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Gaza war tests Arab Gulf influence as GCC tries to avert regional escalation

Although the UAE and Bahrain have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, and Saudi Arabia was considering such a move, Arab states in the region have their own reasons to be cautious.
Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (2nd L) and U. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd R) chat with Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani (R) and United Arab Emirates' Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (L), in Sde Boker, Israel on March 28, 2022. - Blinken and the top diplomats of Israel and four Arab states held a landmark meeting to discuss issues from the Iran nuclear negotiations to the global shockwaves of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Jacquelyn Mar

As Israel’s offensive in Gaza grinds on, World War III in the Middle East has not yet erupted. Iran’s allies have exercised relative restraint, and nobody has a desire to fully escalate. However, a single misstep could spark a broader conflagration.   

Already, the Houthis launched a barrage of ballistic missiles and drones that appear to be targeting Israel. Also, Iran-backed allies in both Syria and Iraq have claimed attacks on US positions there.  

However, the current crisis unfolds in a region that has recently elevated diplomacy. In the Abraham Accords, the UAE and Bahrain reached agreements with Israel in 2020.  Saudi Arabia was considering normalizing relations with Israel, contingent upon a US defense pact and a civilian nuclear program. This year, long-time adversaries Saudi Arabia and Iran re-established diplomatic ties following a China-brokered agreement. Discussions between Saudi Arabia and the Iran-backed Houthis are under way to resolve an eight-year conflict in Yemen. In 2021, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt ended the blockade of Qatar, restoring diplomatic relations. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has expressed willingness to mediate ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Sudan. 

Limited influence

The uptick in diplomacy activities raised hopes that the Gulf states could influence Israel’s campaign and avert a wider regional war. After all, they now have official communication channels with both Israel and Iran, which backs Hamas, and other regional resistance groups that Israel views as a threat, including Hezbollah in Lebanon. There was anticipation that Saudi Arabia would push Israel to de-escalate. 

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