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The Gaza War is Pushing the Middle East Away from the US
Worsening ties may signal a permanent shift
By: Salman Rafi Sheikh
The October 7 invasion of Israel and the subsequent counterattack on Gaza by the Israeli Defense Force are exacerbating what already appeared to be a tilt away from Washington in the Middle East that threatens to become permanent without adroit footwork, footwork that so far the US has not deployed and, because of its ties to Israel, may be unable to. Over recent months, the Middle Eastern states have been making substantial moves that indicate a plausible shift in the region’s ties, downgrading ties with Washington and expanding them with its primary rivals China and Russia.
The US rival states, as well as the Arab states themselves, understand that the conflict has shelved the Abraham Accords, the bilateral agreements on Arab–Israeli normalization signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as any systematic normalization with Israel. In a seeming instant, the progress the western powers had been making has been reversed. In foreign policy terms, Washington, in the years to come, will have to tackle the fallout of this conflict. This growing chasm will continue to increase in proportion to the time the US takes to convince Israel to cease fire. The longer it takes and the more people it kills, the harder it will become for the US to reconstruct its ties in ways that can help Washington counter the rising influence of China and Russia, which remains its most important national security interest.
Contrary to the US failure to make progress, Saudi Arabia and Iran, traditional antagonists over the religious schism in Islam, now appear to have more in common vis-à-vis Israel and Palestine than with Washington. They have both called Israel’s military an ‘occupying force’ in Gaza. Other major states in the Middle East, including the United Arab Emirates, refuse to accept President Joe Biden’s explanation of the attack on Gaza’s Al-Ahli Al-Arabi hospital, which killed hundreds of Palestinians, although the west has produced convincing footage that the tragedy resulted from a Hamas misfire.
Jordan – an old US ally – recently canceled a summit with President Biden as he flew in from the US in a personal attempt to shore up US presence, to discuss the Gaza crisis and ways to stop it Telephone conversations between the US and Saudi Arabian officials have completely failed to make any meaningful progress. These conversations have not only not produced any concrete steps, they have demonstrated the increasing wedge between the erstwhile allies.
Even though the UAE is a signatory of the Abraham Accords, its officials understand that the Palestine issue can be ignored only at the expense of possibly igniting an ‘Arab Spring’ at home. In fact, most states in the Middle East are facing this dilemma: they cannot ignore the Palestine issue– especially, now that Israel has intensified its war. Domestic reactions will take place if they do ignore it. As media reports indicate, most Israeli citizens living and working in the UAE, fearing popular reaction, didn’t show up for work after Israel’s attacks. Even though the Emirati government maintains strict control of dissent, the possibility of reactions, both online and offline, cannot be ruled out.
Given this, the Gulf Cooperation Council issued a statement that accused “Israeli occupation forces” of the hospital bombing. The language itself illuminates where the gulf region stands. In short, it doesn’t agree with Washington that Israel has an ‘inherent’ right to defense. That is a fundamental difference, given the scale and the intensity of the crisis. Given the political distance, Washington has been unable to draw any meaningful support from Middle Eastern allies either. Rather, the Middle East now appears to be opposing the US.
For instance, on October 25, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) debated two resolutions regarding Gaza. The US and Russia presented these resolutions, both offering different approaches to the conflict. The US resolution, had it been accepted, would have led the security council to reject Hamas’ attacks and reaffirm Israel’s right to individual and collective self-defense. The Russian resolution, had that been accepted, would have led to an “immediate, durable and fully respected humanitarian ceasefire”.
More importantly for the Middle East’s ties with the US, the UAE opposed the US resolution and voted for the Russian resolution. Apart from the UAE and Russia, China also supported Russia’s version.
The UAE’s support for Russia is, however, not an isolated event. It is tied to a bit more expansive approach the Middle East parties are developing with China and Russia vis-à-vis the regional political economy and geopolitical issues, including the Palestine question. In the second week of October, an Arab League delegation met with Chinese officials in their bid to defuse the crisis. China reaffirmed its support for a ‘two-state solution’ and vowed to continue to send aid to Gaza as well.
The quest for Chinese and Russian support is directly reinforced by an ongoing criticism of the US and Israeli stance. A recent joint statement by Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, the UAE, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia called on the UN Security Council to not only push for a ceasefire but, making a direct assault on the US position, said that the “the right of self-defense guaranteed by the UN Charter does not justify violations of international law, and that the failure to characterize what is happening as a flagrant violation of humanitarian law is tantamount to greenlighting this practice to continue.”
These states further argued that the ‘right to self-defense” is being used to extend a collective punishment to the Gazans, which is turning out to be one key reason why, the statement said, the conflict might spread to the other states of the Middle East. Yemen, for instance, declared war on Israel on October 31 although given its lack of military the action was more symbolic than anything in real terms.
These states categorically blame the US for a situation that might hurt their interests too, which is why, despite some efforts by US officials, no meaningful joint advance by the US and Arab states has been possible. For instance, in the last conversation that Biden had with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman, known universally as MBS, both leaders found nothing but empty rhetoric from the conversation, as they agreed to find a “sustainable peace.” While the definition of ‘peace’ itself remains a subject of controversy – evident from the joint statement of Arab states – there is equally no clarity as to the means and mechanisms that will be deployed to achieve this target.
Washington has been unable to convince the Arab states, nor does it appear to have put in any special effort towards this goal. Knowing that China’s grip over the region has been steadily increasing for the past few years, Washington’s inability to influence the Middle East in favor of Israel will become another opportunity for China – and Russia – to expand their ties and squeeze those of the US.
Dr. Salman Rafi Sheikh teaches politics at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and has contributed to Asia Sentinel for over a decade. He can be reached at email@example.com