Battles between different Gulf nations’ state-owned media outlets have become a common feature of Arab discourse following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, as each nation has sought to shape the narrative surrounding the Gulf’s current events. The United Arab Emirates is no exception to this rule; within its territory, it has banned Al Jazeera, the Qatari state-funded media network since 2017, as well as a number of other highly regarded Middle Eastern outlets. However, a year on, as the UAE actively consolidates the gains from its signing of the Abraham Accords, it seems to have not fully configured the challenge that the Israeli media, with a reputation of being more open and unbiased, portends for the health of this newly formed alliance.
On August 13, the UAE marked its one-year anniversary as the first Arab Gulf state to normalize relations with Israel. Even though the normalization agreement brought in its wake a string of high-powered investment deals and improved economic prospects for the UAE, it has not eased the nation’s ongoing PR battle to justify the “Abraham Accords” as a much-needed diplomatic breakthrough in the Israel-Palestine conflict. The assumption central to the Accords – that relations would allow Abu Dhabi to exert influence on Tel Aviv – seems to have been discounted since the latest Israeli offensive in Gaza in May 2021, which killed over 200 Palestinians, including 66 children. In an article commemorating the one-year anniversary of the signing of the normalization agreement, UAE’s Prof. Abdul Khaleq concludes that “No one is celebrating peace in Israel, the UAE, or the U.S.”
Managing Perceptions Around the Abraham Accords
However, in terms of managing domestic perceptions about the normalization with Israel, there is another area of concern that the UAE officials need to pay much closer attention to. Israel has been regarded as one of the most open countries in the Middle East in terms of press freedom. This poses a challenge to the UAE, which has engaged in substantial censorship of outlets it judges to be critical to its leadership – an especially significant challenge in the context of Al Jazeera’s ban, and the restrictions on other notable Middle East-focused news websites like Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor, and The New Arab, all of which remain inaccessible in the country as of August 2021. Most of these news outlets are known to provide critical coverage of the UAE’s foreign and military policies. Even the century-old Turkish state-owned news agency Anadolu has not been spared; it is jointly blocked by both the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The role of media in building relations between countries and influencing domestic opinion cannot be overstated. In November 2020, not long after the first commercial flight from Israel landed in Dubai, Haaretz published a provocatively titled report, in which the writer chastised those planning a trip to Dubai as collaborating with an exploitation industry. An Emirati royal family member’s bid for ownership of the football club “Beitar Jerusalem,” notorious for its hardcore fans’ racism against Arabs, made global headlines when it was announced last year. An embarrassing report published in February in the Times of Israel described how “iffy finances” related to the deal were being investigated by the Israel Football Association, and hence the 50% sale of Beitar Jerusalem remains on hold for the moment.
A much more critical bilateral agreement, which was also one of the cornerstones of the normalization accord, was the deal to transport crude oil from the UAE to Europe via the Israeli pipeline company EPAC. This agreement also remains frozen, as the Environment Ministry in Israel has yet to give its approval. Moreover, no sooner had the announcement of the first permanent Israeli ambassador to the UAE, Amir Hayek, been made, than a string of Israeli news outlets published the ambassador’s past tweets, in which he described the prospective oil pipeline agreement as a threat to Israel’s national security. It was also reported that the ambassador had mocked the sale of U.S. F-35 jets to the UAE. None of these developments, and even the reasons for the cancellation of then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s maiden visit to the UAE for the fourth time this year, were covered by any press and media outlets in the UAE.;
The Limitations of Censorship
The irony of all this is not lost on the UAE’s citizens and residents. A long-standing Abu Dhabi-based journalist has often tweeted in both amazement and sarcasm of how much more reliable and transparent Israeli media is in comparison to its counterpart in the UAE and how one is simply forced to follow the Israeli press to be closer to the truth around the Abraham Accords. However, both states seem to realize the importance of having a pliable media in the early stages of their alliance. The longest-running English daily in the UAE, the Khaleej Times, now has a resident Israeli editor as part of its crew. This even prompted a prominent Emirati scholar to link the editor’s appointment, a foreign national, to the larger policy issue of Emiratization (increasing locals appointments) in the private sector. More recently, i24, an Israeli television network founded in 2013, became the first media entity from the country to set up an office in the UAE.
All of the Gulf states are accustomed to criticism from the United States and the Western world for their unflattering stances on human rights, and critical accounts of the Gulf’s leadership are fairly common in Western outlets – many of which the Gulf states have the capacity and political capital to censor without significant fear of consequences. However, Israel’s position as the Gulf countries’ latest regional ally, and the fact that normalization has provided the country’s media greater access and capability to report from the ground, could complicate matters in the long run.
It is probably too far-fetched to assume that Abu Dhabi will start to censor Israeli media, but the city-state must realize that it will be difficult to keep its citizens uninformed in the age of the Internet, especially as it aims to play a decisive role in the future of the Middle East. It has been well-established by now that the Abraham Accords as a vehicle for a resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was an unrealistic objective, and that the normalization agreement was brokered to simply further the strategic interests of both nations. Abu Dhabi, at least for the time being, is discovering that giving access to Israeli media, even at the cost of its ability to censor, is part of the price of that alliance.
Sana Quadri holds an M.A in Gulf studies from the University of Exeter (UK). She has been based in Dubai since birth and her main research interests are political economy and international relations of the Gulf.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.