Gulf Arabs compete over Palestine and stay friends with Israel

This article seeks to explore two related but contradictory elements in Gulf Arab relations with Israel and Palestine. In doing so it will examine the ‘Normalisation’ treaties agreed between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain (and, relatedly, with Morocco and Sudan) in 2020; the non-official relationship that Israel has with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) Qatar and Oman and its almost non-existent relationship with Kuwait. It will also assess the extent to which the Normalisation agreements can either contribute to a sustainable end to Israeli-Palestinian violence beyond the announced ceasefire, or, conversely, prove  irrelevant to the prospect of a durable outcome.

A quarter of a century after the last comparable agreement – the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty of 1994 – the Normalisation deal between the UAE and Israel is the most important. The so-called Abraham Accords were much criticised in the Arab world when agreed in August 2020. The main criticism directed against the UAE’s Normalisation was its claim that it would contribute to peace and stability in the region by stalling the planned Israeli annexation of approximately 30% of the West Bank. The UAE-Israel deal did formally remove the proposed annexation from the table, although there were strong indications that Netanyahu was looking for a way out of his commitment to annex this territory. Furthermore there was only an implicit Emirati threat that their agreement with Israel would be frozen should annexation be formally re-introduced. There was nothing, at least in the wording of the deal that the Emiratis could call on to prevent Israel’s decades of de facto annexation from continuing. The nascent Intifada 3, mainly but not exclusively focused on Israel’s expropriation of Palestinian land in Jerusalem and on the centrality of the city and its Islamic holy places to Palestinian national identity, has arguably demonstrated the irrelevance of the UAE-Israeli deal. However, it has also simultaneously, and somewhat belatedly, encouraged the UAE to emphasise that its professed soft power skills could be deployed in this arena.

This latest Palestinian uprising caught most Arab states and the official Palestinian leadership off-guard, just as the first Intifada did in 1987. Back then the so-called moderate Arab states were lined up against Iran, albeit in the context of what had by then been seven years of an Arab war solely conducted by Iraq. A very different UAE, although one still facing both ways on Iran, has this time publicly stated its willingness to contribute to a diplomatic solution to the fighting and seemingly to the latest wave of Israel-Hamas confrontation in particular. However, this tentative raising of its head above the diplomatic parapet after the guns had more or less fallen silent, is not exactly proactive. It is rather largely an expression of support for Egyptian diplomacy that had already produced an official, if not wholly upheld, ceasefire that was aided by Egypt’s renewed ability to talk to Turkey.

After the bombs stopped falling on Gaza. Above picture © Al-Jazeera

An editorial in a semi-official Emirati newspaper confirmed that the UAE’s de facto ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zaid (MbZ), in talking with President Sisi, had welcomed Egypt’s role in seeking ‘calm in Gaza’. It said that MbZ had also spoken of the need for ‘more effort’ by Israeli and Palestinian leaders to enhance regional security and stability, while also expressing the ‘readiness’ of the UAE to work with all parties to maintain the ceasefire and to explore new pathways to deescalate and achieve peace.’ [i]

Israel does not want to deliberately antagonise the UAE, however the Emiratis’ powerlessness is especially evident over Jerusalem, which, despite its huge role in this most recent iteration of the conflict, was notably absent from the UAE’s calls for a ceasefire. Although the UAE, in common with every country in the world except the USA and some minor US client states, sends its ambassador to Tel Aviv rather Jerusalem, the fact remains that the UAE’s normalisation is with an Israel that has never formally defined its own national borders. This means that the reality of  normalisation politics, including Israel’s relations with Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, inevitably exclude Jerusalem. The entirety of Israel’s municipal definition of Jerusalem, and its incorporation into the formal Israeli state, is effectively out of bounds for any challenge or questioning by any of the new wave of Arab ‘normalisers’. Whilst, in practice, the same may be said of the full peace agreements between Israel and Egypt, Israel and Jordan, and even the agreement between Israel and the PLO in 1993, the politics behind these agreements and the strong official stances of these Arab parties made it clear that there was no recognition by them of Israeli claims in and over Jerusalem, nor for that matter the Syrian Golan Heights. Jordan after all has had its own role in Jerusalem written into its 1994 peace agreement with Israel, a role  underwritten by the United Nations and a wide range of international partners giving it international status. The Israel-PLO deal was patently not a state-to-state peace agreement nor, by definition, a final peace settlement.

It’s arguable that the first Arab-Israeli peace deal, between Israel and Egypt, was a de facto Egyptian acceptance of the status quo, meaning Israel’s hold over Jerusalem. However, at the time of the 1979 Camp David process and the 1981 deal, Israel‘s presence in the eastern half of the city was relatively modest. It was plausible for Egypt to argue, albeit highly controversially in the Arab world at the time, that such a deal did no harm to Palestinian and wider Muslim claims in the city even though an expanded Jerusalem had been annexed to become part of the self-defined de jure Israel state.

However, the renewed conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and specifically the Palestinians’ contestation of Israel’s control over Jerusalem, clearly underscores the powerlessness of the new Arab normalisers and of their agreements to politically challenge Israel. That said, this fact was evident before the current phase of violence ensued. Four Arab states normalised with an Israel that had by this stage swallowed Jerusalem on what looked like a permanent basis, and in the case of the UAE, seemed unconcerned about effectively legitimising this. The UAE’s burgeoning economic partnership with Israel includes trade with illegal Israeli settlements, not least those located in what Israel defines as Jerusalem. Members of officially-sanctioned Emirati business delegations to Israel have also effectively legitimised its control over Jerusalem by praying at the Al-Aqsa mosque. [ii]

UAE stresses importance of Normalisation and of soft power

In fact the latest massive upsurge in Israeli-Palestinian violence didn’t prevent the UAE from stressing that its Normalisation deal was now more important than ever. Editorials and opinion columns by Emiratis published in semi-official Emirati Arabic language publications, which are largely but not exclusively aimed at a domestic national readership, stated this clearly, while the de facto Emirati leader MbZ was quoted in Emirati media as having tweeted more or less the same message. Notably, the relatively junior Reem Hashmi, Minister for International Cooperation, was designated to represent her country at a virtual session of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in mid-May, rather than MbZ’s full brother, the foreign minister, Sheiklh Abdullah bin Zayed. Hashemi said that the confrontation underscored the importance of what she referred to as a ‘peace process’ and of the (seemingly forgotten) ‘Arab Peace Initiative’ (API). Despite contemporary UAE foreign policy being largely unencumbered by Arabist or even conventional Islamic sensitivities, a direct reference to her country’s normalisation deal was presumably deemed inappropriate for an OIC meeting. Ironically though, she did mention the need for respect for Jordan’s custodianship over the Islamic holy sites in the city.

However that ‘peace process’ reference, read from what was a carefully prepared statement, was arguably code for saying that any platforms for dialogue are crucial for the sake of regional peace and stability, now more than ever. The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Dr Khalifa Shaheen Al-Marar, issued a statement via WAM that tried to have it both ways, saying that that the UAE continues to value its Normalisation deal with Israel and emphasises the need for a ‘two state solution’ (2SS) to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict including a resolution regarding Jerusalem.

The UAE was emphasising its soft power skills at the very time that the recent confrontations began. The Emirati political science professor, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, wrote about the wisdom, as he saw it, of its shift from overt military action such as in Yemen and the related minimising of Emirati tensions with Iran, to what he suggested was the current stage of soft power diplomacy [iii]. The UAE mediated between Ethiopia and Eritrea with some success, while it has been building on its growing diplomatic and military role in the Horn of Africa by trying to resolve renewed tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan. These tensions have in turn seen an alignment between Sudan and the Emirati ally, Egypt. This Emirati engagement in Sudan’s foreign relations in part reflects the UAE’s political and financial support for the military and security leadership of Sudan, including its role in Libya, and the fact that Abu Dhabi wants the head of an unreconstructed state militia to assume the Sudanese presidency.[iv]    

A senior Abu Dhabi academic, Dr Ebtesam Al-Ketbi, whose highly connected status is reflected in the work of her think tank, the Emirates Policy Centre, published an analysis of what her country’s normalisation deal means in light of the recent Israeli Palestinian confrontations[v]. In her interpretation of the deal she connected regional peace and stability among parties of goodwill and the deal’s specifically advertised ending of Israel’s planned annexation of one third of the West Bank, with the current violence over other territories populated by Palestinians, specifically Jerusalem. In terms that, to be fair, built on thoughts that she has expressed before [vi], Al-Ketbi argued that the Palestinians must in effect be a part of the Normalisation deal’s achievements by contributing to efforts to secure a viable sovereign state along 1967 lines, including the eastern half of Jerusalem.

However by talking of the Palestinians as, in effect, becoming parties to the Normalisation deal, she seemed to put more onus on the UAE to help this development than had hitherto been suggested. Furthermore, by stating that a united Palestinian leadership must form the partners that Israel and Arab the states work with to deliver this state, Al-Ketbi both involves the UAE more overtly in the moribund 2SS project, and simultaneously gets itself off the hook. That said, she has still created a different perception of the deal than that of an Emirati-Israeli agreement that normalised with an occupation that very much includes the whole of Jerusalem. However, demanding a united Palestinian Authority (PA) Government, including the PA’s rival, the Hamas leadership of Gaza, as a precursor to progress would suggest that the UAE, or for that matter Bahrain, won’t be extending any capital to secure a 2SS. No one expects UAE officials to be visiting Gaza anytime soon. In fact it’s kept a financial patronage line to the Strip, effectively therefore to Hamas in Gaza, via the spending power on health and other services exercised by breakaway Fatah allies of its preferred Gazan and PA leader, Mohammed Dahlan [vii]. However the UAE is unlikely to break bread with Hamas in Gaza City in order to disinter the vaunted Palestinian ‘national unity government’. Furthermore, its sponsorship of Dahlan also weakens Abu Dhabi’s relations with the PA.

It has been argued by the UAE’s detractors in the Arab world that it, and by extension its close ally the relatively powerless Bahrain, have put much more emphasis strategically speaking on containing Iran and fighting the Muslim Brotherhood than somehow leveraging a viable sovereign Palestinian state. Therefore, an Emirati alignment with Israel and by extension a stronger Emirati relationship with the United States,  matters more to the UAE than allowing Palestinians in Jerusalem to threaten the Normalisation deals even in the face of violent Israeli aggression. However, the very fact of these formal and public deals and the value that Israel seems to continue to attach to them as a badge of credibility and legitimacy in the Arab world, whether needed in security and defence terms or not, suggests the potential at least for the UAE to have intervened diplomatically or to promote ways of avoiding such future conflicts. However, there are limits to what it can leverage in this respect. The Emirati political science professor, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, argues that the Normalisation deal remains ‘irreversible’ and a strategic choice for the UAE. Conflicts such as have recently occurred were expected, he says, just as they have periodically occurred since the older Arab peace deals were signed. Professor Abdulla notes that the UAE’s problem with Hamas because it’s a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and because of its relations with Iran, is a problem for all Arab governments. However, it further limits what the UAE can achieve in any diplomatic intervention.

Above picture © The National

Another constraint is that the UAE highly values its burgeoning economic partnership with Israel. However this is also of importance to Israel, and not just in symbolic terms. Extant bilateral intelligence cooperation has presumably deepened, while Israeli businesspeople have been keen to explore the new opportunities to   establish an economic presence in the Gulf beyond that hitherto facilitated via US passports.

A former professor at the UAE’s National Defense College, Albadr Alshateri, assesses that UAE criticism of both Israel and Hamas has been softer during this round of confrontation than during the periodic fighting that occurred before the UAE-Israel normalisation. Whether this is because the Emiratis want to give themselves room to play a diplomatic, even mediatory role, with both parties is unclear. Alshateri also notes that the UAE not having a good relationship with Hamas limits its mediation capabilities, but he sees Abu Dhabi’s good relationship with Egypt as potentially providing scope for an Emirati diplomatic contribution to calming the conflict in Gaza. Egypt has, in effect, become Hamas’ ‘biggest patron’, while any Emirati diplomatic effort to help avoid a repetition of such confrontation would most likely be deployed via Cairo, Professor Alshateri says. He assesses that Egypt is leveraging Hamas violence as a pressure on Israel because of Egypt’s African backyard. Specifically Egypt has covertly allowed Hamas to pursue its armed options against Israel in order to try to soften Israel’s close relationship with Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project is a threat to Egyptian water security and in turn has encouraged an Egyptian-Sudanese military alliance that complements Sudan’s new found but still cautious diplomatic relations with Israel. Alshateri notes that Hamas also ‘gives Egypt a role in inter-Arab politics and vis-à-vis Washington.’

One unsurprising assumption about a possible Gulf Arab, including UAE, intervention in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the funding of reconstruction. Alshateri commented that when it comes to the UAE’s cash actually having any influence over what happens in Gaza, this is a ‘known unknown’. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla includes the funding of Gaza’s reconstruction among the different aspects of a potential Emirati role. He argues that having a diplomatic relationship with Israel gives the Emirates leverage. Egyptian-led diplomacy has achieved a ceasefire and now the second phase, as he sees it, involves countries like the UAE being part of such cooperation to try to build a more sustainable and stable future. Hamas, he says, is an important Palestinian actor, and because it is therefore ‘indispensable for peace’ the Arab states ‘have to deal with it.’ He notes too that if the UAE wants to act in Gaza, it will do so by acting directly, using its diplomatic resources. Abdulla totally rejects the idea that Mohammed Dahlan or his Gazan ex-Fatah allies would be utilised for indirect Emirati influence.

It is noteworthy that the UAE was subsequently accused of working with the US to ensure that any of development aid from Abu Dhabi or its Arab allies not be funnelled via Hamas auspices. This surely difficult prerequisite could only be achieved if the UAE and/or its allies were substantially present on the ground. The reported Emirati and US attempt to control who gains access to reconstruction funds brought a response from Hamas’ leader in Gaza (and arguably the movement’s most important figure), Yahya Al-Sinwar, that it would not accept any development aid, in any form, from any Arab states who’d taken this approach. Hamas governmental officials in Gaza also appear to have rejected Arab states’ aid being funnelled via the PA.

Alshateri commented that Hamas’ Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Iranian connections are a ‘double whammy’ for the UAE. While the UAE may deploy financial leverage in Gaza, the fact that Haniyeh has already made a statement about receiving Iranian assistance ‘will leave a bad taste in the UAE’s mouth.’ Alshateri argued that the most likely scenario for the UAE is ‘[To] use the political capital it generated from the Abraham Accords to lean on the USA and Israel to relaunch the peace process. Washington is receptive to such an idea and has said so. Israel has already anticipated such a scenario and probably will not budge on the issue. Whoever forms the next Israeli government will most likely insist on reviving a version of “The Deal of the Century”, which is a non-starter for the Palestinians.’

In response to the suggestion that the UAE seems more inclined to focus on Gaza than events in Jerusalem, Abdulkhaleq Abdulla insisted that Jerusalem is more important than what’s happening in Gaza. As to what role the UAE can play over events in the Holy City, he says that the Emirates is cooperating with Jordanian diplomacy over Jerusalem, as it is with that of Egypt over Gaza. Asked whether he thought that the UAE’s normalisation with Israel has undermined Jordan’s role in Jerusalem, he was equivocal but emphasised  that the UAE is coordinating with Jordan because of the strength of the Hashemite Kingdom’s connection to Jerusalem and to the West Bank, and because Jordan ‘probably has a closer relationship with the PA’ than the UAE. In this respect he noted that shortly after the violence started in Jerusalem, the Jordanian PM flew to Abu Dhabi, rather than any other Arab capital. Notably, on May 27 MbZ was greeted in Amman by King Abdullah II, after having flown in with a high-powered Abu Dhabi delegation that included MbZ’s favoured son, Hamdan, head of the UAE’s intelligence service; and MbZ’s full brother Sheikh Mansour, MbZ’s chef de cabinet.

While these strands are important, the proposed Emirati diplomatic intervention may well be modest in its extent and probably limited in its impact. However if this nascent intifada being conducted throughout the West Bank and inside Israel continues to galvanise wider Arab opinion including a number of Arab governments, the UAE may have to consider talking more firmly to Israel than it is at present and somehow engaging with Hamas as well as directly with the PA. If the UAE doesn’t do this then prospective repeated reruns of headline grabbing violence, including possible ongoing and deepening communal clashes, may make the continued and public operation of the normalisation deal hard for Abu Dhabi to sustain. Al-Ketbi wrote, ‘The more that Palestinian suffering is exacerbated, the more pressures will be placed on the Arab countries that have already singed (sic) the normalisation agreements with Israel and the more embarrassing the situation will be for them.’ [viii]

Qatar leads the Arab revolt

Qatar’s response has arguably been as predictable in its ostentatious exploitation of the conflict, as has the UAE’s sotto voce public and seemingly private response. It was quick to announce that an official development fund was be deployed to aid reconstruction in Gaza. This is almost par for the course given that Israel is already grateful that Qatar pays the wages of Hamas’ Gazan administration. Doha has also displayed an innovative variation on the widespread and cynical mangling by so many Arab states and parties of that well-worn Arabist trope that the fabled ‘Road to Jerusalem lies through… (insert your favourite Arab state rival/enemy here)’.

It now seems that the route to Jerusalem is actually via the Qatari capital. By Gulf Arab standards Qatar’s staging of a rally for Palestine, organised according to its semi-official media by the supposedly corralled International Union of Muslim Scholars[ix], was unprecedented. Has the Gulf ever seen a Palestine solidarity rally like this mass event that took over Doha, in front of its central mosque, and, thanks to Al Jazeera Arabic and English was globally broadcast? In Al Jazeera’s live coverage of the rally a member of the Al Thani ruling family was shown standing alongside an extremely verbose Ismael Haniyeh. The YouTube rally video stated that this was Sheikh Suhaim bin Ahmad bin Sultan bin Jassem Al-Thani. Admittedly the young sheikh looked more than a little discomforted to be so proximate to a decidedly rare experience in Qatar: a public display of political emotion, something that the arch-rhetoritician Haniyeh is fabled for. Back in the day, a few Arab nationalist Kuwaiti MPs would have been present when leading PLO faction Fatah held a meeting in Kuwait, that former citadel of Arabism. It would no doubt have been under the relatively discreet auspices of a Kuwaiti host’s majlis however.

The Qatari ‘domestic’ news-sites, those semi-official organs of the Palace line, were full of renewed militantly pro Palestine invective last week, albeit stepping back, out of respect for its new best friend Saudi Arabia, from direct attacks on Qatar’s greatest enemy, the UAE. A regular Qatari columnist, Muhana Al-Hubail, wrote in the semi-official Al-Watan [x] that the solidarity generated by Arabs and other Muslims worldwide over this issue was uniting the ‘Global South’ and western Leftists in anger, and he said that Arabs and other Muslims resident in the West must now build on this international identification with ‘besieged’ Palestine, and specifically with Al-Aqsa. In doing so, he said, they will be in turn uniting the Revelation of the Holy Quran with Islam’s ‘first qibla’ (Jerusalem [xi]). Perhaps Al-Hubail was allowing his putative Islamo-nationalism to overcome him. However the key point is that in other circumstances the intra-GCC healing would have been threatened by such Qatari posturing, especially by it giving a very public platform to the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the new Intifada’s focus on Jerusalem and the global attention it has garnered made it all but impossible for Saudi Arabia to challenge Qatar over its renewed emphasis on its projection of Islamism in foreign policy.

A new Saudi foreign policy

In any case Saudi crown prince MbS had already begun moving to re-orientate the KSA’s provocative even confrontational approach to regional relations. This has seen the erstwhile wolf adopt not just Erdogan’s Ataturkist lamb-like rhetoric of being friends with everyone, but to even seek to put this ethos in practise. Previously MbS had named as enemies two of the region’s most important players, Iran and Turkey, and attempted to subjugate the Lebanese leadership in the process. However, having spectacularly failed in his attempt to make KSA a regional power in hard power terms, and spectacularly short of cash due to Yemen’s drain on his reserves, the de facto Saudi ruler turned to dialogue with his former foes. This made Emir Tamim MbS’ new best friend, despite or perhaps precisely because of the emir’s continued determination that Qatar serve not just as a Turkish (and American) garrison state, but as the MB’s, and to an extent therefore, Turkey’s Gulf outreach office. Regional Islamist leverage still matters to Saudi Arabia too. At home MbS has embarked on a more determined attempt to wholly control the Saudi ulema’s edicts and to ensure, like in the UAE, that the KSA’s clerics are in line with the political leadership’s prerogatives. Abroad, the KSA still utilises Islamists of a salafi hue in often fierce competition with Qatar and Turkey, something that the Saudi-Turkish and Saudi-Qatari dialogue will probably seek to minimise.

Where does the Saudis’ evident desire to resume King Abdullah’s (pre the 2011 Arab Uprisings) Turkish engagement, leave Saudi-Israeli relations? For all his inexperience in regional and international affairs, MbS had already wisely decided to give up on urging Palestinian compromise, including over Jerusalem [xii]. Speculation that the crown prince first wanted to ensure he’d fully acceded before beginning a state to state relationship with Israel was indulged in by some non-Saudi analysts, both western and Arab. Now that a third intifada appears determined to put Jerusalem front and centre in Arab considerations then the KSA, whether under kings Salman or Mohammed, seems likely to keep its extant strategic alignment with Israel focused on Iran and without inessential diplomatic representation.

MbS’ past floating of revisionist policy re-treads on reimagining the Holy City hadn’t got anywhere [xiii], and in any case Hamas’ running of Gaza had made the Saudis’ sole focus on the PA leadership in Ramallah impractical. A Saudi attempt at fostering resumed Palestinian-Israeli negotiations was and remains unlikely. No longer having a significant connection to Hamas, and without formal, public, relationship with Israel, could the KSA leverage that much? After all the Saudis’ (i.e. King Abdullah’s) vital role in drawing up what became the API has been played. Israel has long known what a supposed ‘warm peace’ would look like, but hasn’t been prepared to consider the territorial compromise required to have got the API off the ground.

It’s unfortunate that the Saudis largely negated their relationship with Hamas because the KSA never properly applied the anti-MB policy that King Abdullah was foolishly persuaded by his inner circle, and perhaps by MbZ, to adopt. The current Saudi engagement with Turkey, after restoring full diplomatic relations with Qatar, raises the possibility that KSA could if it wished usefully engage with all the parties to the conflict without necessarily having to have diplomatic relations with Israel. After all, in order to encourage admittedly unlikely progress, Saudi Arabia might perhaps be willing to offer the limited mutual representation that Morocco, Oman and even Qatar had with Israel in the 1990s.

Despite not having had any formal relations for two decades, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos received the Israeli PM in Oman in October 2018 in a bid to square the awkward Omani circle of being at odds with Saudi Arabia and the US because of both Oman’s role in Yemen and its friendship with Iran, and being strategically aligned with the US and the UK. Oman’s offer of mediation between Israel and the Palestinians was rebuffed by Netanyahu despite, or because of, Oman’s past role as host to Iranian nuclear talks and more recently in providing a platform for the relative progress seen in talks between Saudi Arabia, its Yemeni allies, and the Houthi. However, just like the Saudis’ hosting of the historic intra-Lebanese peace talks at Taif in 1989, unless the direct parties want to cut a deal, there’s a limit to what any mediation can achieve. Qaboos’ long legacy of engagement with Israel may yet affect his successor’s willingness to go further toward the Jewish State, but not under current circumstances.

The Emiratis’ apparent interest in using their platform with Israel to try to help prevent another outbreak of violence could be useful as a contribution to wider efforts, but as the UAE will not threaten to even cool its historic accord with Israel, then its leverage over Israel is bound to be slim. Among a fair portion of Gulf Arab opinion outside of government, especially but not exclusively in the UAE and Bahrain, the resumed Israel-Hamas violence and the nascent Intifada, has emphasised their frustration with all the parties to a conflict that is often seen in regional terms. If Hamas gains, including in Jerusalem where its leaders’ stock has risen and its rockets sought retribution, then so does Iran, or so goes the argument [xiv]. A very serious fear that Hizbollah would create a second front for Israel was felt among those Gulf nationals weary of Palestinian disdain for their historic contribution to the struggle with Israel, just as they are weary of seemingly endless and literal Israeli overkill. This uncomfortable situation for most Gulf Arab states and their nationals has seen the Saudi government return to a profession of established Islamic verities regarding Jerusalem. Inevitably Emirati and Bahraini elites specifically feel decidedly cool toward any deepening of their country’s relations with Israel at this juncture. This probably means no more business delegations or any further deepening of the Israeli business relationships enjoyed with Abu Dhabi and Manama. However there’s little expectation among Gulf pundits that the UAE or Bahraini leaders’ inability to prevent periodic violence would see them seriously threaten their relationship with Israel. In short, as ever, the matter is seen as in the hands of Israel and the US.

Al-Bireh, West Bank, May 19, 2021. Above picture ©AFP

Qatar has patently resumed its attempt at being a citadel of Arab and Islamic nationalism pretensions. However, its ally Turkey is playing a cleverer game these days, demanding an international multi faith administration run Jerusalem. Silencing MB hostility to Cairo and Riyadh has enabled Turkey to use its improved relations with Egypt to assist in calming Gaza, whilst also cooperating with Egypt over Libya to ease eastern Mediterranean tensions.

lsrael’s almost non-existent relationship with Kuwait is more an ongoing statement of this emirate’s debilitating internal politics and related local support for either Islamism or a re-energised Arabism, than  any deep existential inability to accept the physical presence of a Jewish state on the other side of the Arabian Peninsula. Kuwait is simply taking the opportunity that a regional crisis once again affords to further absorb itself in its historic, domestic political impasse. It’s sad but perhaps inevitable to witness most Kuwaiti analysts, odd exceptions aside [xv], politically obliged to debate the issue using terms like ‘Zionist entity’ while the legislature is once again warring with the Kuwaiti Government (i.e. leadership) to ensure the passing of a law casting this country’s official ‘No Surrender’ with Zionism stance in stone. Incredible stuff, given that, short of Israel conceding a sovereign Palestinian state on 1967 lines, a Kuwaiti engagement with Israel wasn’t even remotely on the cards in the wake of the events of 1990-1991, let alone as a result of Trump’s attempted coercion of the late ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed.

Meanwhile, among Palestinian activists the recent and ongoing confrontation with Israel has only brought into stark relief that the so-called 2SS is all but dead. This is happening just at the time when Arab states like the UAE and KSA have renewed their interest in it, not least as the Biden Administration and European powers still cannot envisage a plausible alternative. All of the territory of Mandate Palestine – from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan – is held by Israel. Most of that is under Israel’s internationally recognised sovereignty while much of the rest is subject to a continued creeping Israeli de facto annexation that makes a mockery of the Emirati-claimed halting of the planned de jure one.

There is therefore only one state in Palestine, and its operation negates any other, unless one counts the non-sovereign and blockaded rump entity that is Gaza. The Palestinians’ fight for Jerusalem is being waged amidst de jure Israel’s reinforcement of its annexation of east Jerusalem via its effective annexation of strategic settlement blocs surrounding it. This struggle, waged inside the Holy City, the West Bank and inside Israel, is about their rights and identity on the land. It’s not about Jerusalem’s increasingly impossible connection to a putative Palestinian state that’s been trumpeted, declared, and recognised but still very much remains a dream. It’s in this context that any putative Emirati diplomatic role in creating a mechanism for preventing future outbreaks of violence needs, ultimately, to be considered.

[i] Its title translates as ‘New Tracks’; Al-Ittihad, May 24, 2021 

[ii] See

[iii] See his essay in The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, ‘The Rise of the United Arab Emirates’

[iv] See my analysis of the Sudanese regime in ‘Assassination of a UK national shows true face of an unchanged regime’, February 17, 2021

[v] ‘The best way for the Palestinians to become winners from the Abraham Accords’ by Dr Ebtesam Al-Ketbi, Emirates Policy Center, Abu Dhabi, May 19, 2021 

[vi] For quotes and references to her comments at an EPC conference organised in wake of the Abraham Accords, see

[vii] It has long encouraged criticism of the PA leadership and, after the confrontation seemed to die down, a semi-official Emirati news site included Netanyahu in the criticism. See the article entitled (in translation) ‘Who Makes Peace’, Al Bayan, Mohammed Yousif, May 25, 2021

[viii] This is taken from an abridged version of her above analysis, published in the semi-official Abu Dhabi English language news-site, The National

[ix] Founded, no less, by the Emiratis’ latter day bete noire, the Egyptian Islamist, Sheikh Yusuf Qaradaghi. Its current day head, Dr Sheikh Mohiedin Al-Qaradaghi, no doubt a close relative, was also a guest of honour at the rally along with the Turkish ambassador and, of course, Ismail Haniyeh.

[x] Muhanna Al-Hubail, “Jerusalem is rising up: the strategy of different support”, Al Watan (Qatar), May 16, 2021

[xi] Historically, Jerusalem was the first direction that Muslims  prayed towards

[xii] See the section ‘Saudi custodianship in Jerusalem’ in the article by me entitled Intervention in Palestine: The struggle for Jerusalem and Gaza via

[xiii] ‘Saudi custodianship in Jerusalem’ Op.Cit.

[xiv] An expression of this was for example found in an article by Badr bin Saoud in the May 24 edition of the semi-official Saudi daily, Okaz, published in an English translation published on May 25 by Middle East Mirror under the headline ’73 Years On’

[xv] Such as this interesting but relatively maverick contribution to the Kuwaiti ‘debate’, by the Kuwaiti writer Ahmed Al-Sarraf in the Kuwaiti news-site, Al-Qabas, May 25, 2021, Matha luw antsaraf? (‘What if we win?’) 


Neil Partrick

Dr Neil Partrick is a freelance analyst of the Arabian Peninsula and wider Middle East. He has been working on the Middle East since studying at the University of London (SOAS) in 1991-92. From 1993-95 Neil was based in Jerusalem where he was editor and researcher at the Palestinian institute, Panorama. He subsequently worked as a researcher for several MPs in the UK parliament, and later provided expert testimony on UK-Saudi relations for the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons.
From 1998-2002 Neil headed the Middle East and North Africa section at the defence and security institute, RUSI, in Whitehall, London, and was an editor and writer at the Economist Intelligence Unit (part of The Economist Group) from 2002-07.  In 2006 he obtained a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE) with a thesis on Kuwaiti foreign policy.
From 2008, Neil taught politics, history and philosophy at the American University of Sharjah, the University of Westminster and Middlesex University respectively, and wrote extensively on Gulf politics and security. This included three papers published by the LSE’s Kuwait Programme: Nationalism in the Gulf (2009), GCC: Integration or Cooperation? (2011), and Saudi-Jordanian Relations. (2013).
Neil was lead contributor and editor of Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict & Cooperation published by IB Tauris in 2016 and updated in 2018.
Neil is currently residing in the UK.
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