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A Desert Called Peace: Part I

In Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, criticizing normalization with Israel is becoming a crime.


This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

What good is peace among nations if there is not peace within nations? For much of the Middle East, especially the ruling elites of politically closed-off states, the answer is obvious enough: peace internationally maintains power and cash flows at home.

In “The Paradox of Peace: The Impact of Normalization with Israel on the Arab World,” Dana El Kurd looks at how the process of pursuing a diplomatic peace internationally has strengthened the hand of authoritarian leaders in the Arab world. El Kurd specifically looks at instances in Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where normalization moves preceded and facilitated repression of local political speech.

“This paper builds on this important work by outlining the ways in which states are empowered transnationally to implement their methods of authoritarian conflict management,” writes El Kurd.

Repressive tools, from legal constraints on speech to surveillance technology, help confine public speech into permissible lanes, forcing dissent to be an underground activity. Normally, authoritarian restrictions are paired with a political crisis, like an active war, but in the case of Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE, the peace process is not an end to an active conflict but a prelude to changed diplomatic relations. There’s no reason, then, that such change must be accompanied by repression unless facilitating repression is part of the reason these states pursued peace with Israel.

Tools that facilitate apartheid in Israel are exported and shared through improved diplomatic relations with regional neighbors to facilitate discussion and protest against apartheid from abroad.

“I argue that peace initiatives that do not address root causes of conflict facilitate authoritarian practices. Such initiatives help maintain conditions of structural violence, thus meriting the ‘illiberal’ denotation,” writes El Kurd. “Thus, peace with Israel allows Arab states to increase their access to authoritarian technologies, as well as project power abroad.”

Perhaps the most famous example of this is the case of Ahmed Mansour, an Emirati human rights activist who exposed the country’s use of Israeli-made hacking software. “In response,” notes El Kurd, “the UAE prosecuted him for ‘ruining the UAE’s reputation,’ for which he will serve 10 years.”

Such prosecution is facilitated, like the surveillance technology itself, by close ties between the UAE and Israel. The countries normalized relations as part of the Trump administration-sponsored Abraham Accords, though they had cooperated beforehand.

“In the UAE, in recent years, there are no protests, and no violent mass crackdown; instead, the regime works to demobilize their population through targeted repression and high degrees of surveillance,” writes El Kurd. “Their ties to the state of Israel, its intelligence services, and surveillance companies directly facilitate this goal.”

In Bahrain, while protest still exists, opposition among the population to normalization with Israel predates the existence of the modern Israeli state. As Bahrain, too, drew closer to Israel, it made it a crime for public employees to dissent from official policy.

Much of the repression centers around these governments preventing their populace from speaking on, coordinating with, or organizing for people or causes in Palestine. Tools that facilitate apartheid in Israel are exported and shared through improved diplomatic relations with regional neighbors to facilitate discussion and protest against apartheid from abroad.

Kelsey D. Atherton


Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.


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