This year, Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday also known as the feast of breaking the fast signifying the end of Ramadan, was celebrated on a somber note in the United Arab Emirates. During Eid prayers in Abu Dhabi, Muslims were reminded of the deadly violence taking place three flight hours away as Hamas and Israel fired at each other in the worst bout of fighting between the longtime foes since the 2014 Gaza War.
The mood has shifted since the United Arab Emirates led the way in the September 2020 signing of the historic normalization agreement with Israel known as the Abraham Accords, brokered by the Trump administration, where the UAE established diplomatic relations with Israel. Other nations — Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan — followed. Of late, there has been talk of more open relations with Saudi Arabia, the ultimate prize in the deal.
The accords were sold as “historic,” or as Netanyahu called them in September, “a pivot of history.” The UAE said that the accords helped prevent Israeli annexation of some Israeli settlements in the West Bank, therefore holding off a worrying escalation. After the White House signing ceremony, the UAE and Israel moved briskly to establish political and economic ties.
Unlike Egypt and Jordan, which had made peace with Israel decades earlier, neither the UAE nor Bahrain was ever at war with Israel, and for years had maintained some ties with the Jewish state.
“The Abraham Accords is one track and support for the Palestinian right for an independent state is another track and the UAE is following these two parallel tracks and sometimes they overlap and sometimes they diverge, but the UAE will not turn its back on the Palestinian cause just because it signed the Abraham Accords,” Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla told Al-Monitor.
“The UAE’s support for the Palestinian cause is at an all-time high and there’s no going back until the Palestinians get the state that they deserve.”
Political expression has long been heavily censored in the Gulf. Protests are generally not held and political parties are banned. Even so, this time a chorus of Gulf Arab voices declared openly for the first time since the signing of the Abraham Accords their support for the Palestinian cause. Many of these declarations echoed statements issued by their leaders.
"The ongoing violence of the past two weeks and the growing number of civilian casualties indicate that we must redouble international efforts to find a just, comprehensive, and lasting peaceful solution to the Palestinian issue consistent with relevant Security Council and General Assembly resolutions,” said Lana Nusseibeh, assistant minister for political affairs and UAE ambassador to the UN, to the UN General Assembly on May 23 at its debate on the situation in the Middle East and the question of Palestine. The meeting was convened at the request of the Group of Arab Member States to the UN, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Non-Aligned Movement.
“There is no worse tragedy than that of Palestine over last 100 years,” Abdulla said. “They have been deserted by the international community. Palestinians are doubly cursed: cursed by the failure of their own government and the ongoing conflict with Israel. Their government is just as bad as the occupation. The UAE will stand by the Palestinians politically, financially and morally.”
Sultan Sooud al-Qassimi, an Emirati columnist and researcher on social, political and cultural affairs in the Arab Gulf States and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, wrote on Facebook, “The global tide has turned against Israel's occupation and actions & only an arrogant fool such as Netanyahu could be blind to it. It is no longer taboo to support Palestinian freedom and rights even within the halls of US Congress. Make sure you are on the right side of history.”
The 11 days of fighting are over. A cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, brokered by Egypt, now holds, albeit on shaky ground as clashes, particularly in Jerusalem, between Israelis and Palestinians continue.
In a call with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, said he supported Egypt’s efforts to broker a deal to end the conflict and has declared that the UAE is willing to play a role in maintaining lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.
Such a declaration is unprecedented by the UAE, which has long been hostile to Hamas, which controls the Gaza strip.
This also is a test for Palestinian attitudes towards normalization, which analysts agree will not be derailed by the recent fighting. A case in point is the upcoming Global Investment Forum “to turn UAE-Israel collaborations into reality” in Dubai on June 2, presented by The Jerusalem Post and the UAE newspaper Khaleej Times.
While business will go on as usual, many analysts say there will be an underlying sentiment of caution involving Israel and Gulf Arab collaborations.
“While there is no discernible shift on the path to normalization, under the surface potential partners in the UAE will start to exercise slight caution to calibrate their public level of engagement,” said Taufiq Rahim, an Emirates-based senior fellow at the New America think tank.
An air of caution is also the result of a wave of social media posts and videos by young Palestinians to document their struggle with Israel. These are shared with sympathizers around the world, indicative of a new context for the global justice movement, just as the world witnessed last year after the killing of George Floyd and the greater emergence of Black Lives Matter.
“Normalization with Israel was not popular across the Gulf,” Kristin Smith Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute think tank in Washington, told Al-Monitor. “But the governments signing the Abraham Accords were making the case that it serves the national interest and cause of peace. That is even harder now.”
A stream of social media videos capturing the protests in the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israeli since 1967, as well as footage of settlers attacking Palestinians, continue to enrage people across the world.
“Arab and Islamic solidarities are being revived, alongside a new youthful online activism focused on social justice and minority rights,” Diwan said.
“This widens and makes more visible the gap between public sentiment and government policy, raising the political cost and stigma of people-to-people engagement.”
Still, the overarching rhetoric in the UAE and Bahrain remains one steadfast to the plight of Palestinians and to the importance of preserving the tenants of tolerance and interfaith as outlined in the Abraham Accords.
“They would definitely rather have the focus be on interfaith dialogue and deal-making,” Diwan said. “I expect they will continue to do both, continuing the argument that outreach can change outcomes. It will just be a harder argument to make.”
Correction: June 3, 2021. This article has been updated after a quote was incorrectly attributed to UAE ambassador to the UN Lana Nusseibeh, instead of Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.