Skip to main content

Iran-Israel tensions: Why Saudi Arabia and the UAE are walking a tightrope

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have no interest in further escalation, as they seek to preserve fragile detentes while lacking any leverage over Israel
UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attend a summit in Riyadh on 20 October 2023 (Hamad al-Kaabi/UAE Presidential Court/AFP)
UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attend a summit in Riyadh on 20 October 2023 (Hamad al-Kaabi/UAE Presidential Court/AFP)

Iran fired hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel over the weekend in retaliation for its air strike against Tehran’s diplomatic facility in Damascus earlier this month. These developments mark a new era in the Middle East: the Iran-Israel “shadow war” is over, and there is now a direct state-to-state confrontation between these two regional powers. 

With the Middle East in uncharted waters, the stakes are high for the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, who seek to avoid being caught in the crosshairs of the region’s intensifying conflict dynamics, which could severely threaten their own national security and economic health.

With the exception of Bahrain, all GCC members condemned Israel’s strike on Iran’s diplomatic facility in Syria on 1 April, but only Kuwait called out Israel by name. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia likely attempted to strike a balance that prevented them from appearing in alignment with the Iran-led “axis of resistance”. 

Then, after Tehran boldly retaliated 12 days later, the GCC states expressed concern and called for de-escalation, albeit without condemning Iran outright. Saudi Arabia also quickly denied reports that it was involved in intercepting Iranian drones and missiles fired at Israel. 

As hostilities escalate, the interests of the UAE and Saudi Arabia do not align with Iran against Israel, or vice versa. Having restored full diplomatic relations with Iran only two years after normalising relations with Israel in 2020, Abu Dhabi wants to maintain a relatively “neutral” position in the Middle East order, with an increasingly multifaceted and non-aligned, if not multi-aligned, approach to geopolitics. 

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Saudi Arabia has been approaching developments similarly on the international stage, as underscored by its low-key response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia seek to serve as trade and commercial hubs linking multiple regions of the world, as part of their visions for a post-oil future. Focused on achieving economic diversification and long-term prosperity at home, the GCC states want stability within their own borders and throughout the neighbourhood. 

Regional security

According to Mira al-Hussein, an Emirati sociologist and research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Alwaleed Centre, the UAE and Saudi Arabia “are laser-focused on growing their economies and attracting foreign investment".

“While some degree of instability in the region and beyond has proven beneficial insofar as bringing in high-net-worth individuals and large numbers of skilled workers to the region, a high degree of instability can undo all these gains,” Hussein told Middle East Eye. 

Follow Middle East Eye's live coverage of the Israel-Palestine war

“It is no secret that Gulf states are very concerned by Iran’s bold attempt to redefine the rules of engagement with Israel and the US, but most worrying to them is the possibility of these confrontations being transported to Gulf shores,” she said.

Sheikh Nawaf Bin Mubarak Al-Thani, a security expert who previously served as Qatar’s defence attache to the US, Canada and Mexico, told MEE that “in light of the decades-long wars in the Middle East, I think the main concern for most GCC countries is that they enter into another ‘forever war’ in which the GCC countries end up paying for most of it while getting little benefit, if any at all”.

Tehran sought to send an important message to its neighbours about the range and precision of Iranian weapons

In what appears to be an orchestrated campaign, many commentators in the Gulf and Jordan maintain that Iran’s 13 April attack was largely about theatrics, which served to bolster the narratives of both Iran and Israel. From this standpoint, Iran’s actions were not helpful in terms of moving Gaza closer to a ceasefire or Palestinians closer to statehood - and they were also extremely dangerous from a regional security standpoint.

How the recent hostilities will affect the newfound detente between Riyadh and Tehran is also an important question.

All the reasons Saudi Arabia had for restoring diplomatic relations with Iran last year remain in place. The same is true for the Iranian side. Riyadh’s balanced and measured response to escalating hostilities between Iran and Israel, and its determination to distance itself from the US-UK bombing of Houthi targets in Yemen, speak to its commitment to preventing a derailment of the detente with Tehran.

'Uncharted waters'

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia remains very suspicious of Iran and the long list of Tehran-aligned, Arab non-state actors that have a history of hostility towards the kingdom.

A major concern for policymakers in Riyadh relates to the unknowns of how various Iran-backed groups in the “axis of resistance” might act if regional tensions spiral out of control, and how their conduct might impact the security and geopolitical interests of GCC members. Such factors would severely test the Saudi-Iranian detente as regional tensions heighten.

How Israel reacts going forward will be key.

“If [the Israelis] show restraint - whether through a limited military operation or an operation with minimal casualties - in that case, the [Saudi-Iranian] relationship would be, for all intents and purposes, unchanged,” Al-Thani said. “However, we have to realise that we are in uncharted waters, and things could spiral out of hand quite quickly.”

How Iranian attacks on Israel redefined the Middle East conflict landscape
Read More »

It is critical to understand that Iran’s motivations for firing drones and missiles at Israel were not solely about establishing deterrence. Tehran sought to send an important message to its neighbours about the range and precision of Iranian weapons, and to underscore to GCC states that Washington’s commitment to Israel’s security goes far beyond anything that the US would provide its allies and partners on the Arabian Peninsula.

“I think Gulf states understand that the relationship with Israel is not reciprocal, nor is the US willing to offer worthwhile rewards to what the US essentially perceives as a watchdog agreement between [different GCC states] and Israel,” Hussein said, referring to the 2020 Abraham Accords between Israel and four Arab states. 

Mindful of how GCC members that normalised with Israel lack leverage to persuade Tel Aviv to de-escalate, she said, Gulf Arab states are “left to manage their individual relationships with Iran instead, while also having to… manage domestic expectations and growing discontent”.

These dynamics leave officials in GCC states deeply concerned about what may come next. With the Gulf states, Iran and the Biden administration all wishing for no further escalation, the outcome hinges on what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does next.

“The question remains: What does Netanyahu want?” Al-Thani said. “And to the extent that it serves his political career, he may end up choosing unwisely and, therefore, advancing the conflict to a further stage. In that sense, his reaction may throw a monkey wrench to the whole mechanism and would be the difference between a limited, contained conflict and a regional war.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy. You can follow him on Twitter @GiorgioCafiero
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.