An Open Affair: As the UAE and Israel Normalize Ties, Gulf Actors Respond
An Open Affair: As the UAE and Israel Normalize Ties, Gulf Actors Respond
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 9 minutes

An Open Affair: As the UAE and Israel Normalize Ties, Gulf Actors Respond

On 13 August 2020, US President Donald Trump announced the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He celebrated the development as a breakthrough that will “advance peace in the Middle East.” The two states plan to exchange ambassadors and begin open cooperation in areas of security, tourism, trade, and healthcare. The agreement makes the United Arab Emirates the fourth Arab country—after Egypt, Jordan, and Mauritania—to formally recognize Israel. In exchange, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to pledge not to move forward with annexation, with the White House declaring that Israel had agreed to “suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the [US] president’s Vision for Peace and focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.”

The agreement brings into the open one of the Middle East’s worst-kept secrets, transforming a quiet but steadily growing alliance into an overt one. Both states calculate that the move will reap strategic benefits. Israel hopes that it will strengthen a regional coalition against Iran and encourage other Gulf states to also establish ties. For its part, the move enables the United Arab Emirates to consolidate ties with the Trump administration without alienating the Biden camp. This allows the Emirates to gain broad-based US support and hedge its bets at a time when US public sentiment has been moving away from Gulf Arab states. The deal would also help the Emirates build an alliance against what it perceives as its primary threat in the region: the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, Qatar and Turkey. The deal is not least a diplomatic and public relations coup for the small Gulf state in its effort to portray itself internationally as a beacon of tolerance in a conflict-ridden part of the globe. But in striking a deal over the heads of the Palestinians, the agreement does little to contribute to a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and arguably reduces the prospect of one. It also highlights a growing convergence between most Gulf states in their expanding ties with Israel, while bringing to the surface clear divergences about their willingness to acknowledge or formalize these ties. A chorus of responses to the agreement from civil society actors in the Gulf exposes further divergences between the direction of state policy, and public sentiment, within some of the smaller Gulf states.

The Palestinians

Following Trump’s announcement, both Israel and the United Arab Emirates issued a flurry of contradictory statements about what the deal means for the Palestinians. In a Twitter statement, Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed announced that an agreement had been reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories, a threat Netanyahu had pledged to fulfill this year. But in a subsequent televised address, Netanyahu confirmed that his annexation plans had only been “temporarily suspended,” adding that he was “still committed” to annexing parts of the West Bank. On 15 August, the United Arab Emirates’ assistant minister for foreign affairs, culture, and public diplomacy, Omar Ghobash, confirmed that the Emirates had not received firm guarantees from Israel that it would not annex occupied Palestinian territory in the future. The Palestinian Authority condemned the deal as “aggression against the Palestinian people,” withdrew its ambassador from the country, and called for an Arab League summit. 

For Palestinians, the agreement is especially alarming for its failure to deal with two crucial fronts in their struggle to establish an independent state: settlement construction and annexation. Israel did not commit to halting the construction of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank or East Jerusalem. Continued construction beyond the settlements’ current footprint will further jeopardize already dwindling prospects for such a state. 

Moreover, the agreement focuses exclusively on halting de jure (formal) annexation while Israel’s extension of administrative and economic control over the West Bank continues; and it only commits Israel to suspending the declaration of sovereignty over areas outlined in the plan. By rewarding Israel for temporarily halting its annexation plans in the West Bank without freezing settlement construction or action toward the creation of a viable Palestinian state, Palestinians claim the United Arab Emirates has effectively normalized and endorsed a half-century-old military occupation. They see it as fundamentally upending the notion, enshrined in the Arab Peace Initiative, that normalization with the Arab world would be a reward for a negotiated settlement not a free concession prior to it.

Gulf Relations with Israel 

The agreement has brought to the surface a shared trend among most Gulf states in their positioning towards Israel. As members of the Arab League, each of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states remained formally committed to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, a Saudi-brokered plan spearheaded by then Crown Prince King Abdullah. Through this initiative, the twenty-two members of the Arab League collectively offered to recognize Israel and its right to exist as well as to normalize diplomatic ties. In exchange, Israel would have to completely withdraw from Arab lands captured since 1967 and accept a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

While this remained the formal position of the Arab League, Iran’s regional ambitions in the past decade resulted in shared interests among some within the two camps and ultimately led to bilateral cooperation between Israel and several Gulf states such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Anger toward Obama’s support for the overthrow of Mubarak’s government in Egypt—and the victory of Islamists in the country’s elections—especially brought Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel closer together. Growing cooperation in the realm of defense and cyber security took place openly but quietly, accelerating an already existing relationship.

In the Emirates, a change of leadership following the death of the United Arab Emirates’ founder Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan in 2004 paved the way for a new generation of leaders who were more willing to indulge cooperation with Israel. In 2007, the Emirates awarded contracts to several Israeli firms to develop a citywide “smart surveillance” system in Abu Dhabi. In 2015, an Israeli diplomatic-level mission was established as part of a renewable energy agency in Abu Dhabi. Meetings between high-level leaders became more common. In 2018, the Israeli national anthem was played at a judo tournament in Abu Dhabi after an Israeli athlete won the gold medal. Earlier this year, two of Israel’s largest defense contractors signed an agreement with an Abu Dhabi-based company to provide technology solutions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The defense industry is a key area of cooperation: Israeli companies, under the supervision of the Ministry of Defense, have reportedly sold advanced weapons to the Emirates, including for missile detection.

Growing concern about the threat from Iran is the primary accelerant of Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Israel, which has manifested mostly in areas of defense and cyber-security. In 2012, in one of the largest cyberattacks in history, a cyberattack against Saudi Aramco wiped out seventy-five percent of its computers. Israeli firms were quickly called in to assess and salvage the damage. Some of the companies contracted for this purpose later expanded their work to include data tracking and social media monitoring. They are purportedly in talks to establish a presence at Neom, the futuristic gigacity earmarked on the Red Sea coast, where robots will reportedly outnumber humans. In 2018, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince expressed shared objectives with Israel, noting: “There are a lot of interests we share with Israel and if there is peace, there would be a lot of interest between Israel and the GCC countries.”

Some of the smaller Gulf states have also engaged Israel. In 2018, Oman, which usually pursues a more neutral foreign policy than its neighbors, hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for an official visit in Muscat. Less than a year later, a thirty-member Israeli delegation attended a business conference in Bahrain, contradicting statements by the economy minister’s office that the visit had been cancelled due to security fears and public outcry. Israeli journalists also entered the country to cover Jared Kushner’s famed “Peace to Prosperity” workshop, a glitzy conference held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel that proceeded with the notable absence of any Palestinian representatives.

Qatar, too, has forged ties with Israel. In 1996, Israel was permitted to established a Doha trade office, which operated for over a decade before being promptly shuttered after the 2009 war in Gaza. Doha has also acted as a broker between Hamas and Israel on multiple occasions, and Israeli officials have visited the capital several times including earlier this year, when Mossad chief Yossi Cohen met with top government officials. Kuwait remains the outlier within the Gulf Cooperation Council, with its leadership routinely declaring that it would not engage with Israel, a declaration that it appears to match in action.

Reactions to the Agreement 

The United Arab Emirates’ decision to formally break with the Arab world’s at least surface-level consensus on normalization led to mixed messages from its neighbors. On Friday, Oman and Bahrain both issued statements congratulating the United Arab Emirates’ leadership and celebrating the deal as “a step towards the achievement of peace in the Middle East.” Saudi Arabia, which some had suspected might follow suit owing to shared interests in pushing back against Iran, announced that it would not establish diplomatic ties until Israel signed an internationally recognized peace accord with the Palestinians, effectively distancing itself from the Emirati position. Qatar—which Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates cut ties with in 2017—remained quiet. Kuwait also declined to comment on the development.  

Responses from civil society have been less measured. On Monday, a coalition of twenty-three political groups and civil society organizations in Bahrain signed a joint statement rejecting normalization with Israel. The list included several leftist, nationalist, and liberal political groups, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (the country’s largest trade union conglomerate which represents at least twenty-five thousand workers), and professional organizations such as the Bahrain Lawyers Society. This statement followed an earlier one released by a coalition of seven political societies that called on the Bahraini government not to reverse its position vis-à-vis Israel. And following a tweet by the country’s former Foreign Minister, which celebrated the move as in the interest of Palestinians, a prominent leftist opposition leader replied to it angrily, accusing the diplomat of “nonsense.” Israel’s intelligence Minister had earlier asserted that Bahrain and Oman could be the next in line to formalize ties with Israel.  A flurry of statements also emerged in Kuwait following the announcement. Strongly-worded statements calling for a unified stance were issued by twenty-nine political parties and civil society organizations, including Islamist and nationalist political actors with broad-based support. Environmental groups and charitable organizations also joined in this effort. A second statement was released by thirty-seven parliamentarians from Kuwait’s Majlis al-Umma, which is made up of fifty members. The parliamentarians called on the government to affirm its stance against normalization.  A group of twenty-five prominent public figures also released their own statement, noting that they “stood with Kuwait’s civil society in its support for the Palestinians,” a seeming allusion to their view that the government’s position did not go far enough. Student groups rallied around the effort, with a coalition of fourteen Kuwaiti student groups—including the Kuwait students union which alone represents forty thousand students—signing a joint petition against normalization.

In Oman, the country’s grand mufti chimed in with his own statement, sternly warning that the liberation of al-Aqsa Mosque, and the lands around it, remained a sacred duty. A group of twenty-five public intellectuals in the country also released a statement, calling for governments to respect the will of their people.

Unified calls also emerged from BDS groups across the Gulf, with chapters in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar all rejecting normalization. The Qatari chapter’s statement was particularly notable for calling for a unified Gulf stance, despite the severance of relations between Doha and several of its neighbors. A unified Gulf BDS group, “Gulfies Against Normalization” held a public event with speakers from each of the six states, including the United Arab Emirates. And while Saudi civil society appears not to have issued any statements, the hashtag “Saudis Against Normalization” emerged as one of the top three trending hashtags on twitter following the announcement. Four days after the announcement, a group of twenty Emirati civil society figures including activists, lawyers, and businesspeople released a statement criticizing the government’s decision to normalize. In its statement, the group attributed broader silence from civil society to the possible threat of criminal penalties, which it stated could include up to ten years’ imprisonment.

The agreement is not without its supporters. A prominent Saudi media personality defended the decision, noting that “revolutionary Iran and Erdogan’s Turkey have killed more Arabs and incurred more devastation in the region than Israel ever has.” He also dismissed the Palestinian cause as passé, citing another commentator who noted that “the Israeli-Palestinian issue is now marginal compared to what it used to be before 2011, when it used to occupy center stage. It has been overshadowed by other issues such as the war in Syria and the conflict with Iran.” A stream of Emirati social media personalities also expressed their jubilation at the announcement, including Hassan Sajwani who tweeted “Finally we, Emiratis, will be able to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque” along with a photo of a golden-domed structure. Palestinians were quick to correct the influencer: he had posted a photo of the Dome of the Rock, a different monument altogether. While the United Arab Emirates and Israel are set to reap political and economic benefits from their open affair, Palestinians are instead faced with a growing frustration that the Arab states that once championed their cause now seem to have abandoned it altogether.

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