In the Gulf, normalisation with Israel feels anything but normal
Palestinian protesters set aflame cut-outs showing the faces of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and US President Donald Trump, during a demonstration in Nablus in the occupied West Bank. AFP
The shock announcement that the UAE and Israel are normalising relations has been applauded by allies and booed by rivals, but for many Gulf citizens there is deep unease over the embrace of a longtime enemy.
Palestinian leaders have cast the deal as a "betrayal", a view shared by many in the capitals of the oil-rich region, even if the allegiance to that cause has faded somewhat among the younger generation. After becoming the first Gulf country to establish ties with the Jewish state, the United Arab Emirates is being portrayed in the local media as the champion of peace in a divided region that needs to join forces against Iran.
"I'm planning a trip to Tel Aviv already," a young Emirati who works in marketing said wryly. "How long will we live in conflict? The world is going through enough already, so let's have some peace," he told AFP.
"I trust the strategy and the wisdom of our leaders. What the UAE did was for the Palestinians in the first place," he told AFP, in a country where political criticism is rarer than thunderstorms.
On Thursday, the UAE said the accord included an agreement to stop any further annexation of Palestinian territories, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly insisted he had agreed only to delay, not to cancel, the plans.
'Dagger in the back'
In the other five countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman -- citizens are not convinced.
While diplomatic and business contacts with Israel have been growing in recent years, in the public arena the idea of official ties remains taboo.
On social networks, the hashtag "Normalisation is Treason" has been trending across the region in the past few days, particularly among young Saudi activists.
Riyadh, the leading Arab power and the custodian of Islam's holiest sites, has not yet made any comment on the move by the UAE, its close ally.
Although all eyes are on whether it will adopt the same policy, analysts say that although it has also been moving quietly closer to Israel in recent years, it will proceed with caution and wait to see the reaction in the Arab world.
Bahrain was the first Gulf state to welcome Thursday's agreement, which the United States helped broker, but several opposition parties issued a joint statement rejecting "any normalisation with the Zionist entity".
Bahrain, a staunch US ally in the region and -- like Israel and the UAE -- particularly hostile to Iran, is seen as the likely next candidate to establish ties with the Jewish state.
"Unfortunately, I would not be able to do anything but protest on social networks because of the security situation," said one Bahraini man, referring to the authorities' crackdown on critical voices.
"It is a betrayal, a stab in the back of the Palestinian brothers," he told AFP, asking not to be identified.
'Not a real country'
Qatar, which did not respond to Thursday's announcement, has since 2017 been out in the diplomatic cold with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, who accuse it of supporting Islamist movements and conniving with Iran.
Doha, which at the same time remains close to the US, denies the allegations. It has an on-again, off-again relationship with Israel, hosting an Israeli economic interests office from 1996 until 2000.
It is also heavily involved in underwriting calm in the Gaza Strip, managing and funding welfare payments to the people of the impoverished coastal territory with Israel's blessing.
"I don't believe Israel is a real country," one angry Qatari student told AFP, adding that meanwhile the Palestinians "are fighting for their land with rocks against tanks."
Kuwait, another close US ally, has also been silent on the Israel deal. The rich emirate is the only country in the Gulf with a genuine political and parliamentary life, and permits sometimes lively public debate.
"I don't see any problem with normalisation, because it existed in secret anyway and each country has its own political interests. But at the same time it doesn't feel normal," said Ibrahim Chihab, a Kuwaiti pensioner.