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Increasingly Independent Gulf States Seek to Navigate Gaza Conflict

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, left, and Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit talk to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, during the International peace summit in Cairo, Egypt, on Oct. 21, 2023. (Egyptian Presidency Media Office via AP)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, left, and Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit talk to Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, during the International peace summit in Cairo, Egypt, on Oct. 21, 2023. (Egyptian Presidency Media Office via AP)

Hamas’ murderous incursion into Israel and the Jewish state’s crushing military response are putting fresh strains on long-standing U.S. relationships in the Persian Gulf, where regional leaders must navigate between the anger of their own people and fear of an emboldened Iran.

One of those states, Qatar, is emerging as a pivotal potential peacemaker with its unique ability to talk to all sides — Israel, Hamas and the United States.

“The Gulf is playing a far more important role in this conflict than in previous iterations of the Gaza war,” Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, said in an interview with VOA.

“The Gulf states individually have assumed more agency and autonomy in regional affairs” than during previous Israel-Hamas conflicts, he said. “This also means that they are pursuing strategies that are less aligned with the United States than in previous years.”

During a Gulf Cooperation Council-ASEAN Summit earlier this month, the leaders issued a relatively restrained statement calling for “all parties to the conflict to protect civilians, refrain from targeting them and to abide by international humanitarian law.”

However, the leaders of Bahrain and Morocco repeated Hamas’ claim that Israel was responsible for a blast that killed an estimated 100 to 300 people at the Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza. The United States and Israel have released evidence that they say shows the blast was caused by a misfired rocket from within Gaza.

The crown prince of Kuwait, Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, condemned Israel for killing innocent people in Gaza and called for urgent international action to end the attacks and protect civilians.

Krieg said the increased foreign policy autonomy of the region will pose a challenge for Washington as it seeks to contain the fallout from the war, as it will have to rely on Saudi Arabia and Qatar to manage dialogue with Iran, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.

Qatar has already demonstrated its potential importance by reportedly having helped to negotiate the release of hostages seized by Hamas in its October 7 rampage through several Israeli communities.

“First, Qatar has kept lines of communication open with Hamas over the release of hostages, where Qatar speaks directly to Israel, the U.S. and Hamas,” Krieg said.

“Secondly, Qatar has used its relationship with Tehran to relay messages from the White House in an attempt to avert a wider regional escalation — something Saudi Arabia has supported.

“At a time when the U.S. openly endorses Israel's all-out escalation, it is the Gulf states working on de-escalation in the region,” he said. “In particular, amid the risk of a wider mobilization of Iran's 'axis of resistance,' the Gulf states' networks and diplomatic channels have become essential for U.S. crisis management.”

While the region is publicly united in calling for an end to the violence, Krieg said he believes Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates quietly would like to see Hamas eliminated.

“Saudi Arabia and Qatar would like to see a revival of the Arab Peace Initiative in the aftermath of the conflict, which might not be completely unrealistic if Israel is fought to a stalemate in a potential two-front war” involving Hezbollah in the north, he said.

He added that U.S. efforts to broker a rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia within the framework of the Abraham Accords “are clearly dead.”

“This iteration of the Gaza conflict confirms Saudi concerns over the insufficiency of the Accords and the need for a Saudi alternative approach with clear concessions from Israel to the Palestinians,” he said.

John Calabrese, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said he believes the Gulf states are very uneasy about the possibility that Iran might be drawn into the Gaza conflict, placing their own national security at some risk.

Like Krieg, he sees Qatar playing a key role in any long-term resolution, in spite of it having joined Kuwait and Oman in issuing strong statements denouncing Israel’s treatment of Gaza.

“Although the tone of Qatar's public statements runs the risk of alienating Israel and thus devaluing its potential role as a mediator, Israeli pragmatism might win out in recognition of the leverage with Hamas that Qatar’s public ‘face’ might have earned it,” Calabrese said.

Egypt, too, is seen as a potential mediator. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi convened several world leaders in Cairo last week to negotiate a cease-fire and facilitate humanitarian aid. On the day of the summit, a convoy of 20 aid trucks carrying essential supplies such as food, water and medicine entered the besieged strip through Egypt's Rafah crossing.

“Overall, among the GCC states, I see Qatar taking the lead as mediator, with the other five countries throwing their support behind the effort and pledging humanitarian and reconstruction assistance,” Calabrese said.

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