Arab Gulf societies often differ from other Arab and Muslim societies on their views about Israel. There is an urgent need for greater emphasis on “digital diplomacy” from the public, as well as for more social gatherings and “normalization” — especially in Western countries — to strengthen the relationship between the Israeli people and the citizens of the Arab Gulf. Pictured: Manama, Bahrain. (Image source: B.alotaby/Wikimedia Commons)
Since General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed by an American airstrike, it has become even clearer that the Middle East is divided. We find some here were supportive of the strike that rescued the world from a most dangerous terrorist; others were completely outraged. Is the Middle East, then, on the verge of new alliances and further fragmentation?
The reactions of the Arab Gulf countries, including their citizens — especially Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain — are the same as Israel’s. Other Arab countries and the Palestinian territories — mainly Hamas, which is a client of Iran — have responded quite differently.
Arab Gulf societies often differ from other Arab and Muslim societies on their views about Israel. Lately, however, the most hostile rhetoric has disappeared, especially among the younger generations. It has, in fact, been largely replaced by a more moderate tone and a desire better to understand Israeli society.
Many writers and political analysts from the Arab Gulf have written about the different political doctrines and perceived enemies among Arab Gulf countries and other Muslim countries, mainly from the Levant. A recent article by Kuwait’s former minister of information, Saad Al-Ajmi, explains these differences. Arabs, he states, particularly the Palestinians, have been attributing all the problems in the region to Israel.
As the Iranian regime has formally declared their occupation of four Arab capitals — Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa — many of its members see only the supposed Israeli “occupation” and do not think about all the Arab and Muslim blood spilled by Iran and its proxies. To many Arabs and Muslims, only the Palestinian people seem to have been important. Sadly, this concern has often appeared to be less about the Palestinians’ well-being, over which they do not seem unduly distressed — having preferred to let them languish as second class citizens in Jordan, Lebanon or Kuwait. Rather, expressions of concern often appear to have been a way of deflecting attention from the problems of governance at home.
In the eyes of some Arabs, Al-Ajmi writes, especially the Palestinians, Arab Gulf leaders are regarded as traitors and US agents because they are affiliated with an ally of Israel: America. In the view of these Arabs, Al-Ajmi continues, the US has invented an imaginary enemy in Iran in order to steal the riches of the Arab Gulf. To many Arabs, he posits, Iran is just a peaceful Muslim neighbor that supports the “resistance” and works towards “liberating Palestine,” and the Arab Gulf countries are nothing but stupid and cowardly traitors.
The traditional media in the Arab Gulf countries are often controlled by a Palestinian-Lebanese-Egyptian triangle. Al Arabiyya, Al Jazeera and many other outlets in the region espouse Nasserist, Islamist, or pan-Arab nationalist ideologies that claim to see Israel as the primary threat. Frequently, the executive managers and news editors who run the Arab Gulf media use the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem to skew the news and portray the Palestinian issue as the main preoccupation in the region; they then set about embarrassing anyone who might not see the situation the same way as they do.
The result is that many people in the Gulf, especially the younger generations, complain that their media does not speak for them and is controlled by the Levant. Saudis who have read that “the traditional media in the Arab Gulf countries are often controlled by the Palestinian-Lebanese-Egyptian triangle” have remarked, often in person, that the traditional media, whether broadcast news or the press, must probably be controlled and run by Saudi professionals because the Arabs’ views do not represent their views.
Twitter user B_Alarij wrote:
“We need to consider the issue of our Gulf media: to get rid of this triangle and localize media jobs to achieve our goals and spread our culture on the global level and get rid of Arab ideologies of the Levant?!!”
Twitter user SalmaAlmeqbali wrote:
“Yes, this is what should have happened a long time ago. Media and educational institutions are sensitive institutions that must be taken care of by countries and their cadres must be localized, so that media institutions’ mission and goals will serve the country.”
Disappointingly, the Western mainstream media is no different from the Arab Gulf media in weakening the position of pro-peace advocates in the Arab Gulf countries. Members of the mainstream media seem, in fact, to have a greater interest in perpetuating conflict, perhaps as more newsworthy, telegenic or captivating to advertisers. Members of the mainstream media also seem, wrongly, to regard anti-Semitic advocates of political Islam as representative of “moderate” Islam. Worse, they actually appear to be against anyone who is promoting peace.
The American mainstream media not only supports anti-Semitic political Islamists, but, ironically, sometimes even gives them a platform as columnists with which to spread their views. The late Jamal Khashoggi, for instance, with whom the media seemed infatuated, was actually a strong advocate of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are openly dedicated to “eliminating and destroying Western civilization from within.”
A tweet from November 17, 2017 by Khashoggi says:
“Israel does not occupy Saudi soil nor does it pose a direct threat to it. Therefore, it is assumed that the Kingdom does not need a relationship with it, even if it is forced, but the collapse of a group of Saudi intellectuals towards cheap normalization indicates a serious intellectual defeat from within.”
Khashoggi also threatened this author for pursuing peace with Israel:
“I wish you and people like you would shut up because you are the cause of the Arabs’ and Palestinians’ hatred of our country.”
In the Arab world, such a message from someone highly connected can be taken as a death threat. After Khasoggi’s murder, the media, depicted him, as many did the Iranian terrorist Qasem Soleimani, as some kind of virtuous idol.
The worldwide lack of support for those who advocate peace or the reform of Islam has brought about exactly what the extremists want: a fear of speaking up. Many of us Muslims do not want to be viewed as traitors, labelled “enemies of the nation” — not to mention the region — and have our lives put under threat. One need only look at how even Westerners who have spoken out have been treated — from the trial of the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci to the murder in 2004 of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, or the unrelenting death threats and court cases against the outspoken member of the Netherlands’ Parliament, Geert Wilders. For the past 15 years, Wilders has had to live in safe houses with round-the-clock police protection. “The people who threaten us are walking around free,” he has said, “and we are the captives.”
Just imagine, then, how public support for Israel by Muslims might also cause embarrassment, to say the least, for some countries, such as the guardian of the Two Holy mosques, Saudi Arabia — a country viewed as the defender of all Muslims. For Egypt’s former president, Anwar Sadat, speaking out led his murder. Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, delivered a historic address at a Coptic church on January 15, 2015, for which he was mentioned as a possible candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize:
“Yes, a humanistic and civilizing message should once more emanate from Egypt. That is why we must not call ourselves anything other than ‘Egyptians.’ This is what we must be — Egyptians, just Egyptians, Egyptians indeed! I just want to tell you that — Allah willing — we shall build our nation together, accommodate make room for each other, and we shall like each other, love each other, love each other in earnest so that people may see.”
Soon after, one never heard any of that from him again.
The media that are hostile to Saudi Arabia, such as the Qatari and the Iranian media, exploit pro-Israel Saudi journalists and writers to attack Saudi Arabia. They describe calls for peace by Saudi intellectuals as a green light from the Saudi government to sue for peace with Israel, thereby distorting the image of Saudi Arabia in the Muslim world.
Almost all of the hostile Qatari media are blocked in UAE, to prevent them from inciting more hatred and chaos. Whenever there is any hope of good relations with Israel, Qatar tries to embarrass Saudi Arabia by mentioning that the kingdom is the keeper of the Two Holy Mosques. Conversely, when Saudi Arabia says something negative about Israel, such as that Israelis may not visit the kingdom, Qatar quickly publishes it in English to show Westerners how intolerant Saudi Arabia is.
Such pro-Qatari media propaganda videos — such as those on the Lens Post website — are blocked in the UAE, and can only be seen through the twitter account. These videos are often highly critical of Saudi Arabian King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), and Abdul Hameed al-Ghobein, a Saudi journalist. Al-Ghobein, a supporter of MBS, ended up having his citizenship revoked. Headings in the video about Al-Ghobein say that he became Zionist to please MBS and his father, and that Al-Ghobein is not a great supporter of the Palestinian issue. He calls, on air, for the recognition of the right of the Israel to its land and to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Without any embarrassment, he also thanks Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his efforts at “normalization,” and goes on to announce many times that Jerusalem and its rulers are no longer important to Saudi Arabia. He is called a Zionist trumpet in an Arab suit by orders from the Saudi intelligence, but surprisingly for everyone, after he was regarded as exceeding a limit, his citizenship was revoked. Again, the video was made by pro-Qatari media.
A tweet by al-Ghobein says:
“Abdul Hameed al-Ghobein’s interview with The Times of Israel: The idea of the Saudis and Arabs toward #Israel has changed. It has transformed from [Israel as] a country that kills children and usurps land to a friendly country and part of the region. The Arabs, especially the Saudis, are impressed by the Israeli scientific, technological, and knowledge development in all fields.”
In the past, the focus of the media was on the official views of Arab countries about Israel; now there is more of a focus on the people’s views. One of the episodes of a talk show, “Ayn Ala AlKahleej” (“Eye on the Arabian Gulf”) on Israel’s i24 News, embodied most of the differences between the Arab Gulf countries and Israel.
The main difference, in general, based Arab Gulf intellectuals in the local press and the general public on social media and on talk shows such as “Eye on the Arabian Gulf” is that most of the Arabian Gulf citizens do not see Israel as their primary enemy; to them, the primary enemy is Iran. Many seem to think there is no problem between Israel and Arabian Gulf countries and that the only reason for boycotting Israel had been the Palestinians.
The reason for the moderate tone among Gulf Arabs and many Saudis can be seen on “Eye on the Arabian Gulf” in Souad Al-Shammari’s response. Saudi people, she said, have changed because of the Palestinians’ rhetoric, which is full of envy, hatred and malice towards Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have experienced hostility not from Israel but from the Palestinians.
Mohammed Saud, a Saudi blogger and social media activist, then described a visit of some Jewish friends with dual citizenship in Israel and another country, who live in Israel, and who came to see him in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, after he had visited Israel. He described their visit to the kingdom as a dream come true, because it demonstrated to the world that the Saudi people are peaceful.
It was also, he said, an opportunity, to clarify the facts away from an apparently biased and politicized media. Saud said that he wanted his real view of Israel, after his visit, to replace the views of the traditional media. He described his visit to Israel as successful because it assured him that what is in the media was incorrect. He said that in Israel he had witnessed cultural and religious diversity, and had received from Israelis a warm and peaceful welcome. He said he found that Israel is actually a model for peaceful coexistence.
In response, he received a flood of insults from Palestinians. They had apparently thought that, because of his traditional Saudi clothing, he would automatically be sympathetic to their cause. He also said that he had witnessed Palestinian children being raised on stories of hatred and malice.
One Palestinian Middle East expert, Hassan Merhej, who appeared in the same episode, described Saud’s comments as embarrassing. He asked how there could be peace when Palestinians have been living in the diaspora for 70 years because they were not able to achieve their independence. He failed, however, to mention that they had been offered a state seven times, but each time had rejected it.
Merhej went on to say that Saudis may visit Jerusalem after the Palestinian territories get their independence. Then he asked how Saudis would feel if their country were occupied by Iraq or another country.
The question was a repetition of the false hypothesis that Jews, who have lived in the area for more than 3,000 years, are presumed not to belong there. He also failed to mention that the Arabs had been offered a sizeable amount of land by the United Nations in 1947, but had refused then offer, and that Arabs and Muslims had then initiated wars, terrorist attacks, uprisings [intifadas], rocket barrages, stabbings, car-rammings, arson-kites and other hostile activities against Israel to the present day.
Merhej went on to emphasize that, to him, social normalization among people is far more dangerous than diplomatic and political normalization. Reciprocal visits between leaders, he continued, as happens between Jordan and Egypt, he views as acceptable, as these relations might be beneficial for resolving the Palestinian issue, but that normalization between people should exist only if there is an independent Palestinian state. To him, the greatest danger to the Palestinian issue begins with normalization among people, such as that of Mohammed Saud, because it is the people who will determine if there will be peace or if the situation will remain the same.
Souad Al-Shammari, a female Saudi human rights activist on the same show, said that she recognized what Merhej was trying to hint at when he challenged Saudis to imagine their country occupied by Iraq. She reminded him that many Palestinians as well as the Palestinian Authority had supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and had encouraged Saddam to occupy Saudi Arabia. She added that in the past 30 years, Israel had not been a direct or real enemy of Saudi Arabia or even of the Gulf states; on the contrary, the real hostility had come from Arab and Muslim countries such as Iran and Turkey. She affirmed that what she was saying represented the views of the majority of the Saudi public. It is a view, she said, that differs from the country’s official political position, which is that boycotting Israel will continue “for the Palestinian cause”.
Al-Shammari also said that the Saudi people have changed, not because of a change in the Saudi government’s rhetoric towards the Jews and Israel, but because of the Palestinians’ rhetoric, which is full of envy, hatred and malice towards Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, she said, have experienced hostility not from Israel but from the Palestinians. She went on to say that as many Palestinians hold Israeli passports and live and work peacefully in Israel, why should Saudis be in conflict with it? Palestinians do not occupy Jerusalem, controlling who comes in and who goes out; Saudis (and anyone else) can enter whenever they want.
She also noted that Saudi Arabia gives billions of dollars to Palestinians and expects nothing in return. The Saudi money that flows to the United States, however, is for investments and weapons: both mutually beneficial. The Palestinians have nevertheless always been ungrateful and their rhetoric has always been abusive and inflammatory towards the Saudi people and the government.
Al-Shammari’s comments apparently drove Merhej to express anger towards Saudi Arabia. He repeated several times that the Palestinians do not need money from Saudi Arabia, a country that has also paid millions of dollars towards destroying Syria, Yemen and Iraq. He proudly said that he is not ashamed to support Hassan Nasrallah and Hezbollah, but that he is ashamed to call for peace with those whom he claimed occupy the Palestinian land. He then attacked Al-Shammari with a flood of insults: “You are a liar”. “You do not respect yourself”. “You are an agitator”. “You are a degenerate”.
So, differences do exist between Arab Gulf citizens and other Arabs and Muslims, including those from the Levant. Currently, many Arab Gulf citizens seem to see as their main enemy the Iranian regime, while other Arabs and Muslims still seem to see their main enemy as Israel and consider any opposing view as treasonous.
Regrettably, the positive views of Gulf Arabs towards Israel have been marginalized by a lack of support from the media, both in Arab countries and in the West. There is therefore an urgent need for greater emphasis on “digital diplomacy” from the public, as well as for more social gatherings and “normalization” — especially in Western countries — to strengthen the relationship between the Israeli people and the citizens of the Arab Gulf.
Najat AlSaied is a Saudi-American independent academic researcher in political communication and societal development based on productivity rather than religion or race.