“Gulf citizens against normalization”: Reactions to Israel’s normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain

In September issue of Beehive, Adam Hoffman examines the discourse in the social networks of several Gulf States regarding Israel's normalization agreements with the UAE and Bahrain.

The normalization does not represent the Bahraini people_twitter
"The normalization does not represent the Bahraini people", #normalization_is_treason. From twitter

On August 13, US President Donald Trump announced that the United Arab Emirates and Israel agreed to sign a normalization agreement. The agreement was presented by Emirati officials as the start of a warm peace. Social media was flooded with messages by Emirati users celebrating the agreement and waving Israeli flags, which gave the impression that the agreement was universally welcomed by Emiratis. Contrary to this rosy picture, social media users across the Gulf States criticized the agreement and many users strongly rejected any normalization with Israel. This discourse intensified after Bahrain announced on September 11 that it reached its own normalization agreement with Israel. While this criticism initially emerged from nationals of other Gulf States, around mid-September Emiratis also joined this discourse, revealing a wide range of reactions to the agreements by social media users from the Gulf States. While many of the responses to both agreements seem authentic, it should also be considered that some accounts promoting comments and hashtags that are either supportive or critical of these developments are operated by bots.  Online political discourse in the Gulf since the Gulf Crisis (2017-present) has seen the manipulation of discourse on Twitter by state actors.[1] Given this past record, it is highly likely that the discourse on Gulf social media regarding both agreements is also influenced by state actors.

Many Emirati social media users praised Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed, the UAE’s de-facto ruler, for signing the normalization agreement with Israel. Since the announcement of the deal, the hashtags “Muhammad bin Zayed is a man of peace” and “the man of peace Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed” started trending in Emirati social media.[2] Other users celebrated the benefits for Emirati Muslims created by the agreement. A prominent Emirati social media user tweeted “Finally we, Emiratis, will be able to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque.”[3] Such comments reflect the increasingly nationalist discourse on Emirati social media, which is centered around the glorification of the leadership of Muhammad bin Zayed and Emirati national interests at the expense of traditional Arab causes.

In parallel to the celebratory comments posted by many Emiratis, a campaign under the hashtag “Palestine is not my concern” (Filastin laisat kaḍiati) started trending on social media.[4] Under this campaign, many Emirati and Saudi users posted comments critical of the Palestinian leadership and stressing the precedence of their own national interests over the Palestinian cause. One Emirati user claimed that “Israel is not my enemy and Palestine is not my concern,”[5] while a Saudi user claimed that “Riyadh is more important than al-Quds (Jerusalem)” [see figure 1].[6] Such comments, while not uncontroversial, show the dominance of Gulf States’ nationalist sentiments in recent years and the lack of an Arab consensus over the Palestinian issue in public opinion in the Gulf States.

Riyadh is more important than al-Quds_twitter
"Riyadh is more important than al-Quds". From twitter

In contrast to such responses to the agreement, other voices were critical of this development and rejected any normalization by the Gulf States with Israel. After the Omani Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a statement in support of the agreement, Omani intellectuals emphasized that the Ministry’s statement “does not, and will never represent us,” and released a statement which affirmed their categorical rejection of "all forms of normalization practiced by the ruling Arab regimes" with Israel.[7] In Kuwait, the local branch of the BDS movement published a statement signed by twenty-nine political parties and civil society organizations which rejected normalization with “the Zionist enemy” and stated its objection to any concessions.[8] Anti-normalization hashtags also started trending in the Gulf, which included the more general “normalization is treason”[9] in addition to hashtags stressing the objection by specific national citizens in the Gulf, such as “Saudis against normalization,”[10] “Bahrainis reject normalization,”[11] “Kuwaitis against normalization,”[12] “Qatari students against normalization”[13] and “Gulf citizens against normalization.”[14]

In Bahrain, in addition to collective hashtags opposing normalization, comments by individual users against normalization also stood out. This negative discourse, which was promoted by many Shiʿa civil society organizations and individuals, intensified after the announcement of the agreement between Bahrain and Israel. The Shiʿa-majority country has seen anti-regime protests since 2011, and the popularity of the Palestinian issue in the Arab world made opposition to the agreement a convenient mobilization cause for the country’s Shiʿi opposition. Many Bahrainis stated that the agreement signed by their government did not represent them. One Bahraini human rights activist tweeted, “as a Bahraini citizen, I announce my disavowal of the normalization agreement with the Zionist entity and consider it a stab in the heart of the Bahraini people and a betrayal of the sacrifices of the umma [the global Muslim community].”[15] Other accounts posted messages with the statement “I am a Bahraini rejecting the normalization with the Zionists,”[16] or used the hashtag “no to normalization with the Zionist entity.”[17]

After the signing of both agreements in the White House, the hashtag “the people against normalization” emerged as well,[18] which sought to emphasize that the agreements signed by the UAE and Bahrain did not represent the peoples of the Gulf States. One tweet addressed to “the Zionists” warned that though the ‘Arab Zionists’  - a derogatory term for the Arab regimes which emerged in early September as part of the criticism of the agreements – “tried to normalize [relations], curry favor with you and get close, you will never escape your fate, and you will never take over Muslim holy places, because the Islamic Umma will rise and attack resolutely.”[19]

Such comments show that opposition to normalization with Israel in the Gulf is based on both Islamist and pan-Arab political narratives, which see such a development as a betrayal of sacred Arab and Islamic causes. While Emirati social media users were initially reluctant to voice criticism of the UAE-Israel agreement, Emirati criticism of the agreement eventually became more vocal following their counterparts in the Gulf. The hashtag “Emiratis against normalization” joined the same hashtags by nationals from the five other Gulf States. Twitter and Instagram accounts[20] associated with this hashtag called for “the launching of a popular Emirati campaign to combat normalization.”[21]

Despite decades of tacit cooperation between Israel and the Gulf States, normalization remains a controversial issue, and some Gulf citizens still profess their solidarity with the Palestinian cause and reject normalization with Israel. At the same time, the rise of nationalist sentiments in the Gulf in recent years has also led to a sidelining of the Palestine issue, with many viewing it as local Palestinian concern rather than a symbol of pan-Arab unity. While normalization remains a controversial topic, as the anti-normalization social media campaigns clearly illustrate, key policymakers, as well as ordinary social media users, from the Gulf States have begun to display a range of different attitudes towards relations with Israel.

[1] Andrew Leber and Alexei Abrahams, "A storm of tweets: Social media manipulation during the gulf crisis", Review of Middle East Studies, Vol. 53, No.2 (2019), pp. 241-258.

[3] @HSajwanization, Twitter.com, 13 August 2020. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[4] See, #فلسطين_ليست_قضيتي on Twitter.com.

[5] @HSA__A, Twitter.com, 9 September 2020. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[6] @fayez_101, Twitter.com, 6 September 2020. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[7] “عمانيون يرفضون التطبيع مع إسرائيل ويدعون الأنظمة العربية إلى العودة إلى رشدها واحترام إرادة شعوبها” [Omanis reject normalization with Israel and call on Arab regimes to return to their senses and respect the will of their people], Jadaliyya, 15 August 2020. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[8] @BDS_Kuwait, Twitter.com, 16 August 2020. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[9] See #التطبيع_خيانة on Twitter.com. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[10] See #سعوديون_ضد_التطبيع on Twitter.com. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[11] See #البحرين_ترفض_التطبيع on Twitter.com. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[12] See #كويتيون_ضد_التطبيع on Twitter.com. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[13] See #طلاب_قطر_ضد_التطبيع on Twitter.com. Last accessed 22 September 2020.  

[14] See #خليجيون_ضد_التطبيع on Twitter.com. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[15] @ealsaegh, Twitter.com, 11 September 2020. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[16] almesh8ab, Twitter.com. The tweet has since been removed.

[17] See #لا_للتطبيع_مع_الكيان_الصهيوني on Twitter.com. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[18] See #الشعوب_ضد_التطبيع on Twitter.com. Last accessed 22 September 2020. 

[19] @s20321k, Twitter.com, 12 September 2020. Last accessed 22 September 2020. 

[20] @UAE_vs_IL, Twitter.com.  Last accessed 22 September 2020.; @uae_vs_il, Instagram.com. Last accessed 22 September 2020.

[21] @UAE_vs_IL, Twitter.com, 15 September 2020. Last accessed 22 September 2020.