The Gaza war may radicalise the Gulf

A sea of Palestinian flags held up by a crowd of people
More than a mere land dispute: the ongoing war in Gaza has revealed the enduring relevance of the Palestinian cause for the people of the Arab Gulf (image: BELAL KHALED/AFP)

Amidst the growing appeal of religious militancy among local populations, state-led efforts to suppress domestic dissent and maintain ties with Israel could ultimately backfire

Commentary by Mira Al-Hussain

Over the past decade, Arab Gulf regimes have worked to marginalise the Palestinian cause and pave way for normalisation with Israel. Even school textbooks have been cleared of any religious or political references to the ongoing conflict, rendered as a mere land dispute between Palestinians and Israelis. But if anything, the ongoing war in Gaza has revealed the enduring relevance of the Palestinian cause for the people of the Arab Gulf.

Normalisation came at the end of a difficult decade. The Arab uprisings, even for the most apolitical Gulf citizen, were disruptive – and the region's governments responded with a new wave of repression. This period witnessed the shrinking of public space and the blurring of the conventional lines of dissent, creating an environment of ambient fear and mistrust. The idea that a Gulf citizen could retroactively be punished under arbitrary and vaguely phrased cybercrime laws further exacerbated anxieties, driving public discourse underground.

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

The need for Gulf regimes to anticipate and control popular opinion became a matter of national security that, in turn, has swelled the coffers of Israeli cyber firms. Governments have made use of Israeli spyware to surveil Gulf citizens and criminalise their activism – even the seemingly benign demand for the right to drive as a woman

Gulf regimes have also taken a page from the Israeli playbook and have expanded the use of administrative detention, using the pretext of terrorism to incarcerate prisoners of conscience indefinitely. These measures brought Israeli repression home, making the Palestinian struggle seem less abstract and distant to Gulf citizens, and breeding new domestic grievances.

Abraham Accords stoked settler violence

Despite their shared strategies for repression, Gulf states euphemised their rapprochement with Israel as a way of promoting regional peace and religious tolerance. In March 2023, as the United Arab Emirates inaugurated the Abrahamic Family House to serve as an interfaith monument for coexistence, settlers raged against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. 

In fact, settler violence against Palestinians only intensified following the signing of the Abraham Accords. These stark contradictions – while Gulf regimes remain silent amidst ongoing Israeli violence – has not escaped the notice of Gulf citizens and has killed the faint appetite for peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu invokes violent biblical stories to legitimise his war against Gaza, yet elicits no condemnation from world leaders. In this context, Arab citizens in the Gulf may be forced to wonder why they should follow the lead of their own governments and secularise their language. The most recent polling highlights the importance of religion to Arab populations – a reality that secularising Gulf regimes are in denial of – and a majority of support for Hamas' operations.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan
"We agree that regional peace includes peace for Israel, but that could only happen through peace for the Palestinians through a Palestinian state," Prince Faisal bin Farhan told a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos (image: picture-alliance)

Mass appeal of the Palestinian resistance

What Gulf regimes ought to pay attention to, therefore, is the mass appeal of the Palestinian resistance that is delivered through a familiar religious lexicon. Its Gulf audience includes a generation of video-gamers, who were also the first to go through mandatory military conscription. The young Gulf citizen, hyped-up by state discourse about masculinity and military prowess, is hypnotised by videos of Hamas combatants dealing heavy blows against Israeli forces. The fact that Hamas was able to negotiate a hostage-swap, despite the high death toll in Gaza, will have certainly inspired new possibilities for aggrieved Arab Gulf citizens.

As Israel's war on Gaza is set to continue over the coming months, maintaining normalisation or expanding new ties with Israel, in the face of its deep domestic unpopularity, risks becoming a tipping point. Given the potential for a resurgence of religion-inspired militancy across the region, it is incumbent on Gulf regimes to move beyond repression and a security paradigm as a means of ensuring their survival. 

In the words of Kuwaiti academic Talal Alkhader, this is an opportune moment for a state-society reconciliation in the Gulf.

Mira Al-Hussain

© sada | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 2024 

Mira Al Hussein is a sociologist and a commentator on the Gulf. She is a research fellow at the Alwaleed bin Talal Centre, University of Edinburgh.