Home / Articles / The October 7 Massacre and the War in Gaza: Impact on Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates
The Gaza crisis poses an extremely significant challenge for the Arab governments who have established, or were considering establishing, diplomatic relations with Israel.
The Israel-Hamas war will probably not affect the Abraham Accords, a historic normalization between Israel, on the one hand, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Morocco, on the other.
However, there is serious criticism in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain of Israel’s reaction to the Hamas attacks. Observers worry that the crisis could escalate into a regional conflict (“an Iraq moment”); they are concerned that public opinion against the war may constrain government options; many distrust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government; and Bahraini and Emirati analysts are skeptical about whether Israel has, or is capable of articulating, a viable end-state scenario in Gaza.
The return of the Palestinian issue to the center of the regional and international agenda will negatively impact Israel’s integration into the Middle Eastern economy and the prospects for “people-to-people” relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Arab governments that were considering normalizing relations with Israel may now defer doing so indefinitely.
During a recent visit to the Gulf, an Emirates-based analyst told me, “Everyone is asking: ‘Is there a future for the Abraham Accords?’ There is a difference between ‘in a coma’ and dead. They are not dead.” The October 7 massacre in southern Israel and the war in Gaza that ensued placed into sharp contrast two opposing trends existing in the Middle East. On the one hand, there is the recognition of the permanency of Israel’s presence in the region and the need to begin its slow integration into the regional system; on the other hand, there is continued denial of Israel’s right to exist, and implacable hostility to it by the “Resistance Camp.” Hamas’ attack was calculated, among other things, to challenge the dynamic of normalization of Israel, and to wrong-foot the moderate states who have or are developing ties with the Jewish state. It sought to achieve this by highlighting the continued salience of the Palestinian issue, and by inflaming Arab and Muslim public opinion in support of the denial of Israel’s legitimacy and against their leaders’ policies.
The Gaza crisis, therefore, poses an extremely significant challenge for the governments of those Arab states who have diplomatic relations with Israel or that had been considering establishing relations. While it doesn’t seem that the current conflict will lead to a reversal of the Abraham Accords, it may well have significant effects on the prospect for regional economic cooperation and for further formalization of relations with Israel by Arab states.
Common Aspects in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates
In early December 2023, I visited the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, two of the signatories to the 2020 Abraham Accords, to assess the impact of the present conflict on the two countries’ bilateral and regional diplomacy vis-a-vis Israel. My discussions, during and before the trip, with analysts and former officials in both places revealed that the Israel-Hamas war has complicated their domestic and foreign policies.
In both countries, the ruling regimes have made it clear that there will be no retreat from the decision to implement formal diplomatic relations with Israel—this is due to the continued robustness of the strategic and geoeconomic rationales that brought them to full normalization in the first place (and also to an unwillingness to let radicals dictate their national agenda). However, as one well-connected Bahraini told me, “the past two months have set us back years” in terms of public perceptions and the popular acceptance of normalization with Israel.
Both countries are overtly depoliticized societies, with expression of political dissent or criticism severely circumscribed, and policy-making firmly held by the ruling family. Views that diverge from the official stance are voiced privately, or anonymously through social media. However, as in Egypt and Jordan, pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli sentiment and expression (especially in Bahrain)—apart from their genuine salience, especially in the current crisis—can also be a “stand-in issue” for wider criticism of the regimes and their policies: It is a way to vent pent-up frustration in a politically acceptable manner. In both countries, careful attention is given to public opinion. While the United Arab Emirates is not a democracy, there is a strong feedback loop between the leadership and the (Emirati) populace, who respond with significant trust in the wisdom and policies of their leadership. A Gulf diplomat said to me “Israel needs to be careful how and what it asks its friends. They have public opinion.”
Interlocutors in both countries note that among the public, there is little or no empathy for Israeli suffering on October 7; few in Bahrain or the Emirates, they say, accept that Hamas caused the Gaza crisis. They also spoke of the difficulty of differentiating between sympathy for Palestinian suffering in Gaza and support for Hamas. There is no love lost between the leaderships of these countries and Hamas; Emirati leadership has in the past decade been an implacable foe of the Muslim Brotherhood (the Palestinian branch of which was a precursor to Hamas). However, they note that to a large extent, Hamas and the Palestinians have been conjoined in the Arab (and wider) discourse since October: Criticism of Hamas is seen as serving the Israeli narrative. One Gulf analyst noted the danger of “the romanticization of Hamas”—something they discern as prevalent in the West as well. There has been little direct criticism by the Emirati government of Hamas as a terrorist organization, and a calculated decision not to use the legally-loaded term “terrorism,” in order to “avoid another post-9/11 scenario,” in the words of one knowledgeable Emirati. One former Bahraini official noted “If you’re anti-Hamas, you are anti-Palestinian: You can’t say that publicly… [criticism of Hamas] is seen as providing a lifeline to Netanyahu’s government.” They also note that there is little or no coverage of the October 7 events in the Arab-language media, and the attention to the issue in social media is mostly in the context of denial.
Over and over, I heard in the past three months in my interactions with Gulf colleagues the view that while the Hamas action was heinous, Israel’s response was disproportionate and not thought out, and played into the hands of Hamas. The sympathy and horror some may have felt and expressed after October 7 was, they noted, quickly obscured by the Israeli reaction. There is also a widely-accepted narrative, fed by closely read and widely quotedstatements by senior Israelis, that Israel wants to expel the Palestinians to Sinai.
Emirati and Bahraini criticisms of Israel are usually phrased as criticisms of the current government in Israel, led by Benjamin Netanyahu. It is difficult for experts in the Gulf (and not only for them) to accept that radical statements made by government ministers do not necessarily represent government policy. There is criticism of the fact that Israel does not seem to be able to articulate their preferred end-state in Gaza, and suspicion that this is because it has not determined one. One Emirati expert said to me “You [Israel] need to think [about] who will be the next leader… you need to identify and raise new Palestinian leaders”. Many of my interlocutors doubted that Gulf states would be willing to take an assisting role in the postwar political order as long as the incumbent Netanyhau government remained.
Almost all my interlocutors, in both countries, stressed the need for an immediate ceasefire, and a rapid shift to a diplomatic process leading to a two-state solution. This is required, in their view, to quell the rising radicalization of Arab and Muslim streets. Anwar Gargash, the diplomatic advisor to the president of the United Arab Emirates, has stated: “The longer [the war in Gaza] lasts, the higher the risks are that the war will spread regionally and that the current violence will only breed more violence and fuel greater radicalisation in the region. I wonder sometimes if this is another Iraq moment, to be honest.”My contacts rejected the idea that Arab countries would take over administration of the Gaza Strip from Israel, much less provide military forces to stabilize it, without the agreement of the Palestinian Authority. They recognize the limitations of the latter and its problems of legitimacy, but state that Arab states will not be willing to be involved in the postwar political order in the Gaza strip without Palestinian involvement; otherwise, they would be viewed as Israeli puppets. One Emirati analyst said “Israelis think we will come to fix the mess.” Former officials in both the Emirates and Bahrain did mention to me the idea of international or regional trusteeship for Gaza, but this seemed to be a minority view, and in any case was predicated on Palestinian agreement.
In both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, proponents of normalization, and those with open ties to Israel and Israelis, are experiencing significant pressure from friends and family. One Bahraini proponent of normalization said a friend told them, “Israel got what it wanted, a piece of paper and a photo,” and urged them not to continue to waste their political capital on the issue. One foreign diplomat said that “the environment [in Bahrain] is becoming difficult regarding normalization,” with some Bahraini proponents of normalization being pursued on social media.
Criticism of Israeli policy spills over into the larger criticism of and disenchantment with American policy in the Middle East. There are pervasive calls on social media for boycotts of firms identified as pro-Israeli—Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC, Carrefour—which have reportedly led to significant hardship, especially in Bahrain, for local franchisees. There have even been calls to boycott the American Mission Hospital in Bahrain, the oldest hospital in the country.
The View from the Emirates
The embassy of Israel in Abu Dhabi, and the consulate general in Dubai, have remained open (the only ones in the greater Middle East) with the encouragement of the host government, though their activity has been constrained by security considerations. Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited COP-28 in Dubai on November thirtieth, and was met at the airport by UAE Foreign Minister Abduallah bin Zayed: he also met with UAE President and Sheikh of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed.
It is very important for the UAE government to be seen as doing their utmost to alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people. Prominence is given to Emirati efforts to provide succor to the people of Gaza, known as “Operation Gallant Knight Three,” especially through building a field hospital there, and bringing wounded Gazan children to the Emirates for medical treatment (all these actions were in cooperation with Israel, though this fact is not stressed). The United Arab Emirates has provided significant aid to Gaza, including inerecting three desalination plants in Egyptian Rafah to provide water to the southern part of the Strip. There is a great deal of popular sympathy with the Gazans, and the government allows artistic expression, though not political expression, of such feelings. There is no overt expression of anti-Israel or anti-Israel sentiment in Abu Dhabi or Dubai, where graffiti, political signage, and demonstrations of any kind are not allowed, although very limited and closely monitored protests were permitted on the grounds of the COP-28 climate conference. Foreign diplomats noted that the Emirate of Sharjah has a more open anti-Israel, bordering occasionally on anti-Semitic, bent, and that some senior Sharjans note that “Sharjah has never normalized.”
Figure 1: Araffiti art installation in the Al-Serkal arts quarter in Dubai.
Source: Photo by the author. This is the only pro-Palestinian public expression (and the only graffiti) I saw in my visit to United Arab Emirates.
The United Arab Emirates presented the Abraham Accords in 2020 as a step to protect the Palestinians from Israeli annexation, and to preserve the possibility of future negotiations towards a two-state solution. In September, on the third anniversary of the Abraham Accords, Yousef Al Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to the United States and the key figure in reaching the accords,noted that “What the Abraham Accords did was just buy more space for diplomacy and for a two-state solution … We cannot solve that. That has to come from the players in the region themselves.” He said that creeping annexation was taking place in the West Bank and that “our deal was based on a certain time period [Israel’s undertaking not to annex territory in the West Bank was until 2024] and that time period is almost done … We have no ability to leverage decisions that are made outside of the period that the Abraham Accords was based on … There is very little that the United Arab Emirates can do at this moment to shape what happens inside Israel.” This pessimistic view has only been reinforced by developments since.
Anwar Gargash opined (November eighteenth) that: “The policy of containment, which has characterized the Palestinian issue for so long, has clearly failed. As the events of the past month have shown, it would be a costly mistake to fail to re-engage politically on a peace-process framework to achieve a two-state solution. Borders, refugees, East Jerusalem—all have to be sorted out… This outcome, we hope, will bring a promise of lasting peace to the Palestinian and Israeli people and will require strong and sustained international engagement.” The Emirati Ambassador to the United Nations, Lana Nusseibeh,said in an interview (December twelfth) that the United Arab Emirates will condition financial and political support for the reconstruction of Gaza’s infrastructure on a viable US-backed road map toward a two-state solution, developed by Israel, the PA, and “a grouping of countries that have leverage on the both of them.” Without such a road-map, she noted, “we’re not going to be as fully invested in the rebuild and with Israel it will also have an effect. That’s not the trajectory we signed the Abraham Accords on.”
Some Emirati analysts relayed to me that the Gaza war will have an impact on relations with Israel in the long-term. They note that while the regime has made a strategic choice to maintain political relations with Israel, and that these will continue, this might not be reflected on other levels. An Emirati businessman noted to me that while cooperation will undoubtedly continue in those economic sectors seen as crucial to the Emirati leadership—such as defense and security technology, medical and agricultural technology, and government-level investment—he expects private sector cooperation and trade to stagnate in the short to medium term. In his view, private citizens and companies will be wary of overt cooperation with Israeli entities, due both to their own sympathies and to worries about consumer and even family pressures. He estimates that the relationship will largely go back to what it was before the Abraham Accords: good government-to-government and business-to-business (in highly relevant sectors) relations, but with a lower profile. Deeper normalization will probably have to wait, in his view, for the restart of a real political process towards Palestinian statehood. Several sources told me that in both the United Arab Emirates and in Bahrain, bilateral projects have been put on hold.
It is important to remember that the United Arab Emirates (much less Bahrain) is not a significant player in the Palestinian realm, despiteIsraeli hopes that it will contribute significantly to postwar reconstruction in Gaza (or even to peacekeeping or governance capacity-building). There has been major alienation between the Palestinian Authority and Abu Dhabi since the Abraham Accords (it’s worth remembering therefusal to accept Emirati aid during the COVID epidemic); the Palestinian Authority does not, in the assessment of foreign diplomats in the Gulf, view them as viable mediators. These diplomats note that Emirati analysis of the situation is based on a very strategic long-term, but not granular, and not always precisely detailed, view. In their assessment, significant weight is given to the views of trusted contacts, especially of King Abdullah II of Jordan, who is close to the Emirati leadership.
UAE has been the Arab bloc representative in the UN Security Council since January 2022; its membership of the Security Council ended at the end of 2023. This has put the United Arab Emirates at the forefront of efforts in the past two months to put forward a Security Council resolution on the Gaza crisis and placed it several times in diplomatic opposition to the United States, which has twice vetoed such resolutions calling for a ceasefire (it abstained on the most recent resolution, which did not include such a call). Foreign diplomats, and knowledgeable Emiratis, note that the active role played by the United Arab Emirates in promoting the resolutions is a function not necessarily of its own policy priorities, but more of its need to represent the Arab consensus, and not to isolate itself among its Arab peers. This is especially true as it was at the end of its tenure, so its ability to shape the Arab position in the UN on the issue was in any case extremely limited.
The View from Bahrain
According to one of my senior Bahraini interlocutors, when it comes to normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab world, “Bahrain is the real litmus test.” Bahrain, they said, is more authentically Arab than Dubai.
The Bahraini government is committed to the bilateral relationship with Israel. Its strategic calculations have not changed: the common threat posed by Iran, the understanding that Washington can be more effectively engaged and lobbied by a group of states rather than by individual states (and healthy appreciation of Israel’s political weight in Washington), and the desire to cultivate and promote the Kingdom’s image as a peaceful place of religious toleration. The economic driver is less significant for Bahrain: Its economy is less than ten percent that of the United Arab Emirates and is much less based on international trade and connectivity, high tech, and innovation. As one Bahraini analyst pointed out to me, without people-to-people, and business-to-business ties, formal political relations, while significant on the symbolic level, don’t necessarily hold much content.
Bahrain is different from the United Arab Emirates. Its regime is less popular among the population, and its population does publicly express divergent political opinions, within bounds carefully set after the 2011 uprisings and their suppression. There is widespread, if not particularly deep, anti-normalization sentiment (the regime did not invest major effort in explaining/”marketing” the Abraham Accords), and very strong solidarity with the Palestinians. There have been demonstrations, sit-ins, and protest processions outside of Manama, especially in Shi’i areas; the first days of the crisis saw demonstrations with thousands of participants. The government allows small, “performative” demonstrations as a pressure valve, though they only allow Bahraini and Palestinian flags (not those of Hamas, Israel, or the United States). One analyst noted to me that in Bahrain “the street does matter, so the king does care [and] does not want to stick his neck out,” and that there is “dual messaging, with slightly different phrasing in English and in Arabic”; in their view, the government tries to keep aligned with the positions of the United Arab Emirates and especially Saudi Arabia. A well-informed Bahraini said that “official statements always have to be balanced,” though sentiment within the government is strongly anti-Hamas and feels that Israel is “doing what is needed to dismantle Hamas.”
The elected lower house of Bahrain’s Parliament announced on November second “the halting of economic ties with Israel and the return of ambassadors on both sides… in support of the Palestinian cause and the legitimate rights of the brotherly Palestinian people.” However, the Bahraini parliament has no mandate or influence in foreign policy (or indeed, on any major issues), and the relevant government spokesmen (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the palace) did not make any such announcement. The Israeli diplomats in Bahrain were in fact evacuated shortly after October 7 by the Israeli government for security considerations, as were those in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, and Turkmenistan; the Bahraini ambassador to Israel returned to Bahrain in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, also for security considerations, and has not yet returned to Tel Aviv. Flights were suspended for security reasons. My Bahraini contacts were adamant that there was no intention to close the embassies (they claim the Bahraini embassy is still operational, though remotely). They did disagree, to some extent, about the motivation of the parliamentary announcement. Some said it was an independent initiative by the parliament, which as an elected body, tends to be more radical and populist. Others assess that the government may have made use of these attributes of the parliament, in order to allow a “safety valve” of expression of public disapproval of Israel’s actions, without having to make changes in government policy. In the words of one Bahraini analyst, “Parliament went off the rails and the government ran with it, and may have even orchestrated it.”
The current crisis does not threaten the formal diplomatic relations between Israel, on the one hand, and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, on the other (nor does it threaten formal bilateral relations with the other Arab states, such as Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco). However, there are serious question marks about the scope and content of these relations in the post-war era. In Israel, the Abraham Accords were greeted with great enthusiasm, largely because of the (over-optimistic) assumption that they would be qualitatively different from the “cold peace” treaties that exist with the “senior” peace partners, Egypt, and Jordan. They would, it was anticipated, not only be formal, but encompass the business sectors and the public in a much greater manner than the older agreements.
However, decline in public support for the Abraham Accords in the relevant countrieswas already discernible before the most recent conflagration. The re-assertion of the Palestinian issue in the center of the regional and international agenda has hardened the anti-Israeli trends in the public, even if it is not given political expression and does not pose overt limitations on government policy. This will have an impact on future economic relations, on Israel’s integration into upcoming long-term regional infrastructure and connectivity projects—which could “bake in” limitations to Israel’s place in the region in the future—and on the prospects for “people-to-people” relations. The expansion of the circle of normalization, which on the eve of October 7 seemed quite plausible, may well have been deferred indefinitely.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.