our voice” is heard. The longer the war in Gaza lasts, he warned, the more likely it will lead to instability and extremism.
Nearby, in a neighborhood dotted with elegant restaurants and cafes, dozens of people recently gathered outside the office of a Palestinian advocacy group, calling on the government to cut ties with Israel.
A 33-year-old Bahraini man, who works as a private art curator and describes himself as a government supporter, admitted he had never been comfortable with his country’s decision to normalize relations. Today, after seeing the brutality of the war in Gaza, he hopes that the authorities will reverse course.
“I don’t think a company’s values are ever perfectly reflected by its leaders, but on this point, I hope that changes, I hope they cut ties,” he said.
In the Shiite regions of this Sunni kingdom, where resentment has long simmered, the war in Gaza is fueling even more open fury.
Outside a northern Shiite mosque, after Friday prayers, dozens of men, women and children gathered, holding signs calling for the erasure of Israel and accusing U.S. leaders of genocide.
“We are a small voice, but an important voice,” said a 35-year-old travel agent at the edge of the rally.
“The Saudis cannot protest,” he said, referring to strict controls on public gatherings in powerful oil neighbor Bahrain. “But we say loud and clear what everyone in Saudi, every Arab, every Muslim thinks in their heart. »