In the days since Hamas launched its ferocious October 7 terrorist attack on Israel and Israel began its massive response in the Gaza Strip, governments in the Middle East have been caught in a difficult bind. Several countries in the region, especially Arab, had entered, or were in the process of making, historic normalization agreements with Israel, and Israel’s immediate neighbours and long-standing peace partners, Jordan and Egypt, have enjoyed mutually beneficial diplomatic and security relations that contributed to regional security. At the same time support for the Palestinian cause runs high among Arab populations, and amid a war that seems likely to cause massive destruction in Gaza, triggering a domestic and diplomatic backlash in many ME countries. Meanwhile, the floundering Palestinian Authority, long in power in the West Bank, faces escalating challenges of its own. And with a months-long security breakdown, now faces the real possibility that the West Bank could be drawn into Hamas’s war with Israel, as the fighting gets bloodier in Gaza.

As this explosive situation unfolds, sharp divisions have begun to emerge in the Arab world. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which have entered the Abraham Accords with Israel, have issued statements clearly condemning Hamas. In turn, Qatar, Hamas’s main Arab backer, has lashed out at Israel and adopted language very similar to Hamas’s. Jordan and Egypt, meanwhile, with the most at stake on the ground, have remained cautious, navigating between their own national security concerns and restive domestic audiences. And then there is Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most consequential regional player today. Saudi Arabia was making progress on historic, U.S.-brokered talks with Israel at the time of the attack, yet it also seeks to maintain or perhaps even bolster its leadership role in the Arab world and support for the Palestinians.

There are clear fears across the Middle East that the region will become mired in a broader war that could draw in Palestinians in the West Bank and Jordan, Egypt (which shares a border with Gaza), Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and their patron Iran. Gulf Arab countries also fear their domestic security will be affected by cascading violence.

The war, however, has erupted following a prolonged period of regional-led de-escalation and reconciliation efforts. Since 2019 countries including Israel have been increasingly willing to find pragmatic, workable compromises based on shared interests – a phenomenon sometimes referred to as building a ‘new Middle East’. Progress has not been complete or perfect, but the regional context for the Israel–Hamas war is very different from that of even ten years ago.

The new war will provide the severest possible test of this regional cooperation. But Middle Eastern countries must not shrink from the challenge. Now is the moment for regional players to collaborate on an effort to find new solutions to de-escalate the war.

An old problem in a ‘new’ region

Since 2019 Middle Eastern states have embarked on a prolonged period of realist regional diplomacy, driven by decreasing US engagement, geopolitical shifts stemming from the war in Ukraine, and a broader regional re-prioritization of domestic economic needs.  

This has seen the normalization of relations between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in the 2020 Abraham Accords, the end of the Qatar blockade in 2021, a reset of Gulf–Turkish relations in 2023, and the restoration of Iranian–Saudi ties brokered by China.

Yemeni negotiations are also underway, as is the rehabilitation of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad after a decade of civil and externally sponsored war.   

Qatar and Oman, meanwhile, played an important role managing indirect dialogue between Washington and Tehran, helping to secure the release of American hostages. Recent negotiations between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US were intended to bring about another round of normalization – though with the outbreak of armed conflict, that is now almost certainly off the table.

This period of de-escalation was benig celebrated by US and European partners. Less than two weeks ago, US National Security advisor Jake Sullivan, while acknowledging that challenges remain, stated that ‘the amount of time I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today, compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11, is significantly reduced.’

But as the Hamas war has shown, this regional reset, while noteworthy, remains inherently fragile. Competition has not yet disappeared: Gulf states, especially Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, have distinct visions for Yemen.

Iraq and Kuwait are experiencing renewed tensions over their maritime boundary. Mistrust lingers between Saudi Arabia and Iran despite recent normalization. The role of the US is diminished, the influence of external powers in question.

Crucially, two issues – the Israeli–Palestinian issue and Iran’s destabilizing support for actors like Hamas and Hezbollah – have been left simmering and unresolved as regional players have sought normalization agreements and new economic opportunities.  

The region’s reaction

In the immediate aftermath of the conflict, divisions in regional perceptions have clearly emerged. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates condemned Hamas, with the Emirati government calling the group’s actions a “serious and grave escalation” and declaring that it was “appalled” by the attacks on civilians. These statements come at a time when diplomatic relations between Israel and the two countries are delicate. Since joining the Abraham Accords both Bahrain and the UAE have taken significant steps to enhance economic and security ties with Israel. But diplomatic and political ties had come under pressure in recent months as a result of inflammatory comments and provocative actions by Israel’s far-right government concerning Palestinians in the West Bank and particularly Jerusalem. UAE and Bahrain even criticized Hamas, mourned the loss of life on both sides and encouraged support for dialogue.

Saudi Arabia highlighted the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, but also encouraged de-escalation and the protection of civilian life. Qatar, which backs Hamas and funds Gaza, has held Israel “solely responsible” for the escalation, mirroring Hamas’s rhetoric. Moreover, Al Jazeera’s Arabic language channel, a news station funded by Qatar that reaches tens of millions of people across the Arab world, has effectively served as a mouthpiece for Hamas. Kuwait and Oman criticized Israel for violations of international law and Palestinian rights. Egypt, which has already experienced instability on its border with Gaza, has expressed support for a just peace and a Palestinian state.

Saudi Arabia plays a leading role in the Islamic world as guardian of Islam’s holiest sites, and the Palestinian cause remains popular among Saudis. Moreover, talk of normalization with Israel has exposed the kingdom to accusations that it was abandoning the Palestinian issue. With the outbreak of war between Hamas and Israel, these talks have come to a halt. The Saudi government cannot appear to be cultivating ties with Israel at a time when the country is in an active conflict with the Palestinians. Indeed, it is likely that the Hamas attack was, at least in part, aimed at disrupting Israeli-Saudi rapprochement.  

But there are also encouraging signs: Qatar, despite all the criticism of Israeli’s response, is reported to be mediating the release of hostages. Egypt is working to prevent further escalation. Turkey has offered to arbitrate. 

A real opportunity

Regional countries have a real opportunity today to build on their recent achievements and create a united, credible effort to de-escalate the conflict.

The Hamas attacks, in turn, illustrate that such efforts cannot move forward without addressing the festering unresolved disputes that previous normalization efforts sought to paper over. Key to any de-escalation efforts and broader conflict management will be the Gulf states, who have the ability to appeal to both Israel and Palestinians but also to engage with Iran on its regionally destabilizing role.

The part played by the US, China, even India and other international actors may well still be significant. But Middle East countries should lead on the creation of a realistic, achievable pathway to peace – built on local knowledge and abilities.

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