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Arab Diplomacy Unmasked: Behind the Veil of Unity on Gaza

Despite rhetoric, Arab states’ support for Gaza will likely remain lip service.
Nancy Ehrenberg-Peters

December 22, 2023

Arab countries have so far failed to take meaningful measures to contain the war in Gaza. Their involvement in high-profile Gaza-focused conferences such as the Doha Forum on December 11, calls for a ceasefire, and conflict mediation efforts have implied the Arab region’s commitment to finding a unified collective position against Israel’s violence and to end the calamity in Gaza. Public displays of support for the Palestinian cause notwithstanding, Arab regimes vested interests in moving towards normalisation or strategic alliances with Israel look likely to continue when the Gaza conflict ends. Such interests, explored below, will underpin the extent of Arab countries’ involvement in the “day after” the war in Gaza. 

Security and geostrategic dimensions 

Security and geostrategic considerations majorly contribute to inflating Israel’s appeal to Arab countries seeking to better their place in the pecking order of regional heavyweights. Underpinning this is deep-rooted concern over an Iranian threat, either because of Iranian-backed proxy militia groups stationed around the MENA region – the so-called axis of resistance –or Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. 

Despite recent improvements in Tehran-Riyadh diplomatic relations, Saudi Arabia will not quickly forget, for example, the 2019 attack on the Saudi oil-giant Aramco, suspected to be linked to Iran. The Gulf superpower laid out its demands on the negotiating table: for the Kingdom to diplomatically recognise Israel, the US needs to provide it with security guarantees, namely reducing current US arms sales restrictions, and support with developing a civilian nuclear energy programme. For Saudi Arabia, possessing uranium reserves, even if it claims they are primarily for the purpose of diversifying its non-oil energy sector, could deter Iran from recklessly expanding its nuclear stockpile. 

The Hamas-Israel war is unfortunately one of many wars to ensnarl the region in recent years. The knock-on effect for regional security is a reality that concerns all Arab countries. For instance, since the Hamas-Israel war began, Yemen’s Ansar Allah, aka the Houthis, declared war on Israel and has fired ballistic missiles and drones towards Israel and ships in the Red Sea heading towards Israeli ports. The recent escalation in Ansar Allah-linked events has caused a significant disruption to trade in oil and liquified natural gas (LNG) and is drawing in US involvement. Iran-backed armed groups in Iraq and Syria have ramped up their attacks against US forces and assets; and fatal fire exchanges between Hezbollah and Israeli forces along the Lebanon-Israel border is growing into an increasingly serious situation, indicating that war between these two enemies remains an inevitable eventuality to many. 

Israel, with its mighty, sophisticated defence industry, its exports reaching $12.5 billion in 2022, is therefore an appealing partner in crime to Arab states which want to strengthen their security and strategic capabilities. In fact, a quarter of Israel’s arms exports go to Arab ‘normalised states’, a trade that has gained significant traction since the signing of the US-brokered Abraham Accords between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel in September 2020, later adopted by Morocco and Sudan. Morocco, for example, has justified its enhanced security cooperation with Israel under the pretext that Iran provides the Polisario Front with arms and military equipment. It just so happened that Morocco’s signing of the Abraham Accords also guaranteed Israeli and US recognition of Morocco’s autonomy over the long-disputed Western Sahara.

"Israel, with its mighty, sophisticated defence industry, its exports reaching $12.5 billion in 2022, is therefore an appealing partner in crime to Arab states which want to strengthen their security and strategic capabilities."

Economic ties 

Prospects of economic enhancements are also driving Arab countries to normalise relations with Israel. Going further than any other Arab country to date, the UAE signed a free trade agreement with Israel in March 2022, and both have buttressed their sectoral synergies, notably their bilateral energy relations and cooperation. For instance, in 2021, the Israeli oil and gas company, Delek Drilling, sold 22 percent of its shares to Mubadala Petroleum, a UAE-owned energy firm. The fruition of Israeli-Emirati energy relations would not have blossomed to such a degree without US involvement in regional energy policies over the past decade, however. Strategically, this has contributed to interweaving markets, infrastructure, and interdependencies between Arab and Israeli energy sectors. 

Egypt has also majorly benefited from this US manoeuvre. Thanks to the reliability of Israeli gas imports, transported via an Egyptian-Israeli pipeline, Egypt has been able to continue exporting LNG despite a steady decline in gas production from its largest gas field, Zohr, over the last two decades. This has secured foreign exchange reserves which were in short supply due to an acute debt crisis and has fed Egypt’s ambitions of becoming a leading hub for natural gas. Israel, whose gas exports peaked in 2022, relies on Egypt’s liquefaction plants to make its gas transportable to European markets. 


Domestic complications 

The Hamas-Israel war has forced Arab countries, especially ‘normalised’ ones, to undertake a delicate balancing act of appeasing significant discontent among their respective Arab populations on the one hand, while simultaneously avoiding jeopardising their alliances with Israel and the United States on the other. 

Morocco has recently witnessed the biggest anti-Israel protest since its normalisation with Israel. Indeed, an Arab Barometer survey revealed that less than half of Moroccans approve of Moroccan-Israeli normalisation. Morocco has not shied away from publicly denouncing Israel’s “blatant aggression against armed civilians” and has only mildly distanced itself from Israel. But, as reflected in Morocco’s voting at the November 11 Arab-Islamic summit, cutting all normalised ties with Israel is very unlikely given what is at stake, particularly regarding its security interests. Contrastingly, and despite having close Western allies, the Tunisian parliament has been drafting a law which would criminalise normalisation with Israel. Presumably, Tunisian President Kais Saied sees capitalising on his population’s widespread anger towards Israel and the United States as a potential lifeline for his political survival in the wake of the disastrous economic crisis in Tunisia in recent years. 

Jordan, with approximately half its population being of Palestinian descent, is also concerned about the potential overspill of Palestinian refugees from the West Bank into its territory, a concern shared with Egypt with regards to Palestinians from Gaza being forcibly displaced to the Sinai Peninsula. Although the US is Jordan’s greatest financial and military backer, King Abdullah II called out Western hypocrisy when dealing with different global aggressions, presumably the dissonance between the West’s position on the Ukraine-Russia war compared to Gaza. Jordan even withdrew their ambassador to Israel, a move mirrored by Turkey which has taken one of the region’s strongest anti-Israel stances since the war began. 

"On the one hand, the Hamas’ October 7 attacks have achieved a propaganda triumph by shattering any wishful thinking of Arab countries and the international community that regional peace could be achieved without addressing the conflict."

The “day after” the war 

All Arab countries have united in calling for a ceasefire and an imminent end to the war. But to this end, by using their relations with Israel and the US to good advantage, Arab states could be hoping to protect or even enhance their individual interests.  

For example, Jordan, having taken possibly the strongest anti-Israel stance among its fellow normalised states, refused to sign a water-for-energy deal last month in defiance of Israel’s aggression in Gaza. 

Both now and in the post-war setting, Israel will likely need Egyptian security forces’ cooperation in ensuring that Hamas and other Palestinian groups are unable to transport weapons and military supplies to Gaza either via the Rafah crossing or tunnels built between Gaza and Egypt. Perhaps this is Egypt’s greatest leverage with Israel and the US in ensuring that its interests are considered in any post-war deal. Egypt’s involvement in mediating the now-expired Hamas-Israel truce with Qatar looks like an attempt both to gain further leverage in the war and bring prestige to the government. Egypt has been struggling to manage a disastrous economic crisis and ameliorate its tarnished image linked to its egregious human rights violations. 

The Gaza war has also offered opportunities for Saudi Arabia to feed its long-term objective of positioning itself “at the centre of high-stakes diplomacy and mediation efforts”, ultimately aiming to ameliorate regional stability to create a better business environment. Saudi Arabia announced that its negotiations with Israel were on “pause”, since the Hamas October 7 attack was likely in part to be a symptom of Arab countries’ increased normalisation with Israel alongside their neglect of the Palestinian cause. It is unlikely that Saudi Arabia will altogether backtrack on the pre-war progress it made with Israel, however. Indeed, since the war began, Washington reported that they had indicated a willingness to continue working towards a deal. But the Kingdom will no doubt condition normalisation with Israel on a two-state solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict and specific security guarantees from the US. After all, Washington must be well aware that China has expressed interest in partnering with Saudi Arabia to develop its nuclear capabilities. 

To what extent has the war reconfigured Arab regimes’ involvement in the Palestine-Israel conflict? On the one hand, the Hamas’ October 7 attacks have achieved a propaganda triumph by shattering any wishful thinking of Arab countries and the international community that regional peace could be achieved without addressing the conflict. Putting into doubt the level of commitment of Arab countries, however, is the humanitarian catastrophe that has been allowed to unfold in Gaza and the West Bank, with a death toll topping the 20,000 mark alongside the decimation of civilian infrastructure, cultural heritage sites, and local governance structures. This signals the varying-degrees of reluctancy of Arab countries in taking measurable steps to ensure the protection of Palestinians’ human rights and security if this means jeopardising their own interests. Most likely after the war Arab countries will continue to make the right noises and public appearances in solidarity with Palestine while refraining from removing the mask when doing normalisation business.