Evolution Of Gulf-Israel Relations: Analysis Of Historical Trends, Regional Implications And Possibilities

In the aftermath of the events on 7 October, a significant shift was observed in the relations between Gulf countries and Israel, prompted by Israel’s disproportionate and unlawful attacks on the Palestinian people and lands, particularly in Gaza. While Gulf countries aim to establish a common stance on regional and international developments, the issue of Palestine, which is imbued with Arab and Muslim identity and, above all, its humanitarian dimension, exhibits a lack of consensus in their views and attitudes. Simultaneously, the differences in the policies of Gulf countries regarding the issue contribute to the complexity of their relations with Israel.

Analysis of Historical Trends and Differences in Approaches

Examining the political, military and economic closeness of Gulf countries to Israel presents a nuanced picture. Over the past decade, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) stands out as the country that has most significantly developed political, military and economic relations with Israel, while Kuwait remains at the centre of anti-Israel sentiments in the region. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has historically advocated a two-state solution through King Abdullah’s Arab Peace Initiative but influenced by recent regional and international dynamics and aims to enhance its relations with Israel.

In 2020, the UAE became the third Arab country to recognise Israel, following Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994, breaking the “isolation embargo” where Israel was not diplomatically recognised in the region. The main reasons behind the UAE’s diplomatic normalisation with Israel include balancing the influence of neighbouring powers (Saudi Arabia and Iran), countering perceived security threats from Iran, tapping into Israel’s economic potential, and strengthening security ties with the United States. This diplomatic move also reinforced the regional leadership role amid economic competition with Saudi Arabia during that period.

Bahrain, meanwhile, made a strategic move based on geopolitical considerations. Its decision to establish relations with Israel in 2020 was primarily driven by tensions with Iran. Bahrain, being the second country to recognise Israel in 2020, sought to limit Iran’s regional influence. Additionally, Bahrain’s desire for robust military and security cooperation with Israel aligned with its strong military ties with the United States.

While Oman’s relations with Israel are less conspicuous, they persist in the background. Oman’s decision not to establish direct diplomatic relations with Israel aligns with its balanced regional policy. Although Oman refrains from direct diplomatic engagement, occasional visits by Israeli leaders and the opening of trade offices indicate an indirect and measured approach to maintaining these relations, reflecting Oman’s diversity strategy in regional diplomacy

As the most influential power in the Gulf region in political, military and geopolitical terms, Saudi Arabia has not yet established formal diplomatic relations with Israel. However, signals of a shift in Saudi-Israeli relations have been evident in intelligence-level talks in the late 2010s and official rhetoric of a thaw as of 2020. Efforts were made to normalise relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel following diplomatic manoeuvres by the United States before the events on 7 October. Nevertheless, challenges in Saudi-Israeli relations should not be overlooked, considering the potential backlash from Saudi society and other Arab countries due to the emotional and historical ties to the Palestinian cause.

Qatar, on the other hand, maintained relations with Israel to some extent but stood firm on the two-state solution for the Palestinian issue. Qatar played a mediating role in the region by maintaining close ties with Palestinian groups like Hamas after the events on 7 October. This approach indicates that Qatar evaluates its relations with Israel primarily in the context of the Palestinian issue. Qatar’s engagement with Israel is defined more by its sensitivity to the Palestinian cause than by the broader regional dynamics.

Yemen, without formal diplomatic ties with Israel, indirectly entered the complex web of regional relations during the internal conflict that began in 2014. The Southern Transitional Council, supported by the UAE, expressed positive views toward normalisation with Israel earlier. Meanwhile, the Houthi rebels, with close ties to Iran, sporadically engaged in military attacks against Israel after the events on 7 October, despite not representing the legitimate government of Yemen.

Kuwait, hosting a significant Palestinian Diaspora, is deeply influenced by this demographic factor shaping its stance on Israel. Kuwait continues to maintain a strong political position against Israel, particularly after the events on 7 October. The country’s strict measures against individuals expressing pro-Israel sentiments indicate a long-term commitment to being at the forefront of anti-Israel sentiment in the region.

Regional Implications and Possibilities

The escalation of military tensions between Israel and Palestinian groups is likely to have regional repercussions in the Gulf. The Palestinian issue, with its unifying and transcendent character over Arab-Muslim identities, may slow down the ongoing normalisation efforts between Israel and the Gulf. Although expecting Saudi Arabia to entirely abandon its normalisation tendencies due to regional developments might not be rational, resuming momentum in normalisation dialogues will take time, given public pressure and the current psychological and political atmosphere in the Arab world.

These developments will not only impact Saudi-Israel relations, but also affect Saudi Arabia’s relationships with the United States and Iran. Saudi postponement regarding dialogues with Israel may slow down Saudi-American relations, despite diplomatic efforts to align humanitarian actions, international law enforcement and prevention of war crimes concerning the events in Gaza. Constructing dialogue platforms for resolving fundamental geopolitical issues among these countries may face significant challenges, as there are substantial differences in the demands of the American, Saudi and Iranian populations concerning the situation in Gaza, reflecting complex geopolitical realities.

“This article was previously published on  December 11, 2023, on Middle East Monitor.web site with the title “Evolution Of Gulf-Israel Relations: Analysis Of Historical Trends, Regional Implications And Possibilities”