Silence over bombing of occupied territory puts UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan at odds with their populations
Sudanese protesters burn Israeli flags at a rally in January against the deal between the states that has made Sudan wary of condemning Jerusalem. Photograph: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images
The Guardian- Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent
As Israel and Gaza have pressed closer to all-out war, a new battle for the narrative is being fought among Arab states. For the first time in the many clashes between the Israeli state and the occupied territory, regional unity over who is to blame and what should be done to stop the fighting has splintered.
While some states with Muslim majorities, such as Turkey and Iran, have accused Israel of incitement at the al-Aqsa mosque and committing atrocities in Gaza, other countries that had followed suit during previous flare-ups have this time been more restrained.
The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, which all recently normalised ties with Israel, now find themselves balancing their new relationships against citizens who have been vocal in their anger at Israel’s violence.
Long-time observers of Israel and Palestine say the divergent reactions to this round of fighting have put some regional powers in a difficult position with their own populations.
“It is extraordinary, in this denial position of the Emiratis in particular, that they have not uttered hardly a single criticism of what is happening in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories,” said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU).
“It is sending out a signal from the Emirati leadership that we are not going to be swayed away from this burgeoning alliance with Israel, which they consider to be valuable to future plans; this includes countering Iran, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood groups.
“There is plenty of room to make a very supportive statement of the rights of the Palestinians, without endorsing Hamas. And they haven’t done that.”
In what appeared to be a state-backed response, the hashtag “Palestine is not my cause” circulated in the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait over the weekend. It made little dent in region-wide support for Twitter accounts from Gaza and East Jerusalem decrying scenes of violence and the Israeli leadership.
“[These governments] are on the wrong side of public opinion in how they’re seen and received by the populations of the Arab region,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, research fellow at Carnegie Middle East Centre. “They’re trying to pursue an active foreign policy holding positions that they’ve never had before. They could be seen as synonymous with the Israeli occupation and the Israeli policy in the region. This will have an impact on not only Israel, but their new Arab allies. And this will tarnish their reputation.”
“The regimes are very nervous about Arab public opinion,” said Doyle. “These scenes of the bombing of Gaza will make the leadership seem very worried and make them wish they would end sooner rather than later.”
Coverage of the conflict has been nearly non-existent in UAE newspapers and muted in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which is yet to sign up to a peace deal with Israel, but has given hints that it may do so. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, visited Saudi heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Neom on the Red Sea coast earlier this year. Ties between the two states are deeper than ever – even without concrete moves towards a peace deal.
Riyadh’s position has placed a two-state solution at the centre of any solution – a stance long adopted by the Arab League. It has not chosen more confrontational language than the region’s smaller players. “What we’ve seen in the past is that the king and the crown prince do not necessarily see the conflict in the same way, and the king would be more inclined to be critical.”