National Security & Defense

The UAE Is Rejecting Doublethink on Israel — Will It Last?

Dubai, United Arab Emirates, March 2020. (Christopher Pike/Reuters)
If its model for peace is successful, the UAE could positively transform the entire Middle East and the broader Muslim world.

A remarkable feature of the first months of peace between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is the way the Emiratis have warmly embraced delegations representing Israel and American-Jewish communities. UAE leaders have urged their citizens to be hospitable and have largely been heeded. Will the popular warmth continue — or will it only last as long as this honeymoon period? This bears watching.

Emirati officials appear to reject the doublethink on Israelis and Jews that is prevalent in Egypt and Jordan. They were the first Arab countries to make peace with the Jewish state but, in both, the population is intensely anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. Egypt reminded us of that last week when a court announced its readiness to hear a case against singer Mohamed Ramadan. His offense? Taking a selfie in Dubai with an Israeli pop star, Omer Adam.

Ramadan is accused of “insulting the Egyptian people,” and he has been suspended from the syndicate of Egyptian artists. This in a country that has had full diplomatic relations with Israel since 1979 and whose officials currently enjoy trade relations, military cooperation, and intelligence sharing with the Jewish state. Indeed, for decades Egyptian society has demonized Jews. It is still a leading producer of anti-Semitic content in the Arab world. Today, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s government has, to some extent, revived Jewish heritage in Egypt by renovating synagogues and restoring Jewish cemeteries. Caricatures of Jews have also been largely (though not entirely) relegated to the margins of the entertainment industry. But the government’s ostensible goodwill toward the country’s few remaining Jews contrasts starkly with other open hostility toward Israelis, as demonstrated in the Ramadan affair.

A similar dynamic persists in Jordan. Despite a 1994 peace treaty, Jordanian officials do not promote neighborly feelings toward the Jewish state or Jews. Its national curriculum endorses a “two-state solution” to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, but schoolbook maps erase Israel, naming the entirety of the land west of the Jordan River “Palestine.” Zionism, the national movement of the Jewish people, is maligned as “racist colonialism.” One can buy an Arabic translation of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf — with a book cover depicting a triumphant Hitler — at just about any bookstand in downtown Amman.

Statements from Emirati officials, for now, embrace both Jews and Israelis, with Judaism honored as one of the region’s indigenous faiths. The planned Abrahamic Family House will host a mosque, a synagogue, and a church in Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi’s tourism ministry has instructed hotels to provide kosher food options for guests. The photo that landed Ramadan in hot water was first tweeted affirmatively by an Emirati journalist backed by his government.

Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE are not democracies. But their rulers are sensitive to public opinion — and vice versa. Government statements help shape public opinion and also reflect it. It could be that in Egypt and Jordan, state-sanctioned anti-Semitism was meant to placate the parts of society upset by their government’s peace treaties with Israel. But the UAE’s leaders have made a different calculation. They are actively encouraging pro-Israel and pro-Jewish thinking among their people.

Why are they doing this? They have an interest in building domestic public support for their peace policy and countering the propaganda of their Islamist enemies. They want to improve the Emirates’ standing abroad, especially in the United States. And they want to cultivate friendly relations with Israel, whose businessmen, technologists, and academics can help the UAE strengthen its security and diversify its economy.

UAE leaders still have their work cut out for them. A poll taken since the signing of the Abraham Accords shows that only 46 percent of Emiratis have a favorable impression of Israel, but that is not bad when compared with 31 percent of Bahrainis, 23 percent of Saudis, and 16 percent of Moroccans. Two-thirds of Israelis look favorably on the UAE.

The incoming Biden administration may see value in urging the Emiratis to maintain this course of promoting popular goodwill toward Israel and the Jews. Last month, a senior UAE official told a U.S. State Department conference that his country will lead the Middle East and that the world in countering anti-Semitism. This could prove influential in the Arab world, where anti-Jewish conspiracies abound and are widely believed. A UAE-led, Arabic-language campaign to counter Jew-hatred would promote shared U.S. and UAE interests in countering religious extremism in the Middle East.

Sadly, since his selfie went viral, Ramadan said he would not have taken the photo if had known Adam was Israeli. He bowed to the mob, unlike the beauty queen — Miss Iraq — Sarah Idan, who was forced to flee her home country in 2017 after posting a selfie with Miss Israel. Idan has since visited Israel and remains friends with her Israeli former competitor.

In not only making peace as a formal arrangement between governments, but also urging its people to adopt a friendly attitude toward Israel and the Jews, UAE leaders are leading a pioneering mission in the Arab world. They say that they view their country as a model for others in the Middle East. This will put the UAE’s influence — its so-called soft power — to the test. If it succeeds, the effects could positively transform the entire Middle East and the broader Muslim world.

Dore Feith was special assistant to the Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2019–2020. He speaks Arabic and Hebrew.