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The Abraham Accord

Emirati Presidential Palace, Abu Dhabi

Gulf/Saudi reactions to the “Abraham accord” normalizing relations between the UAE and Israel – my time is limited, so this post will be a work in progress (updated with column from Abdelrahman al-Rashed, 8.15.2020 + further columns, 8.16.2020 + further columns 8.24.2020).

Saudi papers in general have seemed uncertain how much attention to accord the, well, accord. Al-Riyadh – “The King’s Paper,” with a fairly staid, establishment presence – included it in front-page news but had the accord share space with concern over a derelict ship off the coast of Yemen and the selection of Kamala Harris as VP.

Al-Riyadh front page, 8.14.2020

Al-Jazirah, on the other hand, gave up most of its entire front page to the story. Both seem to rely heavily on wire reports for their stories.

Al-Jazirah front page, 8.14.2020

By comparison, Qatar’s Al-Sharq newspaper presented the agreement as a “betrayal of the Palestinian people,” while Oman (of Oman) simply didn’t cover the agreement at all. (Note that I couldn’t find pdfs of all relevant newspapers – will check back if I find more).

In the past, developments related to GCC-Israel relations have periodically stirred up coverage in Saudi media. In this blog, we’ve looked at the evolution of Abdelrahman al-Rashed’s discussions of Israel in columns for Al-Sharq al-Aawsat and other outlets in recent years (see also here – scroll down). These range from gingerly floating the idea of “normalization with Arab Israelis… initiated by the Arab League in Cairo” in 2016 to trying to convince readers that Arab government were not pursuing normalization with Israel – but that they could if they wanted to.

Whatever statement comes out, it will require some reworking of past statements – just two years ago, then-official-advisor-to-the-Royal-Court Saud al-Qahtani slammed Qatar for normalization with Israel – “A new stab in the back… of the Arab and Islamic unified position.” Everywhere in the GCC but the UAE, “Normalization is Treason/Betrayal” was trending on Thursday and much of Friday.

سعود القحطاني: تطبيع #قطر مع #إسرائيل طعنة جديدة من #تنظيم_الحمدين في ظهر الموقف العربي والإسلامي الموحد.#التطبيع_الإسرائيلي_القطري — جـ ر يـ د ة ا لـ ر يـ ا ض (@AlRiyadh) March 4, 2018

At present (and barely 24 hours out from the agreement), there is no official Saudi statement on the agreement, or even a column that might be an indirect trial balloon. Neither Al-Riyadh, nor Al-Jazirah, not Al-Watan, nor Okaz have a single column up.

While Abdelrahman Al-Rashed might have a column out soon, for now he just tweeted out cautious support for the accord as “A great step that serves the Palestinian people first, and the UAE and the Arabs second” – though later acknowledged those who opposed this view.

However, in a full column published Saturday (August 15th), Al-Rashed seemed to both downplay the magnitude of what had happened, and to suggest that the Palestinians were on their own from here on out in terms of dealing with Israel. As with much other commentary, Qatar’s past interactions with Israel are cited as borderline precedent/justification for accepting the UAE’s actions:

In the world, 193 countries – the international community formed in the United Nations – includes 163 countries which have recognized Israel. These numbers suffice to show that what happened the day before yesterday is not a serious issue, despite all you heard. The UAE’s relations with Israel came 27 years after the Oslo Agreement, and 40 years after the arrival of Saad Mortada, the first Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv, and 24 years after the appointment of the first Israeli official in Qatar, and the Israeli flag was raised on the trade attaché building in Doha… Nevertheless, two important aspects must be clarified that we often forget each time the issue of relations with Israel is raised: The first is that no Arab party, individual or state, has the right to impose on the Palestinians how to deal with their cause, or manage their affairs with Israel… The Arab tutelage over the Palestinian decision ended half a century ago, by the decision of the Arab League. The Palestinian decision is for the Palestinians, not the Qataris, Syrians, Iranians, or Saudis. The other thing is that every Arab country has the same right to manage its international relations, including its relationship with Israel. This is a sovereignty issue that each country decides on the basis of its interests, not based on what the Palestinians or other Arabs want… The truth is, Arabs have passed the stage of [beginning to] deal with Israel. It is no longer a shock, but an old and boring story. The Israelis have landed in all the airports in Arab capitals, and were officially welcomed there, as diplomats, athletes, security personnel, or media professionals. The Palestinian losses have never stopped due to their poor ability to deal with reality, and its refusal to understand the conditions of the Arab countries when dealing with Israel, which would be of great help to it. Aawsat, 8.15.2020

The only main consensus position right now seems to be that it is fine to criticize Turkey (not new) and Qatar (also not new) should they (or their media outlets) criticize the UAE.

Here’s former Aawsat editor Salman al-Dosary with that approach:

“The Qataris or Brotherhood members who insult the UAE because of its relations with Israel… You are the original supporters of normalization and bilateral relations, whether you are in Qatar or Turkey!”

القطري أو"الإخواني" الذي يشتم الإمارات بسبب علاقاتها مع إسرائيل ينطبق عليه المثل "شين وقوي عين"!.. فانت ابو التطبيع والعلاقات الثنائية سواء كنت في قطر أو تركيا لكنك تمارس الازدواجية كالعادة… على الأقل الإمارات لم تزايد على الفلسطينيين وتهاجم المطبعين وهي أول دولة خليجية تفعلها — سلمان الدوسري (@SalmanAldosary) August 13, 2020

And likewise, Khalid al-Suleiman of Okaz trying to downplay the importance of the Palestinian issue while attacking Turkey and Qatar for hipocrisy

First peace was in exchange for the return of Palestine, then in exchange for the return of Jerusalem, then in exchange for the return of the West Bank and Gaza, and then in exchange for stopping the annexation of settlements! … a case for permitting the obsolescence of time! * [It is] an issue that has turned into a commodity traded on by Arab slogans. To say nothing of the irony of accusations and criticisms of normalization issued from capitals in which the Israeli flag has fluttered! It is noteworthy that those who attack the UAE today are the ones who justify Qatar and Turkey’s close ties with Israel! The oddest thing is that a journalist from the mercenaries of Al-Jazeera talks about glass houses from inside his own glass cube that Peres, Livni, Barak, Cohen and Netanyahu visited!

اللافت أن نفس الذين يهاجمون الإمارات اليوم هم من يبررون لقطر وتركيا علاقاتهما الوثيقة بإسرائيل ! والأعجب أن تتحدث صحفية من مرتزقة الجزيرة عن عواصم الزجاج من داخل مكعب الزجاج الذي دخله بيريز وليفني وباراك وكوهين ونيتنياهو ! — خالد السليمان (@K_Alsuliman) August 14, 2020

However, many of those who support the agreement (or hold critical-of-Palestinian views more generally) seem to think they have license to speak freely. Meshari al-Thaydi has a column up in Al-Sharq al-Aawsat (8.14.2020) hailing the decision, saying that “the United Arab Emirates achieved a major political, psychological and security ‘breakthrough’ in the Middle East.” He also hailed Anwar Sadat as “truly a hero of war and peace” for the historic peace agreement Sadat signed with Menachem Begin in 1977 – not as controversial as I first thought, given that Sadat has been treated to something of a rehabilitation in Aawsat op-ed pages in the past few years (here, from businessman Hussein Shubukshi in 2018).

Muhammad al-Sa’id, on of Okaz‘s most strident nationalist commentators, likewise disparaged Palestinians in his Twitter feed over the course of Thursday and Friday:

“The Palestinians have normalized with Israel since 1993 in Oslo… And in Jericho, they have the largest casino in the Middle East”

الفلسطينيون مطبعين مع اسرائيل من العام 1993 في اوسلو ولديهم في اريحا اكبر كازينو للقمار في الشرق الاوسط البناء تم بالاتفاق مع اسرائيل لانهم يحرمون بناء اندية القمار في اراضيهم، واتفقوا مع السلطة على بنائه في اريحا ليلعب فيه الاسرائيليون والفلسطينيون كإخوان فتأمل يا رعاك الله — مـ حـ مـ د الـ سـ اعـ د 🇸🇦 (@massaaed) August 13, 2020

Update – 8.16.2020

Now that a few days have passed, and Abdelrahman al-Rashed’s column has run as a kind of model for others to follow, a number of columnists have begun publishing on the subject.

Okaz ran a full 4 op-eds on the subject, including a rare column by editor Jamil al-Dhiyabi:

The agreement, which was announced in Washington, Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi last Thursday, is a major diplomatic breakthrough in the region, whether or not these hypocrites [i.e. Iran, Qatar, Turkey] are satisfied, and its major fruit is Israel’s agreement to cancel a plan to annex lands from the West Bank to Israel… What is certain is that the Emirati decision is bold. The UAE did not encroach upon anyone’s right. Rather, it exercised its sovereign right and acted openly, in front of everyone, and under the sunlight, in a way that serves the stability of the region, and breaks the stalemate that has been obstructing the progress of peace in the Middle East, and been subject to out-bidding in the name of “the Issue”. Okaz, 8.16.2020

Elsewhere – “Today there is an Arab country that has taken back the initiative [in the peace process],” noted Tariq al-Hamid, promising a column on what this means for the Palestinians tomorrow (Okaz, 8.16.2020).

And from Fahad al-Dughaythir, “The UAE’s decision a few days ago is the most correct and closest decision to the reality that touches its interests, and it is interests linked to its strategy as a prominent global financial location that may pull the rug out of similar centers in East Asia.” (Okaz, 8.16.2020)

Hamood Abu Talib took a more elliptical approach to the issue:

The loose slogans derived from past eras no longer have an effect in this era. Political fantasy has been displaced by practical realism and national interests. The dogmatic populist discourse that stirs up feelings has been replaced by a pragmatic and practical discourse that seeks to achieve benefits for the people and not to throw them into successive crises… Okaz, 8.16.2020

Meanwhile in Al-Sharwq al-Aawsat, from Abdullah al-Otaibi:

For seven decades, the Palestinians have been completely dependent on aid from Arab countries, especially the rich Arab Gulf states, for their livelihoods, lives, jobs, power, embassies, and all the details of their lives, and they have always insisted that their options are completely in their hands without any interference from the supporting countries… consuming the sacred cause and making it only a source of blackmail, makes it vulnerable to shattering its sanctity and alienating their supporters. The UAE’s position is supported by many Arab countries, and supported especially by Arab youth looking toward the future, to development and progress, and is all the more supported in facing the emerging regional dangers coming from Iran and Turkey. Aawsat, 8.16.2020

Nothing yet from Al-Riyadh or Al-Jazirah.

In Al-Watan, Issa al-Ghaith “now feels able to express” much of what he feels about the Palestinian issue after the UAE’s normalization of ties. In an article entitled “Normalization is Legitimate” he offers one of the most straightforward statements supporting normalization:

After seven decades of sacrificing blood, petroleum, and money, we have reaped nothing but food. The time has come for us to turn to our interests and resist the enemies [i.e. Muslim Brotherhood] who occupied our homes under the pretext of liberating Al-Aqsa, and it is sufficient for us to be fooled with deceptive slogans and conspiracies spanning decades. We look forward to a just normalization that will achieve the interest of the country and its people. Al-Watan, 8.16.2020

Update – 8.21.2020

Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan:

Prince Faisal noted that the Arab Peace Initiative — sponsored by Saudi Arabia in 2002 — promises Israel full ties with Arab states if a peace settlement is reached with the Palestinians. Conditions for that, however, must be based on internationally recognized parameters, he said. “Once that is achieved, then all things are possible,” Prince Faisal said. He reiterated the kingdom’s long-held public stance that a future Palestinian state should include east Jerusalem as its capital. AP, 8.19.2020

Turki Al Faisal wrote another installment in a series of op-eds for Al-Sharq al-Aawsat on the deal. The article generally defends the “sovereign right” of the UAE to take whatever decisions it deemed necessary for its own security – even those that “surprised” its friends – and criticizes Turkey and Qatar for hypocrisy (what we’ve seen elsewhere). However, the article also drew a line in the sand for what should be expected if Saudi Arabia normalizes ties with Israel:

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [already] set [its] price for achieving peace between Israel and the Arabs, which is the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, based on the initiative of the late King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. May we behold it soon. Aawsat, 8.21.2020

Update 8.24.2020

Khalid al-Matrafi in Al-Riyadh:

The Saudi presence in the Palestinian scene is “permanent and unchanging,” and this issue is at the top of its foreign policy priorities. It is the largest supporter and donor to the Palestinian National Authority and to the UNRWA organization that provides services to the Palestinian people, stemming from the sincere belief and conviction that Palestine is the “leading cause of the Arabs and Muslims.” Its support will continue until the rights of the Palestinians are restored and the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state. Al-Riyadh, 8.24.2020
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