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What do ordinary Arabs think about normalizing relations with Israel?

Our research suggests many oppose normalization but may be reluctant to say so

- October 25, 2020

On Sept. 15, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Israel formally signed the “Abraham Accords,” establishing normal diplomatic relations. Supporters like President Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented the agreement as an unprecedented step toward peace.

Not everyone agrees. A number of prominent public figures and civil society groups argue the move is aimed at pressuring Palestinians to accept a state without sovereignty, while granting authoritarian Arab Persian Gulf nations international legitimacy and greater access to new technologies for repression.

What do ordinary Arabs think? The 2019-2020 polling data of the Arab Opinion Index suggests that many Arabs are at odds with their governments on the question of Israel. The vast majority of Arabs probably oppose normalization and express a high degree of support for Palestinian statehood and rights.

This survey, conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, includes data from 28,300 people in 13 countries. Respondents are selected via a multi-staged method to avoid underrepresentation so that subgroups in each sample are proportional to the size of groups within each country.

A gender-balanced team of 900 people conducted some 69,000 hours of interviews, from November 2019 to July 2020, depending on the country. We conducted face-to-face polling in Kuwait, plus phone surveys in Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Here’s what we found.

Few gulf citizens support recognizing Israel

In Saudi Arabia, only 6 percent of the sample supported diplomatic recognition of Israel. In Kuwait, 88 percent of the sample rejected such recognition, with 10 percent in favor. In Qatar, 88 percent also rejected recognition.

When asked whether the Palestinian cause was a concern for all Arabs or the Palestinians alone, 89 percent of the Saudi sample answered that it was a cause for all Arabs. This was comparable to the Qatari sample, at 88 percent. In Kuwait, 69 percent of the sample agreed with this sentiment.

But a large Saudi segment — 29 percent of our sample — refused to answer the diplomatic recognition question, similar to what we saw in the 2017-2018 survey. This high rate of nonresponse is probably due to the “sensitive” nature of the question, reflecting the Saudi government’s recent rhetoric on the Israel-Palestine issue, as well its continued crackdown on activists.

Following the normalization announcement, official Saudi media outlets praised the deal, making a clear statement that the UAE, an allied country, had made a “sovereign decision.” Accounts on social media known for promoting regime discourse also criticized the hypocrisy of those in opposition, noting many voices from Qatar and Turkey were covering up their own country’s normalization.

In previous survey waves, we conducted an experimental analysis to determine how people really felt about sensitive issues. We asked respondents to list the number of items in the question that were important to them, without identifying which ones. We showed them either a list of four or five items — the fifth item was the “sensitive” topic, the importance of Palestine to them.

We discovered statistically significant differences between the two groups, suggesting that the fifth item — the Palestinian cause — was an important issue, even if respondents were reluctant to answer direct questions. These findings suggest many Saudi respondents reject the idea of normalization with Israel but remain afraid to say so.

Repression and public sentiment

Kuwait, with perhaps the most open political system among the gulf states featuring an elected parliament, declined to join the normalization agreement. The UAE and Bahrain, in contrast, are among the most repressive governments in the Middle East.

The UAE and Bahrain were not included in our survey, but we can get a sense of public opinion from how civil society reacted to the news of normalization, as well as in the measures regimes took in the lead-up to the announcement.

Emirati phone numbers, for instance, received government WhatsApp messages before the announcement, a warning that opposing “official policy” was not permitted. Public officials on social media also encouraged residents and citizens to report any dissent as anti-Semitism, through a designated app.

The government of Bahrain passed a bylaw through the Civil Service Bureau stipulating that public employees were not allowed to express an opinion contrary to official policy. This measure passed before the normalization announcement; analysts I interviewed say this move was intended to preempt dissent.

Citizens protested nonetheless

Emirati activists in exile spoke out against the normalization deal and joined groups such as Emiratis against Normalization, despite the risks to them and their families in the UAE. In Bahrain, 17 organizations representing the broad spectrum of Bahraini politics signed on to a statement opposing the deal. A new Gulf Coalition against Normalization group and a Charter of Palestine online petition also attracted significant support.

The UAE was quick to crack down on opposition — for example, the government barred writer Dhabia Khamis from travel after she took a stance against the normalization deal. Protests were quickly shut down in Bahrain, and the Interior Ministry announced it would take action against people expressing their opposition on social media, arguing that such an act “aims to incite discord, threaten civil peace and the social fabric, and destabilize security and stability.”

The UAE and Bahrain have in the past relied on Israeli technologies to target dissidents, using Pegasus software from the NSO Group, for instance. My interviews with activists suggest many now fear normalization could provide new opportunities for these governments to initiate another wave of repression, following the first crackdowns against clerics, independent public figures and feminists after the 2017 gulf crisis involving Qatar. Normalizing countries are already in talks to increase their investments in the Israeli surveillance and defense industries, now that it is no longer illegal to do so.

But the lack of strong public support within gulf nations could limit the effectiveness of the normalization accords. This has led some analysts to question whether these deals truly represent a step toward peace in the Middle East.

Dana El Kurd is an assistant professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. She is author of “Polarized and Demobilized: Legacies of Authoritarianism in Palestine” (Oxford University Press, 2020). Follow her on Twitter @danaelkurd.