Trends in Media Opinion on Israel in Saudi and Gulf Media

Trends in Media Opinion on Israel in Saudi and Gulf Media

Paper
Posted on: 18th August 2020
By Multiple Authors
Bader Rock
Legal and Economic Policy Adviser, Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
Rami Dajani
Policy Adviser on Regional Affairs
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    Introduction

    Introduction

    Since revolutions erupted across the Middle East and North Africa a decade ago, several transformations in political narratives – both in official circles and among the general public – have been taking place and continue to do so. Key among these transformations has been the rise of the issue of political Islam (in all its guises) and the problems it poses for political order and stability between states and within societies. Perceptions shifted away from the traditional “Arab nationalist” framework that used to define the region, to concerns over the Sunni/Shiite divide and the rising threat of a revisionist regime in Tehran; the rise of ISIS and other extremist Jihadist group that fed on the despair of war-torn societies on the peripheries of conflict areas; and, perhaps most significantly, the challenge posed by organised Islamist movements – epitomised by the brief ascendance of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt.

    These transformations largely overshadowed the traditional view of Israel, and its occupation of Arab lands, as the main cause of conflict and instability in the region. Rather, the Palestinian issue, while still seen as a just cause and worthy of support and sympathy, is no longer at the forefront of political opinion as a major source of instability, and the vilification of Israel is no longer instrumentalised as a tool to channel public discontent away from challenging the existing political order. As a result, a change in official political narrative, as well as public discourse, has been evolving over the past several years.

    In order to establish a useful measure of these changes – particularly as they relate to Israel and the Palestinian issue – we conducted a detailed survey of opinion articles published in Gulf newspapers (both international and local) covering the first half of 2020, with additional data collected from 2019. The objective was to track the evolution of opinions expressed by authors (mostly professional journalists, but including political and academic figures) with a narrow focus on the extent to which favourable – and unfavourable – views were expressed regarding Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The study focuses on Saudi media, while placing the findings in the context of broader Gulf media. Data from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait show definite positive trends in the portrayal of Israel, which contrast with ongoing negative viewpoints published in Qatari newspapers.   

    Methodology

    Methodology

    The study tracked opinion pieces – excluding news reports and official editorials – in 11 Saudi dailies (seven international and two local) from January to the end of June 2020. The total number of articles reviewed was 226, written by 138 authors. These constitute most, if not all, major dailies and have a wide share of domestic readership, with some published internationally and read around the world. It is notable that results did not vary substantially between local and internationally published newspapers

    In addition, opinion articles from major newspapers in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar were also assessed, providing an overall dataset of 892 articles, written by 447 authors in 31 newspapers over a six-month span. Data from 2019 was also collected for comparative purposes but is less detailed and specific.

    Figure 1 – Distribution of articles by country

    1

    Country

    Articles

     Authors

    Newspapers

    Saudi Arabia

    226

    137

    11

    UAE

    209

    100

    5

    Bahrain

    66

    23

    3

    Kuwait

    112

    48

    5

    Oman

    85

    36

    4

    Qatar

    194

    116

    3

    Total

    892

    447

    31

    The objective was to track and aggregate opinion trends as reflected in the public discourse, rather than through news reports or official statements. Most media in Arab states, while not all state-controlled, tends to reflect in general terms the official authorities’ political outlook and direction. Opinion articles, however, tend to be at the vanguard of evolving views and narratives, as they are not formally constrained by official policy and have a degree of leeway in expressing opinions that challenge preconceived notions and introduce new ideas. They also tend to reflect evolving views within political and decision-making circles in these countries.

    While this study focuses primarily on Saudi opinion, data for the Gulf region (KSA, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman) is presented to provide a broader picture of evolving trends. Data from Qatar is presented separately, and contrasted with the other findings, as it reflects a clear divergence from the rest of the region.

    The main tool used to classify articles was intended to be as simple and straightforward as possible – namely, whether the overall views expressed were negative, neutral or positive. These were applied to views on Israel and the PA, as well as on specific issues relating to Israel. Criteria for making these assessments included:

    • Overall tone: whether the author praised a given policy, or assigned blame to a party
    • Key words: whether terms such as “enemy”, “crimes”, “corrupt”, “ally” or “democracy” were used
    • Reframing the issues: whether the author criticised a common position or proposed a reassessment of the conventional wisdom.

    Key Trends

    Key Trends

    Comparing the general data from 2019 to the survey of opinion articles in 2020 shows a dramatic shift in tone on Israel in Saudi newspapers, with 66 per cent critical references in 2019 compared to 60 per cent non-critical (either neutral or positive) in 2020. This trend reflects a gradual decline in traditional anti-Israel rhetoric that was pervasive in much of Arab media in the past, with opinions often addressing strategic political concerns without resorting to the traditional, reflexively negative terminology.

    Figure 2. 1 – Opinions on Israel in Saudi newspapers, 2019 versus 2020

    2-1

    The data from the broader Gulf region confirm this general trend across all surveyed states with the distinct exception of Qatari media, which has maintained a consistent negative tone on Israel throughout 2019 and 2020.

    Figure 2.2 – Critical opinions on Israel in Gulf newspapers, 2019 versus 2020

    2-2

    Figure 2.3 – Non-critical opinions on Israel in Gulf newspapers, 2019 versus 2020

    2-3

    Data from the first six months of 2020 further illustrate these trends, both in Saudi media and in the broader region. As illustrated below, the overall trends are somewhat less pronounced with respect to favourable views on Israel in the broader region.

    Figure 3.1 – Opinions on Israel and the PA in Saudi newspapers, January through June 2020

    3-1

    Figure 3.2 – Opinions on Israel and the PA in Gulf * newspapers, January through June 2020

    3-2

    The Impact of Annexation

    Zooming in on monthly trends, the data shows an increase in positive opinion in the first three months of 2020, followed by a rise in negative opinion in the following three months, which is likely due to negative reactions to Israeli annexation plans for the West Bank.

    Figure 4.1 – Opinion trends on Israel by month in Saudi newspapers, January through June 2020

    4-1

    Our analysis shows that this fluctuation in Saudi opinion is largely attributable to announcements by Israel of plans to annex large areas of the West Bank unilaterally, following the unveiling of the US peace plan.

    Figure 4.2 – Opinions on Israel in Saudi newspapers on the subject of annexation

    4-2

    Figure 4.3 – Opinions on Israel in Gulf* newspapers on the subject of annexation

    4-3

    If opinions on annexation are excluded, the positive trend on Israel continued to increase in the second quarter of 2020.

    Figure 4. 4 – Trends on opinions of Israel by month in Saudi newspapers, January through June 2020 (excluding opinions on annexation)

    4-4

    In contrast to data from Saudi Arabian newspapers, aggregate data from the region is, however, less reflective of this fluctuation.

    Figure 4.5 – Opinion trends on Israel by month in Gulf* newspapers, January through June 2020

    4-5

    Figure 4.6 – Trends on opinions of Israel by month in Gulf* newspapers, January to June 2020 (excluding opinions on annexation)

    4-6

    Substantive Changes in Political Narrative

    Substantive Changes in Political Narrative

    Evolution in Framing of Regional Politics

    Rather than the traditional framework of analysis anchored in pan-Arab nationalism that emerged in the 1960s (whether Nasserist, Baathist, socialist or conservative) and that is often associated with the consolidation of authoritarian regimes in the post-colonial period, many authors surveyed in this study are increasingly looking at the region from the perspective of alliances based on shared security interests. These interests centre around the issue of Iran and Shiite revolutionary expansionism (the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis), and the rise of the Islamist movements (driven by Qatar and Turkey, and impacting several states in the Middle East and North Africa). This is reflected in the vast divergence in opinion in coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the media of the “moderate” Sunni Gulf states and Qatar, where media opinion on Israel (and for that matter the PA) has remained largely constant over the past two years.

    Figure 5.1 – Opinions on Israel in Qatari newspapers, 2019 versus 2020

    5-1

    Figure 5.2 – Opinion on Israel and the PA in Qatari newspapers, January through June 2020

    5-2

    Changes in Perception of Israel from “Natural Enemy” to “Strategic Ally”

    The change in perception of Israel from a natural enemy to a strategic ally is often framed in realpolitik terms: Iran has emerged as a threat to “moderate Sunni states” – due to its revisionist policies across the region (Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, etc.), its capability to destabilise the Persian Gulf and the flow of oil, and its nuclear weapons and missile programmes – and Israel shares in several of these existential concerns. As a result, the view has emerged that a strategic alliance with Israel – or at the very least, improved levels of cooperation and coordination – is a national-security priority that should not suffer due to the ongoing stalemate in the Middle East peace process. The positive role of Israel is also often associated with the need to restrain Turkish ambitions, Islamist politics and the threat of an empowered Hamas in Gaza.       

    Reassessment of Primacy of Arab-Israeli Conflict

    Alongside these trends, there is diminishing interest and prioritisation of the Middle East peace process as a major diplomatic driving force in regional political developments, with declining criticism of Israel for blocking the achievement of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

    Figure 6.1 – Opinions on Israel in Saudi newspapers on the subject of the Middle East peace process

    6-1

    Figure 6.2 – Opinions on Israel in Gulf* Newspapers on the subject of the Middle East peace process

    6-2

    Growing Frustration With Palestinian Leadership and Strategy

    In past decades, discussions in Arab media on the issue of Palestine focused almost unanimously on the victimisation and oppression of Palestinians by Israel, with the iconic images of the intifada and Israeli “assaults” on the Haram al-Sharif representing the view of Palestinians as the helpless victims of an evil occupation. Even though the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and other Palestinian leaders did not always have positive relations with several Arab states, criticism of the Palestinian leadership was mainly kept within political circles and not openly or frequently exposed in the media. The data from our study suggests the emergence of a new trend in Saudi media, with regular criticism of PA and PLO officials, and issues such as corruption, mismanagement, lack of flexibility, failure of strategy and unrealistic demands among the charges levied against them. The Palestinian leadership is frequently portrayed as having wasted decades negotiating with Israel without making serious proposals or compromises, while Arab states are barred from establishing any relations with Israel in the meantime. The view of Hamas is – unsurprisingly – even more negative (this is not as much of a new trend) as the movement is openly associated both with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

    Figure 7.1 – Trends on opinions of the PA by by month in Saudi newspapers, January through June 2020

    7-1

    This change in the depiction of the PA is echoed in the broader Gulf media and is perhaps the one issue where there is convergence in opinions with Qatari media commentators.

    Figure 7.2 – Trends on opinions of the PA by month in Gulf* newspapers

    7-2

    A New Narrative on Normalisation of Relations With Israel

    Since the Arab Peace Initiative was launched at the Arab League Summit in Beirut in 2002, media and public discourse on establishment of normal relations with Israel became intrinsically tied to the prior condition of Israeli territorial withdrawal. This proposition went unchallenged for decades, as the Palestinians applied it regularly as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Israel – and most Arab media echoed the position that normalisation can only occur after all claims have been satisfied, whether on territory or the rights of refugees. This position has been eroded significantly over the past several years, even though the official position of the Gulf states remains formally tied to the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative. Rather than insist on conditionality, many opinion writers make the case for decoupling the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from the broader and more pressing strategic concerns noted above. They argue that the peace process should be driven forward in parallel to, rather than as a precondition for, the establishment of channels of cooperation with Israel. Some argue that such an approach also has inherent benefit to bring Israel to the table using constructive regional engagement. While opinion writers generally acknowledge than any peace agreement would have to be decided by the parties – and not imposed by Arab or international powers – they note that Arab and Islamic states do have a role, for example on the holy sites, and that security concerns are of an inherently regional scope.

    Figure 8.1 – Opinions on Israel in Saudi newspapers on the subject of normalisation

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    Figure 8.2 – Opinions on Israel in Gulf* newspapers on the subject of normalisation

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    A Growing Appreciation of Israeli Democracy

    While commentators have been writing extensively on domestic Israeli politics over the past decades, this was predominantly from the political angle – government coalitions, relations between the political and security establishments – and often in a critical light. There has been a significant shift in recent months, with opinion writers taking a greater interest in Israeli democratic institutions and processes, as well as the rise of significant political representation among the Arab minority in Israel. Some authors contrast the vibrant and resilient institutions in Israel to the prevailing chaos and deficit of democratic processes across the region.

     

    Figure 9.1 – Opinions on Israel in Saudi newspapers on the subject of Israeli democracy

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    Figure 9.2 – Opinions on Israel in Gulf* newspapers on the subject of Israeli democracy

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    A Different Posture Towards Jews

     In the past, the prevailing narrative regarding Jews was anchored in anti-Zionist ideology, and considered the Jews as predominantly foreign colonial implants in the region. Recent commentaries in Saudi newspapers, as well as television shows and other media productions, are starting to tell a different story, highlighting the long history of Jewish communities in the region, including in the Arabian Peninsula. Furthermore, there has been a shift in the way the Holocaust is covered: Although dismissive and anti-Semitic accounts have not gone away, there are trends that indicate a shift towards a more accurate historical narrative.

    Conclusions

    Conclusions
    • Media opinion trends in the Gulf states (except for Qatar) point to a clear change in perception of Israel as a potential ally rather than a traditional enemy, and a decline in the primacy of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue in the order of the priorities of the region.
    • The recent announcement of a US-brokered agreement between the UAE and Israel paving the way for full normalisation of relations is reflected by the trends over the course of the past two years.
    • The relative consistency of the data showing positive trends in opinion towards Israel throughout the Gulf region would suggest that normalisation steps might be pursued by other states, barring unforeseen developments.
    • On the other hand, the study shows that certain Israeli policies (in particular on annexation of West Bank territory) can have a pronounced and immediate detrimental effect on Gulf opinion, thereby limiting political space for rapprochement.

     

     

    (*Where "Gulf newspapers" are referred to in Figures 4.3, 4.5, 4.6, 6.2, 7.2, 8.2 and 9.2, we are referring specifically to newspapers in KSA, UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman)

     

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