The threat (and fear) of escalation in the Middle East continues to dominate media column inches, newsroom airtime, and social media discourse. This has resulted in a complex, politicised media cycle. Several countries across the region are having to communicate, maintain, and protect their own strategic interests in the public domain.

To better understand current media activities, three key questions were considered:

  1. Who is driving the currently escalatory messaging, versus those who are publicly publishing the narrative to reduce the risk of a regional conflagration?
  2. What effect will these messages have on the parties at the centre of this conflict: Israel, and Gaza.
  3. Are regional Government’s pre-existing views likely to change in the wake of the 7 October attacks and ongoing conflict?

Hamas’ initial attack, followed by Israel’s military actions has highlighted one observation throughout the regional actors with a stake in the Israel/Hamas conflict:

Honest appraisal and attribution of events is a secondary consideration over reiterating currently-held viewpoints. The reported bombing of the Al-Ahli Hospital is demonstrative of this in the current context, reinforcing existing held perceptions that Israel is intent on the destruction of Palestinian territories. Counter-narratives publicised by the Israeli Defence Forces, or by Western agencies, do not appear to be influencing the Arab discourse.

In many instances this is likely to borne out of regional distrust, where Israel, and Western nations have been accused (and proven) to have misrepresented the truth in order to further their own geopolitical aims. Sometimes, this is clear misinformation. Others, it is promulgating messaging which lacks the cultural nuance to inform, influence, or understand a regional audience.

The net result being that media operations – be it statements, social media reaction, news media coverage – are incredibly important to monitor and analyse to better understand if there are opportunities for decision makers to have fruitful engagement on the conflict. And how that engagement should be framed to achieve a positive outcome and minimise the human cost. The best approach to do this is through the adoption of a country level analysis.

Country-by-country summary

Below is a more detailed look at the core narratives which have been pushed out from respective leaderships across the Middle East, focusing on the following countries:

  • Iran
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Lebanon
  • Syria
  • Egypt (with a note on Jordan)
  • Qatar

Iran

Iran believes Israel’s actions mark the beginning of end of the Zionist regime. Or at least that is the public drumbeat coming out of Tehran. Ebrahim Rabisi, Ali Khamenei, and other political and religious figures within Iran appear to be in consensus on this position. There is an ‘end of days’ narrative which feeds into the conservative outlook, potentially to galvanise a local audience and justifying its involvement across the region.

Video showing Ali Khamenei communicating threats to Israel. Source: @Khamenei_m

Iranian commentary has also provided a snapshot of the nuances likely being discussed within the leadership. A few of the below examples explore multiple avenues across a likely more complex communications strategy designed to promote Iran’s centrality; its ability to dial-up/dial-down the threat of conflagration in the immediate term; whilst not making overtures promoting its direct involvement in any potential escalation.

Rabisi stipulated that Israel must cease its aerial bombardment of Gaza; end the siege of the region (including abandoning its plans to launch ground operations). Yet, despite these demands, Iranian officials have not commented on whether if these criteria were met it would support de-escalation. This is highly unlikely.

Rabisi has attended several public demonstrations, alongside IRGC Deputy Commander, Ali Fadavi, potentially with a view to preparing the Iranian population for a wider regional conflict. Whether or not this becomes a deliberate strategy from the Iranian leadership will be dependent on the evolution of events in Israel-Gaza.

As of 19 Oct 23, senior Iranian military officials have commented in discussions with Russia and some Gulf monarchies that Israel’s actions could ‘force other actors’ to become involved in the conflict – a likely reference to its network of proxy actors across the region. Ali Fadavi also reiterated that the IRGC would not hesitate to strike Haifa in Israel if they consider it necessary. This remains a useful ‘go-to’ approach in Iran’s messaging and unconventional warfare toolkit.

IRGC Deputy Commander, Ali Fadavi communicating a direct missile threat towards Israel. Source: @dailyislamist

Islamic unity is also another narrative which has been promulgated by the Iranian authorities, especially in its dialogue with Saudi Arabia. Several news articles from Iranian agencies have used this as a strategy to amplify the Iranian Government’s position under a religious context, arguably knowing that other nations within the region will be unlikely to disagree with the framing of this narrative, at the risk of stoking negative public opinion.

The US’ involvement has drawn the ire of Iran’s political, religious, and media establishments. Several officials, including Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, have been critical of the US failure to support UN Security Council resolutions, whilst simultaneously calling for ‘restraint’. This is perceived within Iran as a hypocritical position and will likely be used as an amplification strategy to undermine the US’ involvement to other Arab nations in the region, notably Saudi Arabia.

These examples alone showcase a nation which is maintaining an active, aggressive line of messaging consistent with its standing within the international community. The perception is that Iran is at its most dangerous when it is most unpredictable. However, it cannot be discounted that its public drumbeat is different to that which is being communicated privately, and the possibility that Iran too has been caught off guard by the Hamas attack and is now jockeying for position for two reasons; one, to preserve its standing within the Islamic community; and two, to ensure that recent concessions from the US (I.e., unfreezing of assets) are maintained in the short-term. Either way, Iran retains a broad reach.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is managing a multitude of interests, balancing the maintenance of its standing within the region, whilst attempting to de-risk the conflict so as to protect its interest under its Vision 2030. The tone in its initial message, whilst making references to Israeli occupation forces, was more focused on the international community to initiate a credible peace process and to push for a two-state solution. Some elements, including the state appointed cleric, were more forthcoming in their support for Palestine, demonstrating a potential divide (or at least a risk for the Kingdom’s leadership) within the country.

Normalisation talks (also known as The Abraham Accords) with Israel are reported to have been paused since the 7 October attacks; although this was refuted by US National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, who claimed that no formal pause has been made. The Abraham Accords have become more of a central issue following claims from US President, Joe Biden, that Hamas’ intent was to destabilise the talks. This potentially puts Saudi Arabia in a bind. The Kingdom needs to appease a local audience and show strong leadership and promote unity with Palestine. Normalisation with Israel at this moment in time arguably carries no benefits, despite pressure from US officials. If it’s perceived to want to continue talks, Saudi Arabia suddenly becomes more of a causal factor in what is taking place across the region. Plus, appeasement with Israel would complicate any dialogue with Iran, which it held its first round of talks since a rapprochement in Mar 23. Suddenly, Saudi Arabia’s media output becomes a high-profile matter.

This week, Riyadh is hosting the Future Investment Initiative. Commercially, it is a huge week. Back in 2018, at the corresponding event, Mohammed Bin Salman (“MbS”) celebrated that ‘the coming renaissance in the next 30-years will be in the Middle East’. The current conflict will be front and centre on the agenda at a time when investors are searching for stability. The key question is how will MbS and the Public Investment Fund (PIF) instil confidence in foreign direct investment?

Whilst normalisation talks will not be at the forefront of the agenda, discussions in the margins will likely be used to understand; whether the Kingdom is confident it can handle the situation in Israel-Gaza, not to allow it to drag Saudi Arabia into a confrontation, and to enable foreign investors to exercise their needs without disproportionate risk. These are all factors which could inhibit, or slow down Saudi Arabia’s strategic ambitions and place an additional emphasis on the leadership’s public statements on the conflict.


Jane Fraser, Citi CEO, discussing the importance of security at the Future Investment Initiative, Riyadh. Source: @BloombergTV

Lebanon

Lebanon is in the eye of the storm as its name becomes increasingly synonymous with the ongoing Israel-Gaza conflict. This precarious position is exacerbated by complexities within its political apparatus, housing a caretaker government that has conceded it is unable to influence the course of events. The incumbent Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, stated that he has received no assurances from Hezbollah over whether they will join the conflict or not. Daily reports of skirmishes along the border with Israel fuel fears across the country.

Video of Najib Mikati, Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister, stating its government is unable to control Hezbollah in the conflict. Source: @MEMRIReports

Media reports highlight fatigue across Lebanese communities, who continue to battle an economic crisis. The last thing many Lebanese citizens want is another war to compound other socio-political issues. Lebanon’s Economic Minister, Amin Salam, succinctly put where Lebanon is at in terms of its stability: “Lebanon could fall apart completely!”. Some Lebanese citizens hope that the US carrier group presence off the Mediterranean coast will deter Hezbollah from further engagement.

One potential area of concern is the situation in the Golan Heights, where it is alleged that Hezbollah are staging elite troops, and potentially represents a powder keg scenario; especially when the Israeli rhetoric has been clear in terms of what its military response would be to Hezbollah involvement. Israel believes that Hezbollah is playing a very dangerous game. However, will Hezbollah factor Israeli military power into its medium-term calculations? Or will it be forced further into the conflict to protect its reputation. It is unclear to what extent the group is able to operate independently from Iran.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, continues to remain silent on this matter, which will do little to deter others from speculating on his behalf. Especially when others Hezbollah figures, such as Naim Qassem, stated that the organisation is ready and prepared to execute its duties; and Iran has indicated that its proxies (i.e. Hezbollah) have their ‘finger on the trigger’.

Syria

Syria’s initial response focused on the continued persecution of the Palestinian people, attributing this down to Zionism. Its statement celebrated Hamas’ attack – noting the use of Operation Al-Aqsa Flood – likely in an attempt to legitimise the group’s actions. In doing so, it also communicated a similar narrative to Iran, amplifying the need for Islamic unity in the face of Israeli oppression.

Semantically alone, this was one of the strongest statements in support of Hamas under the guise of the wider Palestinian cause. Only Iran matched Syria in adopting similar rhetoric. And given Syria’s links to Iranian proxies and complicity in enabling military hardware pass through its territory into Lebanon, this position is likely to be maintained throughout the conflict. Especially if Israel continues to target critical infrastructure across Syria’s main urban centres.

Egypt (and Jordan)

President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s messaging has emphasised the need, publicly, for all parties to work towards the peace process. Al-Sisi appears reluctant to open-up a humanitarian corridor for displaced persons to enter Egypt, as he strongly believes that this action will not alleviate the threat of violence; just dislocate it into the Sinai. Whilst Egypt has facilitated the movement of humanitarian aid into Gaza via the Rafah Crossing Point, any other support is a ‘red line’ at this stage.

Al-Sisi’s language has also been authoritative towards Israel, stating that if it is to flex its military power to combat Hamas, it should accommodate Palestinians who are impacted by their actions. Egypt is becoming increasingly frustrated and angry and what they perceive as Israel’s attempts to “liquidate the Palestinian cause”, and unilaterally force the Gazan population into Egyptian territory.

This position was shared by the Jordanian leadership at the Cairo Peace Summit held on 21 Oct 23, with King Abdullah II going even further and accusing Israel’s actions of being tantamount to ‘war crimes’.

It has become evident that Israel needs to tread carefully, otherwise its relations with Egypt will reach a boiling point, particularly if Al-Sisi and his political allies believe that Israel is strong-arming Egypt into a more accommodating role.

Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, communicating concerns over Israel’s actions inside Gaza. Source: @islam_arif1

Qatar

Immediately following Hamas’ attack on Israel, its Ministry of Foreign Affairs held Israel solely responsible for the ongoing violence and the suppression of the Palestinian people. It also accused Israel of ‘flagrant violations of international law’. Given Qatar’s economic ties safeguarding Gaza; and its accommodation of Hamas’ political bureau, this was an expected response.

Since this strongly worded position, Qatar has distanced itself from further direct statements on the conflict, seeking to re-establish its role as a regional mediator. This has been evident in hostage negotiations where Qatar assisted in the release of four hostages from Hamas detention. Qatar, as it has done previously, has been able to utilise its extensive diplomatic network to engage with both proscribed organisations and their Western adversaries. This is the third time in 2023 where Qatar’s role has been central to the successful release of captive persons; first in Russia, then Iran, and now in Gaza.

Moving forward, mediation is likely to be Qatar’s primary role, operating in a niche space where it adds value without being drawn into more politicised issues. However, commentators have noted that whilst it provides Qatar with opportunities to influence the conflict; its relationships with proscribed entities may have long-term repercussions which are less beneficial to the Qatari state.

Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, commenting on Qatari involvement in hostage release negotiations. Source: @andreas_krieg

What Next?

The Israel-Gaza conflict is one of the few geopolitical issues where objective reporting is unlikely to influence the discourse coming out from the nation states referred to in this report. Existing negative opinion of Israel and its supporters will likely continue to be reinforced and further entrenched into the mindset of their captive audiences.

Where it becomes more complex are when nations need to alter their communications to protect other interests. Saudi Arabia is the lead example in this instance, where they are operating on a tightrope (in the same way US involvement in this conflict is being scrutinised), whilst seeking to preserve their economic interests. Such a delicate balancing act is difficult to maintain, but critical to the stability of the wider region. Lebanon is in an equally difficult position, where its caretaker government will maintain a watching brief on Hezbollah’s actions.

Dialogue, at the regional level will also remain key to progress. However, there are no indicators in statements or multilateral engagement (e.g. Cairo Peace Summit) that a documented, agreed process will be implemented to assist in the de-escalation of hostilities. Whilst there may be a softening of rhetoric to a more mediatory tone across most of the analysed countries, this will feed into overarching political calculations (i.e. how much is shown in public forum vs. political backchannels). In reality, dialogue will remain a reactive process to tactical developments within the expanding conflict zone.

Persistent monitoring of the information landscape remains a key vector for decision makers. Especially in instances where the conflict has more of a direct impact on those neighbouring countries within the region. This is where Prevail Partners can add value through its best-in-class media aggregation capabilities, analytical tools to conduct comprehensive stakeholder analysis, and its elite analytical cadre with postgraduate and doctoral-level understanding of the complexities of this conflict.