The flagrant violation of all international laws by Israel's war on Gaza and indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Gaza has outraged ordinary people across the world. Yet, Palestine’s Arab neighbours, those like Saudi Arabia, that claim to be the protector of and the standard bearer for Sunni Muslims of the world, have proved to be paper tigers. Yes, Saudi Arabia has condemned Israel’s actions, but beyond that, none of the members of the Arab League or, for that matter, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation have come out with a tangible plan of action for a ceasefire.
At the start of the war, there was the fear that the assault on Gaza would lead to a wider conflagration that could engulf West Asia and lead to instability in the region. Israel and the US were confident that the Gulf Arab regimes would stay out of the conflict, the concern was Iran. Moving the US advanced aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford to the Eastern Mediterranean following the October 7 attack on Israel was to deter Iran.
It was a show of strength by the US. According to Reuters, the carrier includes “a nuclear reactor, can hold more than 75 military aircraft, including fighter aircraft like the F-18 Super Hornet jets and the E-2 Hawkeye, which can act as an early warning system.” As if this was not enough, Washington sent a second strike carrier, the USS Eisenhower and its affiliated warships to bolster its already vast naval arsenal in the region. The move was not aimed against Hamas but to warn Iran not to further inflame the Middle East as the US is standing guard. Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei knows well that the US and Israel are waiting for a chance to attack Iran and dismantle its nuclear plant. Tehran would prefer not to directly get into a confrontation with the US or Israel. Instead, it prefers to use its proxies in the region to snipe at Israel.
Iran supports and funds a number of Shia militia groups across the region. The Hezbollah in Lebanon, fighters in Syria as well as the Houthis in Yemen. Iran has been helping Syrian President Bashar al Assad against the Sunni rebels since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, while the Sunni factions are supported by the Arab world as well as the US and Europeans. Russia had sent in its fighters to keep Syrian President in power. He would have been driven out a long time ago without Russian backing. At the time of the Syrian civil war, the two factions were President Assad’s government, backed by Russia, Iran and the Sunni opposition fighters supported by the Sunni leaders of the Gulf, the US and European powers, as well as Israel. At that time, the Shia-Sunni rivalry was at its height. Concerned about Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia and the UAE made common cause with Israel, which saw Iran as a major rival in the region. Israel had often threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities but was restrained by the US. When the Iran nuclear deal was signed during President Barack Obama’s second term, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE were the principal opponents. Donald Trump, as is well known, walked out of the deal and not much changed when the Democrats came to power. There was no easing of tension, and President Biden continues to target Iran as an enemy state.
But much has changed in the region since then. Iran is no longer a pariah to the Arab world. China has successfully brokered a peace deal in March this year between the leaders of the Sunni and Shia factions – Riyadh and Tehran – leading to the resumption of diplomatic ties.
Those who are familiar with the kingdoms and fiefdoms of the Gulf area are not surprised at the soft approach of the ruling families. The Arab elite, like the elite in all countries, look to their self-interest first.
The Palestinian cause had long fallen off the radar for most Arab neighbours of Israel. Yes, many of these oil-rich kingdoms were earlier generous with funds, but as interest waned, the money, too, came in drips and drabs. But since October 7, the focus is back again on one of the longest-running conflicts in history.
Yet it was not always like this. In 1948, when Arab nationalism was at its height, the support for Palestine was also staunch among the Muslim countries in West Asia. A UNGA resolution adopted in 1947 decided to divide Britain’s former Palestinian territory, known then as the Palestinian mandate, into Jewish and Arab states. Under this resolution, Jerusalem would remain under UN control. Following the formation of Israel in 1948, the Palestinian Arabs, who felt betrayed by the division of their land, took up arms against the new state. The Palestinians were helped by Arab armies from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt. Saudi Arabia, too, sent in a contingent for the war. When the war ended, little was gained by the Arabs.
The six-day war of 1967 was between Israel and a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria and troop contributions from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Algeria. By the end of the war, Israel captured Palestinian Arab territories of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and the Sinai Peninsular, as well as the Golan Heights. Yom Kippur War of 1973 was the last one where Arab countries like Syria and Egypt sent their armies to Israel.
After that, in 1979, Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel. Jordon followed in 1994. In 2020, UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan had already done so by agreeing to the US-sponsored agreement. In fact, this was the legacy of Donald Trump’s last year in office.
Since then, major countries in West Asia, much like the rest of the world, chose to shut their eyes to what was happening in the occupied West Bank, the daily killings by the settlers backed by the Israeli military as they extended their frontiers by taking over more and more Palestinian land. Since the Abraham Accords were signed, countries were lining up to begin diplomatic relations with Israel. But for October 7, Saudi Arabia would have normalized ties with Israel. Now, after the military action in Gaza, it would be difficult for Riyadh to go ahead with the proposed deal.
Yet, unlike in the past, Arab states will not risk sending their armies to defend Gaza. The Gulf states have been close to the US ever since oil was discovered in the desert. Israel is backed by the US and its Western allies, and though Arab rulers are angry and realise the double standards of the West, they know that the dice is loaded against them. As Ayman Safadi, Jordan’s foreign minister, reminded the world that Israel’s actions were “blatant aggression” rather than self-defence and that any other country doing what Israel has let loose on Gaza would have been subject to international sanctions. But the Arab countries would not. “There would be no Arab troops going to Gaza….we are not going to be seen as the enemy.” The fact is the economic and business opportunities available to the Arab countries through relations with Israel are of vital interest to the countries in the region. Past wars have shown that the Arabs cannot take on Israel’s powerful military.