UAE-Israel peace deal and the court of public opinion

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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.

Main image: President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with leaders of Israel and UAE announcing a peace agreement to establish diplomatic ties with Israel and the UAE, in the Oval Office of the White House on August 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Getty/Pool)

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 autocratic regimes and monarchies like those in the emirates, and further pose strategic threats to international oil interests.

 

'What the deal does do is put an end to the optics in the Middle East. Unelected Arab leaders can stop pretending to care about the Palestinian cause. They haven’t for a long time.'

 

Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser is a case in point. As one of the most popular Arab leaders of the 20th century, Nasser overthrew the monarchy and went on to nationalise the Suez Canal threatening English and French colonial interests. Arab nationalism would naturally spring up from democratic movements.

The UAE is not a democracy, nor does it represent a sizeable Arab constituency. The population of 9 million is 80 per cent or more made up of expatriates. Their military power is negligible and consequently they rely on an external security umbrella, namely the US military. Their soft power and regional influence come from their foreign aid. Their politics, however, in the form of authoritarian liberalism is not reflective of any popular sentiment in the region.

In his 2020 book The New Despotism John Keane talks of a new brand of despotism in the world — a sly type ‘that knows the dangers of relying on fickle voters.’ In his estimation this new despotism gains legitimacy through communicative abundance, whether in art, architectural wonders, mega cities and artificial beaches. Abu Dhabi and the UAE are that and more — a playground of distractions and project feats that wonder inhabitants into political apathy.

Political participation in the UAE is also non-existent, there is no freedom of the press and criticism of the rulers is outlawed. Democratic movements have been swiftly put an end. The status of the UAE, as a rentier state and authoritarian regime, unreflective of any popular Arab sentiment, renders its peace deal with Israel a hollow achievement or severely undermines its long jeopardy.

What the deal does do is put an end to the optics in the Middle East. Unelected Arab leaders can stop pretending to care about the Palestinian cause. They haven’t for a long time.

While diplomacy that favours peace over conflict should be commended, the deal is not likely to shift or address public opinion in the region. Any longstanding change must necessarily attest with that reality, regardless of how many Arab firsts the UAE boasts.

One positive to come of the deal is the UAE’s belated honesty.

It was Malcolm X who once said ‘I have more respect for a man who lets me know where he stands, even if he's wrong, than the one who comes up like an angel and is nothing but a devil.’

 

 

Daniel SleimanDaniel Sleiman is a freelance writer and journalist based in Canberra.

Main image: Main image: President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with leaders of Israel and UAE announcing a peace agreement to establish diplomatic ties with Israel and the UAE, in the Oval Office of the White House on August 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Getty/Pool)

Topic tags: Daniel Sleiman, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Palestine, US

 

 

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Existing comments

Great article, illuminating, thanks Daniel!
Adrian Glamorgan | 25 August 2020


Thank you Daniel for making clear the shallow signifcance of the Israel-UAE accord. When I heard of the deal I immediately thought - The UAE is the sort of despotic regime that President Trump envies. A muzzled press. And the equivalent of bread and circuses that makes life easy for the natives while foreigner workers do the hard yakka.
Uncle Pat | 25 August 2020


Israel is surrounded by fickle friends, except for the US when it is under a Republican administration. That cannot be otherwise, too, when Sunnis exploit Sunnis: with Bangladeshi labourers in Abu Dhabi, in Malaysia where Rohingyas are threatened with whipping as illegal immigrants, and in the careful absence of Sunni concern for their fraternal Uyghurs. Because Muslim 'brotherhood' is a mirage, Israel has to take what it can conquer out of the division, while proving that, under God, even a tiny portion of desert with no resources can be a jewel of democracy and prosperity.
roy chen yee | 26 August 2020


Talk about a devil's bargain! This is one. The Palestinian people are a political football that has been kicked all over the Middle East with absolutely nothing real done for them. Unless there is a just solution to the Israel/Palestine question I fear we are sitting on a dormant volcano, which, when it explodes, will have dire consequences for everyone in the region and far beyond. All these peace deals are set to crumble. They are like sand castles on the beach before the tide comes in.
Edward Fido | 26 August 2020


Excellent article which outlines rather inexplicable International fatigue in the support for the genuine cause of Palestinians
sarvjeet singh | 28 August 2020


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