Amid normalization with Israel, what remains of Gulf-Palestine relations ?

The Tel Aviv Municipality Building at the end of Rabin Square, is lit up in the colors of the flag of the United Arab Emirates (Avhalom Sassoni - Flash90

Katie Wachsberger

+972 Magazine  /  February 1, 2022

Gulf states have a complex history of engagement with the Palestinian cause. Now, regional shifts are forcing them to reassess their role.

 “There is a lot of talk of ‘betrayal’ following the normalization, which I can understand,” said Abdulla Shareef, a young Emirati university student studying in California. “But at the end of the day, our country has been supporting the Palestinian cause for decades, just to see money end up in the pockets of corrupt officials. This approach isn’t working, and everyone knows it.”

These comments reflect a growing sentiment within the Gulf, at a time of shifting dynamics between Israel, the Gulf states and the Palestinians. Following the normalization agreements signed by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain with Israel in 2020 (popularly known as the “Abraham Accords”), the subject of Palestinian-Gulf relations has commonly invoked claims of treachery, corruption, and manipulation of the Palestinian cause. But behind these narratives lies a more complex story of economic, political, and cultural developments that are now rising to the surface as Gulf Arab nations strategically move closer to Israel.

The Gulf, or “Khaleeji”, states have a long history of political intervention in and financial support for the Palestinian cause. But there are also deep sources of tension that continue to feed perceptions of the other based on biases and unresolved conflicts, from the level of government to the broader public. These views were even evident among the people interviewed for this article: while many Palestinian interviewees traced their discontent for the Gulf nations to the latter’s minimal support for Syrian refugees and the war in Yemen, many Khaleejis cited a lack of acknowledgement or appreciation among Palestinians for continuous aid and support to their cause.

Remarks like those quoted above are indicative of the deeper issues underlying the recent advancement in Israeli-Arab normalization. In order to understand the ways in which this process has affected Palestinian relations with the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and how those relations may develop in the coming years, it is worth exploring the historical and political phenomena underlying the loaded debates plaguing the region’s actors.

Palestinians in the Gulf

The place of Palestinians in the Gulf has always been precarious. On the one hand, the large Palestinian populations that reside in Gulf states (a combined total of over 680,000 people) have for decades enjoyed a wealth of opportunities, influence, and prestige in the private sector, education, media, and government. On the other, Palestinians continue to face significant instability and uncertainty with their status, as well as societal and institutional racism.

The majority of Palestinians in the Gulf reside in Saudi Arabia (240,000 people) and the UAE (200,000), with smaller populations in Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain. This Palestinian presence in wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries plays a significant role in supporting the economy in Palestine itself, with about $1.4 billion in remittances entering the occupied territories from the Gulf each year, creating a relationship of informal financial dependence.

While Palestinians have suffered from the Gulf’s general lack of infrastructure and support for refugees and asylum seekers, they have often been beneficiaries of special treatment due to the ideological nature of their cause. The UAE, for example, has no official policy regarding stateless Palestinians, and thus does not integrate Palestinian refugees collectively in a manner different from other arriving refugees. Nonetheless, many Palestinian refugees have been granted Emirati citizenship by government decree or royal favor due to their contributions to society, or at the behest of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the founder and former ruler of the UAE, who was known to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause until his death in 2004.

As a result, there are many influential Emiratis in governmental positions today who are of Palestinian origin. One of the most prominent is Minister of State Zaki Nusseibeh, who has roots in Jerusalem and Ramle. He served as Sheikh Zayed’s longtime translator and interpreter, and was almost immediately offered Emirati citizenship upon the state’s independence in 1971. Although he speaks openly about his hometown, Nusseibeh today does not identify as Palestinian in any public forum or media, displaying a full commitment to his adopted nationality.

On many occasions throughout his reign, Sheikh Zayed condemned the international community’s inaction regarding the Israeli occupation, and urged the UN to hold Israel to standards of international law. The Emirati ruler also sponsored the construction of the Sheikh Zayed City housing project in the Gaza Strip to provide residence for Palestinians made homeless by Israeli military attacks, and was known to have promoted business relations with the Palestinian community in the Emirates.

A checkered history

In parallel with this partial experience of benevolence and support, Palestinians in the Gulf have often dealt with systemic racism and discrimination from the local Arab business and social ecosystems, with the fear of arbitrary expulsion constantly lurking in the background.

“We came to open our company in Jeddah, and we first flew to Bahrain,” explained a young Palestinian entrepreneur from the West Bank, who currently resides in Saudi Arabia in an attempt to expand his business to the peninsula; he asked to remain anonymous to avoid further discriminatory interactions. “Nobody — no store nor consulate — would allow us to even print the visa that we had already been granted, saying that there is no way that a Palestinian company from the West Bank could actually have received permission to open its headquarters in Saudi.”

A significant turning point for these attitudes, and in GCC-Palestinian relations more widely, was the Gulf War of 1990. In the two years prior, and in the midst of the First Intifada, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat had lost face among many of his supporters for agreeing to recognize Israel in 1988, in part as a strategy to curry favor with the United States. To rectify his standing, the PLO chairman cozied up to Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, in the hope that aligning with the latter’s anti-Western rhetoric would bolster Arafat’s own internal popularity. Iraq’s military support for the PLO during the 1980s further led Arafat to believe that Hussein would be a more reliable ally than the Gulf states.

During Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Arafat urged the Arab League to block Western intervention. “It is our job today to find an Arab solution not an international one. If we go for the international solution, the map [of the region] will not stay the way it is now,” asserted the Palestinian leader. Hussein even sent a handwritten letter to Washington offering to withdraw his forces from Kuwait when “all issues of [Israeli] occupation” are resolved, coupling support for Palestinian liberation with his own territorial ambitions. Many analysts point to this alliance as the breaking point in regional Arab unity around the Palestinians.

Following the brief war, perceptions of the Palestinian cause soured among many Gulf governments. Kuwait expelled over 400,000 Palestinians as collective punishment for the PLO’s siding with Iraq. Saudi officials declared that the PLO would not receive any further financial assistance from the Gulf states, although aid did continue to flow through various channels. The memory of this historical schism still plays a major role in Khaleeji discourse regarding distrust of Palestinians.

The fallout over the Kuwait invasion led to increased curiosity among Gulf states regarding the potential opportunities for engagement with Israel if the Palestinian issue were to dissolve. Saudi Arabia has played an active mediating role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1976, attempting to benefit from the conflict’s resolution. Following the Oslo Accords, though, many more Gulf countries informally normalized relations with Israel, creating business and security ties which were maintained even when the accords broke down.

Aid on the decline

Even as GCC countries slowly warmed up to Israel behind closed doors, the Palestinians continued to receive financial support from the Gulf through various mechanisms. A significant amount of Saudi, Emirati and Kuwaiti aid, for example, has been funneled into the Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA.

Qatar, meanwhile, has transferred billions of dollars of aid toward daily functions in Gaza, particularly since the beginning of the Hamas-Fatah split and the Israel-Egypt blockade, with Israel’s approval and the Mossad’s coordination. Qatar’s role in Gaza has been both humanitarian and political — two realms that often overlap in the Palestinian context, as aid is used as a tool for asserting influence and solidifying alliances.

The Qatar Development Fund, for example, contributes large funds to both public infrastructure and development projects that support the Palestinian people in Gaza, as well as direct payments to Hamas government officials and projects. This difference in approach regarding support for entities that reject Western intervention in the region is one of several reasons behind ongoing icy relations between Qatar and the Saudi bloc.

The question of how to transfer Gulf funds to Palestine safely and effectively has presented challenges over the years. For example, the Saudis have long provided significant financial aid to Palestinians, with capital coming from government entities, banks, philanthropic funds, and even telethon campaigns. The government-run Saudi Development Fund, established in the mid-1970s, has transferred billions of dollars of aid to the Palestinian leadership and UNRWA over the decades. However, other government initiatives, such as the Committee for the Al Quds Intifada, were accused by the United States of supporting violence and terrorism among Palestinians.

The connection between accusations of funding terror and Saudi Arabia’s support for the Palestinian cause may be influencing its trajectory of normalization with Israel. Indeed, the kingdom’s gestures toward Israel can be viewed in part as an attempt to repair the damage done to its relationship with Washington due to its involvement in the war in Yemen and its notorious assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is viewed as especially crucial as the new Saudi rulers look to attract increased Western investment in the country.

In general, the flow of Gulf money into Palestine through these various mechanisms has been declining. Gulf support to UNRWA has decreased incrementally over the past two decades, leading UNRWA representatives to plead with Arab states for more aid, including during a 2007 conference in Bahrain. The Trump administration’s decision in 2018 to halt all U.S. funding for UNRWA left the organization limping, while recurring accusations of internal corruption have led various donor countries to suspend their support.

Arab states’ direct funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA) also sharply decreased, with Riyadh leading the way: from $265.5 million in 2019 to only $40 million in 2020 — a drop of ​​81.4 percent. The reasons for this decline, which has been mirrored to a lesser extent also by the UAE, remain unclear. Some assert that this move was in deference to the Trump administration, with the former president explicitly requesting that wealthy Gulf countries reduce their financial support to the PA; others view such changes as connected to these countries’ interest in normalization. Conversely, the PA has refused to accept Emirati medical aid that was flown through Israel, as it was facilitated by the increasingly normalized relations.

These sour sentiments remain firmly aimed at the PA, as an Emirati government official told me in a private interview: “Peace is made between governments, not causes.” The official further emphasized that his nation’s sympathy for the Palestinian struggle does not change the nature of the government, which is ultimately the negotiating partner.

Khaleeji politics in the Palestinian arena

Through their financial involvement and more, the GCC states have each established unique relationships with the Palestinian leadership and cause, often projecting their rivalries onto the Palestinian arena or vying for influence within it.

Indeed, the diplomatic conflict between Sauda Arabia and Qatar — beginning in 2017 and partially subsiding over the past year — was often visible in the former’s support for the PA and the latter’s patronage of Hamas, two factions that remain rivals despite instances of “false unity” following the signing of the Abraham Accords. Nonetheless, after the Saudi blockade on Qatar was lifted, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was welcomed in Doha in December despite the small nation’s continual support for his political rivals, with the aging leader praising Doha’s support for the Palestinian cause.

Additionally notable are previous attempts by the Saudi leadership at moderating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Saudis were the first members of the Arab League to offer complete regional normalization in return for a just solution to the conflict in the early eighties. The Fahd Eight Point Peace Plan, proposed in 1981, developed into the Fez Resolutions the following year, and later into the Abdullah Initiative (more commonly known as the Arab Peace Initiative) offered in 2002 and 2007; all these plans were based on the creation of a Palestinian state along the pre-1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Scholars have claimed that these attempts at moderation demonstrate the kingdom’s attempts to maintain both its regional influence and national security, while solidifying a mutually beneficial relationship with the United States that aims to “to craft a common anti-terrorist strategy.” Building on these maneuvers, Trump’s “Deal of the Century” in 2020 presented a vision of conflict resolution in which the kingdom would play a central role.

Still, Saudi Arabia is continually trying to ensure that any information about its meetings or collaboration with Israeli officials remains safely under the radar, while maintaining an officially pro-Palestine stance that may allow its leaders to play a mediating role between the two sides, and to continue to act as the region’s social and political leader.

Meanwhile, relations between the PA and the UAE took a serious hit after the latter developed a close relationship with ex-Fatah security chief, Mohammad Dahlan. A bitter opponent of Abbas, Dahlan found refuge in Abu Dhabi following his exile from Ramallah in 2011. This offer of sanctuary to Dahlan has been interpreted by some analysts as an Emirati move aimed at challenging Qatar’s influence in Gaza, where Dahlan had built his base of support; others assert that Dahlan may have been one of the architects of the Abraham Accords, which he hoped to use to advance his own economic interests and corner his rival Abbas.

Dahlan has been funding developmental and philanthropic projects in exile, particularly in Gaza and East Jerusalem, further exacerbating the tensions with Abbas. Given his controversial position, Dahlan has been portrayed by both Hamas and Fatah supporters as a rogue agent of the Mossad or other external actors looking to intervene in Israel’s favor.

Normalization and beyond

Over the past decade, GCC-Palestinian relations have become even more complex. The 2011 uprisings throughout the region redirected GCC nations’ focus to preserving domestic control and political alliances that favor the authoritarian status quo. As such, Gulf rulers have diverted attention away from the Palestinian issue while adopting various tactics of liberalization and increasing surveillance to maintain stability, concerned by the threat of brutal civil wars and religious radicalization that followed many of the uprisings.

The Gulf’s relations with Israel, in contrast, have been on the uptick. The UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and even Qatar are either moving or have already moved toward fully normalized relations with Israel. The Israeli government, in turn, has advanced successful efforts to influence Gulf public opinion against the Palestinian cause and its leadership, while promoting Israel as an economic and tourist hub for Gulf citizens and businesses.

Several public incidents have further soured Khaleeji public perception of the Palestinians. In April 2020, for example, a social media campaign with the hashtag “#Palestine_is_not_my_cause” was launched after a Palestinian cartoonist in Europe published a caricature of a Saudi national being chased by an oil barrel, alluding to the kingdom’s reliance on petroleum and its potential doom in the face of dropping oil prices due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This sparked a massive wave of anti-Palestinian sentiment among Saudi social media users, leading many to blame Palestinians for being ungrateful after years of support. The incident was quickly concluded by an official apology from the PA. Efforts to ease such tensions included publicized donations to UNRWA in 2019 as the organization tanked due to the halted support from the Trump administration, and the establishment of joint business councils designated to display continued support for Palestinian economic success.

Israel’s May 2021 attacks on Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Gaza were condemned by the Gulf nations’ leaders, but this did not affect the steady progress of commercial relations or security cooperation. The outburst of violence did, however, spark a wave of pro-Palestine sentiment among GCC nationals and expatriates, including the removal of Israeli products from shelves of large retail suppliers.

Several months later, Majed Faraj, head of the PA’s Preventive Security Force, visited the Palestinian pavilion at the Dubai Expo. In doing so, he became the first PA official to travel to the UAE following the Abraham Accords, where he also met with Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.

While PA officials have expressed interest in ushering in a new era of repaired relations, for many others it seems that the normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab world will bring an end to a viable two-state solution, which in turn would further sideline the PA. As the Palestinian struggle for statehood within the pre-1967 borders increasingly transforms into a struggle for democracy for Jews and Palestinians in one equal state, we may start to witness another redefinition of relations between the GCC nations and Palestine.

Katie Wachsberger is a research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking specializing in the GCC, with a focus on Israel-Gulf relations and reform-oriented discourse in Oman, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia