Gulf states that are open to US President Donald Trump's "Deal of the Century" must walk a complex line today amid Iran's calls for regional resistance against the deal and the Arab League's rejection of it.
When Trump rolled out the "Peace to Prosperity" deal on January 28, there was a lot of buzz about some Arab states being amenable to the deal. These appeared to include Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The first three are states that have shown more warmth toward Israel in the last several years. For instance, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman in 2018, and several other Israeli ministers have visited the UAE or planned to visit. Bahrain also hosted the economic aspect of the peace plan rollout in 2019.
Can Israel get any kind of normalization without embracing a Palestinian state or withdrawing from the West Bank?
Every month in the last years brought some evidence of warming relations between Israel and the Gulf. Even Qatar, which sends funding to Gaza via Israel, has done outreach in the last years to pro-Israel voices. But the elephant in the room was always direct meetings and normalization. Can Israel get any kind of normalization without embracing a Palestinian state or withdrawing from the West Bank? The Arab peace initiative put forward in 2002 envisioned peace to come through Israeli withdrawal. Israel already had some limited relations with the Gulf in the 1990s.
During the peace plan announcement, several Gulf states were mentioned and thanked for their apparently helpful role or flexibility. These included Oman, Bahrain and the UAE. Pro-Iranian media sought to emphasize that some Arab governments, termed "traitors" or "reactionaries," had backed the deal. In addition, Turkey portrayed its rulers as rallying against the deal and seeking to save Jerusalem. Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted Hamas over the weekend to show he was standing against Trump's deal.
With media like Middle East Monitor claiming that "major Arab states support, Turkey rejects deal of the century," and with Iranian voices speaking out, the rhetorical battle lines were drawn in the region. Middle East Eye also claimed that the UAE and Saudi Arabia backed Trump's deal. The reality was more muted. While Bahrain, UAE and Oman envoys did attend the peace plan rollout, it was not clear if they knew all its contents or that Israeli politicians would make controversial "annexation" comments in its wake.
The Arab League, meeting four days after the deal was announced, rejected it in Cairo. The Arab League will not cooperate with the US to execute the plan. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister and the UAE's minister of state for foreign affairs were at the meeting, according to London-based newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. The National in the UAE notes that while the plan could lead to a Palestinian state, it is not one the Palestinians accept, and it could lead to annexation. It also notes the US has closed the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington.
The deal is "incomplete," the UAE-based newspaper says, but it adds that Abbas's "thousand no's" are not helpful either. Another op-ed at the same media outlet says Palestinians should abandon posturing and think tactically now. In essence, Gulf media is not outraged by the plan. They are more outraged by Turkey's role in North Africa and Hamas working with Iran. The Arab states don't want a new round of conflict and they don't want to inflame tensions. However, they want to show displeasure with some details of the plan, with hopes that the Palestinians can work with some of it.
The larger picture is Iran. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia didn't attend the US plan meeting. Kuwait has been more critical of Israel than the other Gulf states. Qatar is close to Turkey and Iran and opposes the deal. Oman has just lost its ruler Qaboos bin Said al-Said on January 10, and wants US and Iranian support. It has held frequent meetings with Iran's Foreign Minister. It wants countries to accept Israel's place in the region, but also to work towards peaceful relations with Iran and the Gulf. Bahrain and the UAE have been more close to the US position, not necessarily on normalization with Israel, but in a wider, regional context. They are also concerned about Iran's role. The US has bases in Bahrain and the UAE. Other Western powers also work closely with these countries. They want maritime security and no more Iranian tensions like the mining of oil tankers like in June 2019, or drone attacks such as in September against Saudi Arabia.
For the Gulf States, there are broader concerns, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the main issue.
The next step will be to see if the rhetoric of the Arab League dominates, or if the reality on the ground, such as concerns about Turkey and Iran among Gulf states, takes precedence. Given the bigger picture, the broader concerns are more likely to dominate. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are concerned about Turkey's role in Libya. They also are watching US-Iran tensions in Iraq. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the main issue. Both Turkey and Iran want to make the US plan an Islamic issue. Iran and Turkey have also met to discuss other "Islamic causes" such as at a recent summit in Malaysia. Both Iran and Turkey work through lobbies in the West to try to tarnish the image of the Gulf states, which is part of a much larger conflict between the regimes. Here again the Palestinian issue is more a rhetorical tool than something that matters on the ground in day-to-day issues.
There is no simplistic narrative about "support" or "opposition" to the plan in Saudi Arabia, UAE or Bahrain. There is an official narrative, but this is different from both the views of average people and from how the security establishment sees the region. The greater concerns, such as opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran's "resistance" axis in Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq, are what matter. The Qatar dispute also matters. Big economies and the future of the region are on the agenda. The Israel-Palestinian dispute is only one aspect of this.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.