Is the Axis of Resistance gaining support in the GCC?

Giorgio Cafiero, The Cradle, February 5, 2024 —

Recent polls and public action indicate a renewed popularity of West Asia’s Resistance Axis among Persian Gulf Arabs, potentially surpassing the 2006-era levels seen after Hezbollah’s war with Israel.

For decades, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states have regarded non-state actors within West Asia’s Axis of Resistance, spearheaded by Iran, as a grave threat.

As counter-revolutionary states, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain’s rulers have perceived groups such as Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and Yemen’s Ansarallah as entities that dangerously challenge the regional status quo, particularly the dominance of its western imperium.

One reason some GCC member states want to see the Israeli war on Gaza end as soon as possible pertains to their fears of how Iran-aligned groups will act and benefit as the crisis further expands into other parts of the region.

Four months after Hamas’ Operation Al-Aqsa Flood and the subsequent Israeli war on Gaza, the status of the Axis of Resistance has been elevated throughout the region. This has shrunk the space for normalization efforts with Israel and exerted unwelcome pressure on those leaders who already have ties with Tel Aviv.

Support for resistance in the ‘Arab Street’ 

As anti-US sentiment in the Arab world surges to the highest levels since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there is a rising wave of sympathy for actors in the Arab region that actively challenge US and Israeli interests.

Prominent Sunni figures and groups in the “Arab street” expressing support for actors within the Resistance Axis is reminiscent of the region’s 2006 unity, when Arabs across the spectrum hailed Hezbollah for its electrifying battlefield performance against the occupation state.

Throughout the region, the 33-day war was seen as an “Arab victory” that left Israel humiliated. Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, recently wrote in a Responsible Statecraft article that “[US President Joe] Biden’s support for Israel’s war against the Palestinians has inflamed anti-American and anti-Western feelings across the entire Arab world. It has breathed new life into the resistance front.”

The prospect of Israel’s war on Gaza having a “radicalizing” impact on GCC nationals would be a grave concern to government officials in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states of the Persian Gulf, where authorities have long seen a need to control popular opinion and crack down on grassroots activism that threatens their legitimacy.

In Saudi Arabia, and likely elsewhere in the Gulf, evidence mounts of growing sympathy for Hamas as the group wages a stiff resistance to Israel’s brutal assault on Gaza.

Pro-Israel think tankThe Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), conducted a poll in Saudi Arabia between 14 November and 6 December 2023, which found that 96 percent of the kingdom’s citizens agree that “Arab countries should immediately break all diplomatic, political, economic, and any other contacts with Israel, in protest against its military action in Gaza.”

WINEP’s survey also uncovered that the percentage of Saudis holding a positive attitude toward Hamas shot up from 10 to 40 percent since August 2023.

Mira al-Hussein, an Emirati sociologist and Research Fellow at the Alwaleed bin Talal Centre, University of Edinburgh, tells The Cradle:

“There are phrases and aesthetics popularized by Hamas militants that have been quickly adopted in the Gulf. The fact that these phrases are part of everyday use offers plausible deniability to those who repeat them. With regards to aesthetics, not only has the keffiyeh made a comeback in major Gulf cities, but the red triangle is now a trendy addition to fashion graphics.”

SaudiUAE divergence 

Within the GCC, Saudi Arabia and the UAE would be most worried about growing sympathy, or even outright support, for Hamas among Arabs in the Persian Gulf. Yet, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh are not on the same page when it comes to engaging the Palestinian resistance group. Moreover, their perspectives on the changing attitudes of GCC nationals toward Hamas are different. The UAE is rigidly opposed to Hamas for being an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and other ideological reasons. Abu Dhabi “is not willing to entertain any kind of Islamist movement,” Aziz Alghashian, a fellow at Lancaster University in Britain, tells The Cradle. However, Saudi Arabia is a “bit more pragmatic,” and Riyadh, despite not accepting Hamas, recognizes the group as an “inevitable part of the Palestinian issue.”

Speaking to The Cradle, Zakaryia al-Muharrmi, an Omani scholar and writer, concurs:

“There is a clear divergence [which] can be observed in the Middle East [West Asia] regarding engagement with Hamas. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, having received Hamas leaders just months before the events of 7 October, maintains a pragmatic stance. While concerned about a potential HamasIran rapprochement, it avoids an ideological condemnation. Conversely, the UAE has embarked on a path of greater religious openness, a move encountering resistance from some Muslim Brotherhood elements, including Hamas.”

“It is possible that this evolving scene will witness initiatives aimed at confronting the popularity of Hamas, like bolstering anti-Brotherhood Salafist factions or nationalist movements,” he adds.
Ultimately, while the majority of Saudis, at least according to WINEP’s polling, still do not support Hamas, the 30 percent rise in support for the Palestinian group is nonetheless notable.

This changed perception of Hamas among a large segment of the kingdom underscores widespread support for the Palestinian cause and the Saudi people’s rejection of the notion that the question of Palestine can simply be buried under the rubble of normalization agreements.

Across the Persian Gulf, the Palestinian cause is important, but there is also a widespread belief that infighting among different Palestinian groups has contributed to the problems faced by the Palestinian people.

Haila al-Mekaimi, a Professor of Political Science at Kuwait University, explains to The Cradle that:

“The reality of the popular position in the Gulf is that it supports the Palestinian people, and the Palestinian people have become a victim of extremist Israeli policies on the one hand, and on the other hand a victim of the feuding Palestinian factions.”

Yemen’s Ansarallah
Arabs across the region also commonly view the naval operations carried out by Yemen’s Ansarallah-aligned armed forces against Israeli-linked vessels traversing the Red Sea as a legitimate action within the context of the genocide in Gaza.

Developed by the International Committee on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001, the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) was born out of the mass killings in Rwanda and former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, when western liberals believed military action was necessary to spare the world of genocide and other grave crimes.

An opinion held by many in the Arab world is that Ansarallah’s attacks on global shipping are similarly justified, while no western policymakers invoke R2P in relation to Israel’s war on Gaza. As scholar Muharrmi explains:

“Views on the Houthis among the Arab public have historically been divided. Nationalists, such as supporters of pan-Arab unity, tended to perceive them as a national liberation movement resisting the intervention of Gulf monarchies, seen as aligned with the West. Islamists and some Gulf regimes, on the other hand, viewed the Houthis as a Shia extremist movement acting as a proxy for Iran. They also criticized the Houthis’ use of Iranian weaponry against the Sunni majority in Yemen. However, recent events have led to a shift in Arab public opinion. The Houthis’ interception of Israeli ships, followed by the subsequent AmericanBritish attack on them, has garnered sympathy and support from various sectors. Some now see the Houthis as allied in the broader struggle against Israeli occupation alongside the Palestinians.”

Lebanon’s Hezbollah
The actor within the Axis of Resistance that has gained the least reputationally in the Persian Gulf since 7 October is Lebanon’s Hezbollah. GCC nationals, by in large, continue to see the Lebanese organization in a negative, sectarian light.

One of the major factors for this is the movement’s involvement in the war in Syria. While most Persian Gulf Arab states have mended fences with the Damascus government since late 2018, this rapprochement with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not necessarily welcome among Saudi and other GCC nationals.

Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, which intensified in May/June 2013 with the battle for Qusair, did much to contribute to many in the GCC viewing the Lebanese Shia group as an increasingly nefarious actor acting on behalf of Iranian interests in the region. According to Emirati sociologist Hussein:

“Gulf regimes and their populace are extremely doubtful of Hezbollah. In addition to the sectarian element, Hezbollah’s role in Syria is not forgotten. The general perception around their resistance-light response to the ongoing war on Gaza has reinforced beliefs about Iran’s political opportunism with regards to Palestine. The Houthis appear to be outliers, as they are not seen as closely tied to Iran as Hezbollah is.”

Some experts maintain that Hezbollah’s potential to regain the widespread Arab support it enjoyed back in 2006 will be tied to how the Lebanese force acts against Israel in the near future. As Muharrmi argues:

“Following its 2006 resistance against Israel, Hezbollah enjoyed a surge in Arab public support. However, its alignment with the Syrian regime during the uprising tarnished that image for many. While its recent participation in the war against Israel garnered some respect, skepticism surrounding the limited scope of its involvement lingers among a significant segment of the Arab public.”

“Future confrontations between Hezbollah and Israel,” he adds, “may see a revival of its broader popularity. The path forward is likely to depend on the party’s actions on the ground.”

Pressure in the Persian Gulf  
It is difficult to exaggerate the extent to which Operation Al-Aqsa Flood and the events that followed 7 October have changed West Asia. The solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza expressed by GCC nationals speaks to a renewed sense of pan-Arab unity among Arab societies as an outcome of Israeli crimes in the besieged enclave, which has triggered powerful emotions all over the region.

The boycotts of Israeli, American, and German products by Persian Gulf Arabs underscores how widespread solidarity with the Palestinians has grown in the past four months.

After the dust settles in Gaza, what remains to be seen is if or when these social dynamics in the Gulf will lead GCC authorities to shift state policies vis-à-vis IsraelPalestine and the US.

In any event, Arab leaders of the Persian Gulf will, at the very least, face new pressures to conceal their engagement with Tel Aviv while also catering to public sentiments at a time when anger toward Israel and the US continues to mount.

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