Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed participate in the signing of the Abraham Accords, September 15, 2020. Tom Brenner/Reuters

On August 13, 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) made headlines as the first Arab Gulf country to normalize relations with Israel.

Its leadership framed the decision as a continuation of the UAE’s long-standing policy of support for the Palestinians, one that would bring them closer to statehood by halting Israeli annexation. Bahrain soon followed suit, making no promises of tangible advancements for the Palestinians and describing the agreement as a vague bid to promote regional peace. Although some observers expected Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to follow suit, they maintained their collective position not to recognize Israel without statehood for the Palestinians.

As evidence mounted that the agreements would do little for the Palestinians, or regional peace, officials in the UAE and Bahrain shifted to justifying signing the Abraham Accords by tying them to economic prosperity. In private, they emphasized a different line of thinking, one that embraced Israel as part of a new security alliance against Iran.

Public responses to the accords, too, have not remained static. While civil society in Bahrain and the UAE initially appeared divided over the accords, the outbreak of violence in Gaza and East Jerusalem in May 2021 appeared to consolidate popular support for the Palestinians, driving citizens in both states to test the boundaries of permissible discourse and mobilization.

 

The UAE Declares a Win for the Palestinians  

 

As the UAE announced its intention to normalize ties with Israel, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto leader of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, championed the agreement as a win for the Palestinians, tweeting: “An agreement was reached to stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories.” He then added: “the UAE and Israel also agreed to cooperation and setting a roadmap towards establishing a bilateral relationship.” The UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, emphasized the link between halting annexation and achieving statehood for the Palestinians, calling the agreement a significant advance that “stops annexation and the potential of violent escalation. It maintains the viability of a two-state solution.”

The framing of the agreement as an advancement for the Palestinians appeared congruous with the UAE’s historic position on the matter. The UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, routinely urged greater support for the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinians and extended aid for reconstruction. In 2002, he funded the rebuilding of 800 Palestinian homes destroyed by Israel in the Jenin refugee camp. In 2004, he funded a $62 million housing estate for Palestinians in Gaza whose homes were destroyed by Israel, or who had been bereaved or injured in the conflict. Solidarity with the Palestinians was also a pillar of Gulf foreign policy, with all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states enforcing an Arab League boycott of Israeli goods that had operated since 1948. In 2002, all GCC states signed on to the Arab Peace Initiative, a proposal tabled by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah promising Israel recognition by all members of the Arab League, in exchange for a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Stopping Israeli annexation would have been a timely development, though it would have done little to help Palestinian statehood. In the preceding months, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to annex up to 30 percent of the occupied West Bank, in addition to sections of the Jordan Valley.

Stopping Israeli annexation would have been a timely development, though it would have done little to help Palestinian statehood.
The move would have formalized Israel’s de-facto control over lands earmarked for a Palestinian state, bringing an end to any languishing hopes of a two-state solution. Not that legal annexation would have changed the reality of Israel’s growing control over the lands in question. The accelerated construction of sprawling Jewish-only settlements and road networks across the West Bank (where 413,000 illegal settlers reside) and in East Jerusalem (where 215,000 illegal settlers reside) since 1967 has left any remaining Palestinian land fragmented and isolated. With farmlands and villages in the West Bank sealed off from one another through a 700-kilometre-long concrete and barbed wire security barrier, and with Israeli military checkpoints further restricting Palestinian movement, there is ever-shrinking space on which an independent state might be viably carved out.

Although stopping annexation would not have fully restored the material conditions needed for Palestinian statehood, that too appeared off the table. In a televised address on the evening that news of normalization broke, Netanyahu announced that he remained “committed to annexing parts of the West Bank,” adding that he had agreed only to “temporarily suspend” those plans for an unspecified period. Discrepancies in the Arabic and English versions of a joint communique subsequently released by the UAE, the United States and Israel highlighted the issue at hand: While the Arabic version detailed Israeli plans to stop annexation, the English version described those plans as a suspension of annexation. The divergence prompted anger from senior Palestinian diplomats, including Hanan Ashrawi, who accused the UAE of deception when she declared, “The Arabic translation is a way of misleading Arab public opinion by saying they have succeeded in stopping the annexation, while actually they suspended it.”

Growing anger from the Palestinians soon brewed into public hostility. In an interview, Palestinian ambassador to France Salman El Herfi described the UAE as “more Israeli than Israel,” going on to call the UAE crown prince a “little dictator.” The remark drew anger from UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, who accused the Palestinians of “ingratitude” and a “lack of loyalty.” Earlier, UAE Assistant Minister for Cultural and Public Diplomacy Omar Saif Ghobash had suggested that the Palestinians needed to “want to help themselves.” Hostile exchanges between Palestinian and Emirati diplomats—along with growing clarity that the UAE had not been able to secure a permanent halt to annexation—soon brought an end to attempts by UAE officials to frame the plan as a step toward Palestinian statehood.

 

Bahrain Normalizes Its Ties

 

When Bahrain announced its plans to normalize relations with Israel almost a month after the UAE, it did so without purporting to extract any tangible concessions for the Palestinians. Instead, a statement framed the decision as a bid to “increase stability, security, and prosperity in the region.” The final text of the Abraham Accords Declaration signed by Emirati and Bahraini Foreign Ministers along with Israeli and US leadership adopted a similar tone, stressing the intent of the parties to advance understanding and coexistence. A bilateral agreement signed between the UAE, Israel and the United States was the only document out of three texts constituting the Abraham Accords to mention the Palestinians by name; as part of a tepid commitment the parties shared to achieving a “just, comprehensive, realistic, and enduring solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

For Bahrain, the decision to normalize ties with Israel marked a break not only from the state’s policy of support toward the Palestinians, but also civil society’s long-standing support of the Palestinian cause. Bahrain has a long history of political mobilization and an array of vocal nationalist, leftist and Islamist political and opposition groups. As early as 1947, news of the United Nations partition plan sparked demonstrations in Manama, where a rising movement for liberation from British colonial rule demanded solidarity with the Palestinians. Demonstrations in their favor erupted at every juncture: during the 1956, 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars, during Israel’s 1982 siege and bombardment of Beirut and during successive Israeli assaults on the Gaza Strip in 2002 and 2006. When Bahrainis poured into the streets during the Arab Spring, Palestinian flags featured at times amidst the red-and-white Bahraini flags, which to some protesters was a gesture of continued support for their Arab brothers. To others it was an overt declaration of a shared struggle against injustice. Even to constituents who did not support the protests, Palestine still mattered. Conservative Sunni groups—long allied with the government against the protesters—continue to call for the liberation of Jerusalem, so that Muslims can be free to worship at Islam’s third holiest site, the al-Aqsa mosque.

 

Emphasizing Economic Opportunity

 

The parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could agree on one thing: decades of negotiations had done little to advance the cause of peace. Perhaps a new way of thinking was needed, one which scrapped sluggish diplomatic negotiations—the domain of greying diplomats—in favor of something fresher, catchier and more a la mode: economic prosperity.

Improving economic prospects was the logic behind the Peace to Prosperity workshop: an event held at Bahrain’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel in June 2019 that brought together Israeli, American and Gulf decision makers and entrepreneurs. A brainchild of then 38-year-old real estate investor Jared Kushner—President Trump’s son-in-law—the workshop offered a new vision for advancing peace through private sector investments, economic growth and entrepreneurship opportunities. If diplomacy could not solve the conflict, then perhaps neo-liberal economics might. The signing of the Abraham Accords afforded the concerned states a renewed opportunity to expand on this logic, but ultimately it only focused on improved economic ties for Israel and the Arab countries that signed the accords, not the Palestinians.

On October 20, 2020, the United States, Israel and the UAE announced the establishment of the Abraham Fund, a joint fund of “$3 billion in private sector-led investment and development initiatives,” aimed at “promoting economic cooperation and prosperity.” The first declared objective of the fund was the modernization of the roughly 700 Israeli-operated checkpoints in the West Bank. Instead of dismantling occupation, the fund appeared to be working to render it more efficient. The plan drew widespread criticism from Palestinians, who accused the UAE of “decorating the cage”—entrenching the occupation and making it more permanent.

The plan [to modernize Israeli checkpoints] drew widespread criticism from Palestinians, who accused the UAE of “decorating the cage”—entrenching the occupation and making it more permanent.

Domestically, the UAE and Bahrain continued to champion the Abraham Accords, this time for opening the doors to new economic opportunities at home. An avalanche of new agreements signed in the following weeks included a banking and finance memorandum between the largest banks in Israel and Dubai; an agreement between Abu Dhabi and Israeli film companies to host an annual film festival held alternately between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi; and a joint bid between Dubai’s DP World port operator and an Israeli shipping firm for the management of Israel’s Haifa port. An Israeli business delegation visited the UAE in early November and announced that trade between the two states could reach billions of dollars “in the near future.” On December 2, a UAE newspaper published an editorial by the president of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce praising the UAE and its leadership for “opening up a new era of socio-economic cooperation.” Throughout the month of December, 15 non-stop daily flights brought 70,000 Israeli tourists fleeing coronavirus pandemic lockdown to Dubai. On the first day of Hannukah a giant menorah was lit up at the foot of Burj Khalifa to welcome the new guests. By March 2021, the UAE announced that it was establishing a $10 billion investment fund to support investments in Israel and strengthen economic ties.

As both Gulf states rushed to establish trade ties with Israel, their aim of advancing statehood—or indeed economic opportunity—for the Palestinians fell by the wayside. In November 2020, an Israeli settler delegation visited Dubai and announced that it had held “marathon business meetings.” On December 3, 2020, Bahraini Minister of Trade Zayed al- Zayani announced that Bahrain would not distinguish between imports from Israel and those made in West Bank settlements. “We will treat Israeli products as Israeli products. We have no issue with labelling or origin,” he stated.

 

The Discourse of Regional Security

 

While economic opportunity is the public explanation for the accords, privately government officials suggest that decisions to normalize ties with Israel are rooted in their concerns over the region’s security landscape. At a closed-door meeting held in early 2021, a UAE official praised his country’s leadership for advancing a new era of peace in the region. “There will be no more hatred of Jews. Arab, Muslim, Jew, Christian: we can all live together and co-exist in peace. That is the message of the UAE.”[1] An Arab diplomat pressed the speaker: “Your excellency, the Palestinians have lost their lands, lost their homes, and now they have lost the last thing you had offered them, which is your support. If Palestine is liberated it will not be because of the UAE’s position, but in spite of it.” After a heated exchange, the official switched gears entirely, to articulate the UAE’s security concerns. “Let us talk about Iran,” he stated. “Iran is funding Houthi militias in Yemen, and they attack Saudi Arabia. Their proxies have taken over Iraq, and Lebanon. Iran’s nuclear program and its missile program are advancing without restraint. The United States says it is withdrawing from the region. Did we have a choice? We did not have a choice but to normalize our relations.” For the UAE, it was clear the accords were also about containing foreign policy threats.

UAE officials have long articulated their concerns about two developments: the rise of political Islam in the region, which they view as a threat, and their vulnerability to an attack from Iran. Since the 2011 Arab Spring protests swept successive Arab leaders from power, the UAE has adopted a more interventionist role in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa aimed at shaping the region to its favor and minimizing its perceived security threats.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring protests swept successive Arab leaders from power, the UAE has adopted a more interventionist role in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa aimed at shaping the region to its favor and minimizing its perceived security threats.
The accords brought it a strategic benefit, one which UAE officials had not publicly cited as a motivating cause behind their decision. As part of the agreement, the United States had agreed to approve the sale of advanced F-35 fighter jets to the small Gulf state, which it had previously only sold to Israel as part of a policy of ensuring Israel “maintained a qualitative military edge in a region where it has many enemies.” The UAE has long sought access to the fifth-generation fighter to bolster its regional military superiority. This deal appeared especially important in the context of a declared intention by the United States to reduce its military footprint in the region, a matter that has long concerned the Gulf governments who worry that a US retreat will render them more vulnerable to hostility from regional competitors.

In November 2020, the State Department approved the sale of the jets to the UAE as part of a $10.4 billion arms package, which also included US-built weaponized drones. US officials did not hold back in tying the sales to the accords. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the decision as “recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran.” He added: “The UAE’s historic agreement to normalize relations with Israel under the Abraham Accords offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to positively transform the region’s strategic landscape. Our adversaries, especially those in Iran, know this and will stop at nothing to disrupt this shared success.”

Statements emerging from Bahraini officials indicate a similar drive. Bahraini officials have long viewed Iran as the country’s main security threat, in part owing to Bahrain’s large Shi’a population, and have often accused Iran of seeking to interfere in its domestic affairs. In January 2021, an annual conference organized by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies brought together Israeli, Emirati and Bahraini diplomats for the first time. Discussions centered on a common foe: Iran. Calling for a unified front, Bahrain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs stressed that the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal with Iran, ought to be amended in view of the signing of the 2020 Abraham Accords. “Any future agreement with Iran will need to reflect the new reality in the region and be acceptable to all states in the region,” he stated. His views were echoed by former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces Gabi Ashkenazi, who stated that the accords “strengthened the regional voice,” and that Israel would continue to maintain a credible military option toward Iran.

 

Civil Society Perceptions of the Accords

 

With few outlets for democratic participation, the Palestinian struggle had historically provided generations of Gulf citizens room for activism and political engagement. Civil society groups in both the UAE and Bahrain fundraised for the Palestinians, signed petitions and participated in international aid efforts. As a space of consensus, the Palestinian cause was elevated beyond the usual rules of politics.

With few outlets for democratic participation, the Palestinian struggle had historically provided generations of Gulf citizens room for activism and political engagement.
Perceptions of the issue had appeared stubbornly consistent. A Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy poll held in the UAE prior to normalization found that 80 percent of respondents did not want ties with Israel, despite the UAE allowing Israeli delegations and diplomats into the country in prior years. In Bahrain, public opposition was also clear, forcing an Israeli business delegation to cancel its planned visit in 2019.

When news of the accords broke, a handful of voices from across the political spectrum in both states championed the agreements. Some liberal commentators speculated that they may give the Gulf states leverage to improve life for the Palestinians. For the largely apolitical business elites, the accords brought the promise of access to Israeli industries and technology firms. Younger millennials who had studied abroad also appeared eager to shatter Western perceptions of their culture, conflating a pro-Israel leaning with tolerance of Judaism. Anti-Islamist voices—especially prominent in the UAE where the government views political Islam as a threat—argued that the real problem came from Hamas, and that the time may be right to build a coalition against radical Islam. A stream of Emirati social media personalities expressed their jubilation at the announcement, posting photos of UAE and Israeli flags waving together.

Opposition in the UAE was more difficult to measure. Yet, days after the announcement, six Emiratis established an association aimed at resisting normalization with Israel. Twenty Emirati activists, lawyers and businesspeople signed a petition released by the group to voice their dissent. In its statement, the group explained that most of those opposing the agreements were reluctant to speak out due to the possible threat of criminal penalties, which could include up to ten years’ imprisonment.

The accords provoked more visible opposition in Bahrain, where eight political societies from diverse political leanings signed a petition condemning their government’s decision to normalize ties with Israel, without statehood for the Palestinians. Another group of 23 civil society groups including the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, which represents at least 25,000 workers, also signed a joint statement rejecting normalization. On Twitter, the hashtag “Bahrainis Against Normalization” jumped to the number one position. Limited by anti-assembly legislation and strict COVID-19 regulations restricting public gatherings, activists nonetheless organized small-scale protests in villages across the country.

 

More Violence Mobilizes Public Opinion

 

Israel’s storming of al-Aqsa mosque during the holy month of Ramadan in May 2021 and its subsequent bombardment of Gaza mobilized Arab public opinion in the Gulf against Israel once again. Kuwait’s parliament—the most democratic in the Gulf—passed a bill banning any dealings with Israel. Prominent Emirati public figures did not hold back in criticizing Israel, with some posting photos of injured children on social media, accusing Israel of war crimes. Others expressed solidarity for the residents of Sheikh Jarrah who are facing eviction. A prominent academic who had appeared to champion the accords now openly accused Israel of apartheid. A UAE anti-normalization group released its own somber anthem, expressing solidarity with the Palestinians. Although few drew a link between Israel’s actions and the accords, the mood marked a shift from the celebratory tone that appeared to dominate social media in the aftermath of normalization. In Bahrain, opposition was more vocal. A broad spectrum of Bahraini political groups from opposite sides of the spectrum issued a collective statement demanding the government cut ties with Israel and expel its ambassador. Young activists mobilized and tried to organize protests in support of the Palestinians. The authorities permitted some of these gatherings but prevented others.

A ceasefire between Israel and Hamas—brokered with the assistance of the United States, the UN, Egypt and Qatar—on May 21 brought an end to the violence in Gaza after 11 days. The death toll from the latest round of violence included 256 Palestinians, in addition to 13 Israelis. Bahrain and the UAE could no longer claim that normalization might benefit the Palestinians. They instead issued lukewarm statements during the crisis that condemned Israel for its actions in al-Aqsa and urged calm. Their condemnation did little to alter Israel’s behavior, or to convince the Palestinians that they had been anything but abandoned by the states that had once offered them their support.

What began as a public declaration by the UAE to bring the Palestinians closer to statehood was watered down into a non-committal vision for peace and prosperity. The subsequent framing of the Abraham Accords as a gateway to expanded economic partnerships in both states appeared to reflect a more accurate reality. The UAE and Bahrain’s leaders continue to downplay the core security motivations for the agreement, while privately indicating that they are aimed at building a regional alliance against Iran. While normalization had its champions among civil society—especially in the UAE—renewed fighting in Gaza appeared to consolidate the view that Israel was a partner that many in civil society did not desire. The willingness of both states to tolerate some dissent on the matter suggests that there may be some room for citizens and the state to agree to disagree on this issue. Although tolerated in practice, any disagreement will do little to change the pace of the growing ties between the two Gulf states and Israel, which continue to flourish regardless of any civic backlash, or Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

 

[Elham Fakhro is Senior Gulf Analyst with International Crisis Group.]

 


 

Endnote

 

[1] All quotes in this paragraph are from an off-the-record virtual meeting attended by the author, March 2021.

 

How to cite this article:

Elham Fakhro "Selling Normalization in the Gulf," Middle East Report Online, June 23, 2021.
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