Why Israel looks different to some Arab leaders

Aspirations of young Arabs may help explain why the United Arab Emirates recognized Israel and may lead other Arab nations to follow.

A driverless train passes a marina in Dubai, United Arab Emirate.

In survey after survey, nearly half of young people in the Arab world say they would prefer to live in one small Gulf country, the United Arab Emirates. And for good reason. Since the Arab Spring of 2011-12, no Arab country has succeeded better at staving off discontent among its youth in order to keep its leaders in power. The UAE, a federation of sheikhdoms governed by an absolute monarchy, has spun its oil wealth into an island of peace and prosperity in the Middle East.

On Aug. 13, the UAE’s ambition to quell youthful dissent – and along with it any support for radical Islam – took a big leap. In a deal brokered by the United States, the UAE agreed to normalize relations with Israel. In return, Israel agreed to suspend a plan to annex parts of the West Bank, giving temporary hope to Palestinians of a homeland in the future.

The UAE’s move comes more than 25 years after Jordan recognized Israel and more than 40 years since Egypt did so. A few other Arab countries, such as Bahrain and Oman, may follow the UAE’s lead, according to Israeli officials. With the Palestinian cause fading among Arabs and with Iran rising as a threat, some Arab leaders see Israel as a potential partner, especially in trade and investment.

In fact, the UAE hopes its official ties with Israel will “expand opportunities for young people” by enhancing growth and innovation. Israel is admired in the region for its high-tech industries. And with the pandemic and low oil prices challenging petrostates like the UAE, Israel seems more like an opportunity than an opponent.

Pacifying young people remains a top priority of the Middle East’s authoritarian rulers. Recent protests in Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Sudan have shown the pro-democracy spirit of the Arab Spring lives on. An overwhelming 89% of young Arabs are worried about finding jobs, according to the 2019 Arab Youth Survey. Two-thirds say religion plays too big a role in the Middle East.

At the same time, use of social media has more than doubled in the past five years. Half of Arab youth get news on Facebook. In the UAE, 33% of people between ages 18 and 34 rely on Snapchat daily.

Such grassroots access to news about Arab uprisings, along with the ability to organize dissent, is breaking down the social contract between autocrats and their citizens. Arabs, for example, are demanding the truth about the COVID-19 outbreak. And with the world economy in a recession, many Arabs see the need for openness and transparency to counteract official corruption.

The UAE has enough political dissent that it has jailed dozens of activists. The most notable prisoner is human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor. He is serving 10 years on charges of “insulting the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols including its leaders.”

The Arab Spring put Middle East leaders on notice that their main threats are internal. Nearly a decade later, young people still aspire to live in prosperity under peaceful democracies. Making pacts with Israel is one way to listen to those aspirations.

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