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UAE-Israel peace deal and the court of public opinion

  • 25 August 2020
The United Arab Emirates has been making a number of headlines lately. On July 21 it launched the Arab world’s first Mars mission. In early August it announced the start of a nuclear reactor at the Barakah nuclear plant, again an ‘Arab first’. And on 13 August it formally established the normalisation of relations with Israel in a new peace deal. While not an Arab first, both Egypt and Jordan having signed peace deals in 1979 and 1994 respectively, it is the first between an Arab state that has not engaged in war, or shares a border, with Israel.

In many ways the UAE is breaking new ground in the Arab world, trying to position itself as a leader cum innovator in the region. The ‘peace deal’ is however more symbolic than surprising. Relations between the UAE and Israel were, as some writers have pointed out, already deep and longstanding involving security and business exchanges.

The same could be said of the GCC and Turkey. It is an open secret in the Middle East that many Arab governments have normal diplomatic and security relations with Israel. The taboo is in its public acknowledgment.

The reason for that rests in Arab public opinion. Israel and America fare very poorly in the Middle East. In a 2017-2018 opinion index poll Israel was seen as the number one threat in the region (82 per cent), followed by the USA (70 per cent) and Iran (47 per cent). It used to be common to hear analysts speak of the ‘Arab street’, an epithet now discredited as monolithic and stereotypical, however today public opinion in the region is rarely given any attention in policy discussions.

Even though the Middle East is not monolithic when it comes to political orientations or views, the majority in the region still nonetheless support the sentiment that the various Arab peoples make up a single nation and that the Palestine question remains a deeply Arab one. The UAE is no exception. Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s first president, who lead from 1971-2003, banked on the character of the UAE’s Arabness to gain acceptance as a legitimate federation in the region.

As noted by Khalid S Alemazani in his book The UAE and foreign policy, UAE’s foreign aid is heavily influenced by sentiments of Arab solidarity. The same could not be said however of Arab nationalism. Popular movements in the Middle East directly threaten