The Abraham Accords in the UAE
By Najat AlSaied
Since the signing of the Abraham Accords on September 15, 2020 in the White House, several questions have emerged: What has the UAE gained and what are the risks involved? How do Emiratis view the treaty with Israel? To answer these questions in full, especially those related to Emirati opinion about the peace treaty and “people peace”, otherwise known as “warm peace”, a member of the Emirati delegation that visited Israel and a member of the Israeli delegation that visited the UAE in December 2020, were both interviewed. These unofficial delegates signify the main difference between this peace treaty and those previously agreed in Jordan and Egypt.
What has the UAE gained and what are the risks involved?
The UAE has gained a great deal from this peace treaty including meeting strategic and economic objectives, which prove that this peace treaty is a win-win situation.
Firstly, the agreement represents Abu Dhabi’s willingness to take a leading regional role and build on its existing international prestige as a country of tolerance and moderation. In seeking to establish itself as a model for the Arab world, the UAE has taken on a more assertive role that further enhances its regional position as a progressive actor.
Secondly, there are geopolitical priorities for those Arab Gulf States that signed the Abraham Accords; Israel is aligned with these priorities in terms of opposition to the Iranian regime and political Islam in general, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular. These common enemies are more significant than the countries’ differences in relation to their views on Palestinian aspirations.
Thirdly, since what became known as the “Arab Spring”, there have been numerous political developments. These include failed Arab states and the 2017 diplomatic rift that isolated Qatar from its GCC partners due to its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, other extremist groups, and lately its alliance with the Iranian regime and Erdogan’s Turkey. This has contributed to a growing perception of Israel as a strategic ally in the wider region.
Fourthly, the need for the Arab Gulf States to have Israel as an ally has never been greater in the face of both parties in the US calling for disengagement from the Middle East. This shift of US interest away from the region has prompted the UAE to engage in a peace process.
Fifthly, the UAE’s approach in this peace treaty has been to expose those in the region who want to manipulate the Israel-Palestine dispute for their own agendas. For instance, Turkey, and specifically its ambitious populist leader President Recep Erdogan, has sought to exploit Palestinian grievances to further its hegemony and influence in the region.
The Abraham Accords list 16 areas of Israeli-UAE collaboration, including health, science, technology, cyber security, environment, agriculture, and water and food security, as well as more strictly commercial areas such as civil aviation, tourism, and energy.
Projected economic impact: The Israeli Ministry of Economy estimates that the normalization of ties between Israel and the UAE could lead to as much as US $500 million in bilateral trade and investment.
In addition, after the signature of the peace treaty many steps have been that suggest that it is not only economic deal between governments, but also business among people. For example, The UAE-Israel Business Council that was established by business and public sector leaders from the UAE and Israel to help foster shared opportunities, economic cooperation and business partnerships between Emiratis and Israelis. It had more than 2,000 members sign up for UAE-Israel business portal in less than 45 days. Moreover, the UAE-Israel Policy Forum was established to bring researchers, academic and scholars from both countries together. The Gulf-Israel Women's Forum was also established last October: Jerusalem's Deputy Mayor, Fleur Hassan, with founder of the Jewish Women’s Business Network, Justine Zwerling, started the Gulf Women's Forum to unite women from the Middle East in relationship, friendship and business with Israel.
While business deals were also established in previous peace treaties, this time it is not solely a business transaction. Respect, politeness, honesty and openness are at the core of these trade relations, in order to build both friendship and mutual satisfaction.
How do Emiratis view the treaty with Israel?
Several newspapers in the UAE, such as Al Ittihad and AlRoeya, interviewed Emirati citizens about the Abraham Accords. A lot of Emiratis are proud that their country is a role model for peace and tolerance in the region and many see this treaty as evidence of this.
Matar Hamad Al Shamsi, an Emirati citizen, pointed out that the “UAE is a source of inspiration for humanity, tolerance and coexistence, and in the past we have witnessed many events and forums that have brought together representatives of different religions in Abu Dhabi, with the aim of agreeing on peaceful coexistence”.
A lot of Emiratis thought that since the peace treaty was achieved on the condition that annexation was stopped that their country is still working for the Palestinian cause and this peace treaty is a means for achieving a two-state solution. Abdul Moneim Al-Ahmad, an Emirati citizen, said, “the UAE has done, and still does a lot for the Palestinian people and this treaty is a key step towards a two-state solution”.
Adding to that, some Emiratis think that the time has come to deal differently with the Palestinian issue. Hard power has not worked so it is time to try achieving peace with the soft power of diplomacy. An Emirati social media influencer, Abdullah bin Dafna, said, “the Emirati-Israeli peace treaty has succeeded in shedding light again on the Palestinian issue, and has proved that Emirati diplomacy is an effective force regionally and internationally. The UAE possesses the political vision to deal with the most difficult issues and manage them with great sophistication”.
A majority of Emiratis deem an initiative worth supporting depending on its economic outcome. A lot of Emiratis think this peace treaty will not only bring peace and coexistence, but it will also bring economic development for all, including the Palestinians. Saif Habrout Al-Ketbi, an Emirati citizen, emphasized this point, “The peace treaty has many positive effects, whether in terms of achieving economic development or strengthening efforts to face common challenges”.
More important to most Arab Gulf people than anticipated economic outcome is the position of their leaders. This relationship is more like kinship than a ruler-citizen relationship. This is what distinguishes people of the Arab Gulf region from other Arab countries. So once the leaders agree upon a certain decision, most people are supportive because they trust the opinion of the leadership. Shamma Al Balushi, an Emirati woman, says, “We are absolutely certain that His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan is an exceptional person and a unique example of an inspiring leader concerned with the issues of the Arab nation, and who has a unique vision for the future. As His Highness has dealt with the most difficult issues and achieved successes aimed at development and stability, definitely his decision in this peace treaty is right”.
All of these responses in support of peace are not a coincidence, but have been carefully orchestrated by the Emirati leadership. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan’s chief mission has been to take back control of the education ministry from the Islamists who originally wrote the country’s textbooks. This might explain the younger generations’ greater enthusiasm for the peace treaty compared with older generations. The current curriculum is a roadmap for young Emiratis towards moderation, respect for the 'Other', peace-making and tolerance.
New textbooks were already being used in schools, just two weeks after the peace agreement was announced.
New textbooks were already being used in schools, just two weeks after the peace agreement was announced. A UAE 2020 Islamic studies textbook praises the peace initiative with Israel by stating cooperation and peace are fundamental to Islamic values and UAE national characteristics. Also, a social studies textbook mentions Judaism as belonging in the Arab region. Since the Abraham Accords were signed several forums and projects have also taken place, bringing Emirati and Israeli young adults together; for example the UAE IS and the Sharaka Project.
Focusing on the younger generation is critical, especially since they constitute the majority of the population. The UAE's population is 9.2 million, of which 1.4 million are Emirati citizens and 7.8 million are expatriates. The percentage of the population that is under the age of 25 in the UAE is 34% and the most populous age category in the UAE is 25-54 year olds, comprising 65.9% of the population (6.29 million people).
Interviews with the Emirati delegation to Israel and the Israeli delegation to the UAE
Interviews were conducted with Dr. Majid Al Sarrah, an Emirati citizen and academic at the University of Dubai and a founding member of the Sharaka Project, who visited Israel last month. The author also interviewed Dr. Moran Zaga, a researcher and a lecturer in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Haifa. She was one of the members of the Israeli delegation to the UAE that arrived in Dubai at the beginning of December 2020.
Emirati point of views
The Emirati visit to Israeli
Dr. Majid Al Sarrah, visited Israel last December with Emirati and Bahraini delegates as part of The Sharaka Project, which was established after the signing of the Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel, with its headquarters in Dubai and Tel Aviv. The Sharaka Project’s main goal is to promote communication between young people in the Arab Gulf States and Israel, and it is non-governmental. Besides calling for peace, it also seeks partnerships in science, technology and research. Its primary goal is to make the peace process relevant to people.
Dr. Al Sarrah described his visit with the delegation to Israel as historical and as representing only the people, not any particular government. At the beginning of his visit Dr. Al Sarrah was concerned about security and the delegates’ safety, given the threats made by radical Islamists and those leftists who oppose the Abraham Accords. But the Israelis’ warm welcome and their assurances that they would be safe, meant he could relax. From the moment they arrived at the airport, they were surprised by the warm welcome they received from Israelis of all backgrounds; Orthodox, secular, religious. Their traditional Emirati white outfit, the “kandura”, was much admired.
The Sharaka Project’s timetable in Israel made for an intensive week: A meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin; a visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center; a tour of Tel Aviv and the Golan Heights; participation in a Hanukkah menorah lighting ceremony at the Western Wall in Jerusalem; and a visit to al-Aqsa Mosque.
Dr. Al Sarrah explained that their own experiences in Israel were in stark contrast to the Israel they had seen in the “misleading media”. He continued that the media vilifies a divisive Israel, but in reality there is a lot of coexistence and tolerance. They saw Jews living alongside Arab Muslims, Christians and Druze, all trying to do the best for their country. They also met Arab Muslims who had joined the Israeli army and felt proud to call themselves Israeli.
Dr. Al Sarrah was overwhelmed by his visit to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, where despite all the suffering of the Holocaust, the Jews do not believe in revenge and are much more concerned with building their country and helping their people. They have been through genocide and could have done likewise in retaliation, but they have chosen not to. He said all the delegates felt similarly about the visit and would like to come again to Israel.
Arab Israelis vs. other Israelis
According to Dr. Al Sarrah and others who visited Israel, there are some differences among Arab Israelis; some support the Abraham Accords while others do not because they have absorbed the hateful ideologies about Jews that leave no room for compromise.
Dr. Al Sarrah elaborated further that some Arab Israelis’ hatred extends beyond Israelis to Arabs in the Gulf as well, mainly Emiratis. He said they were attacked and insulted by some Arab Israelis who called them “Emirati pigs”.
It was not only Palestinian adults who attacked them, but also teenagers. When a 17-year-old boy was asked for the reason behind his insults and attack, he explained that he is considered a hero among his people for doing it and the more he insults people from the Gulf, the more he is praised by his community. Ironically, the young boy carries an Israeli passport and lives in Tel Aviv.
Dr. Al Sarrah explained that this hatred is mainly driven by the Palestinian leadership because they are concerned about losing trade and funds for the Palestinian cause. So, their main concern is that this peace treaty will curtail financial support from the Arab Gulf, but they are not honest about this and instead stir up people’s emotions.
Emirati opinion about the delegation’s visit to Israel
Dr. Al Sarrah observed that the delegation comprised an extremely varied group of Emiratis in terms of age, education and social status. The majority were very excited about their visit to Israel. These positive responses encouraged him to publish a survey on Twitter asking the Emirati public whether they had any interest in visiting Israel and it turned out that 68.1% want to visit.
Dr. Al Sarrah explained that there is a slight difference between the older and the younger generation’s attitude towards the peace treaty and the visit to Israel. The older generations were not as excited as the younger ones but they do not speak up because the majority of the Emirati people respect their leaders and trust their judgment. The younger generation’s opinions are mostly positive because they think there is no direct conflict between the UAE and Israel, so they are more open to a “warm” peace and a visit Israel.
Criticism of the Abraham Accords and the visit to Israel comes mainly from Emiratis who hold extremist views, namely the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of these are Muslim Brotherhood dissidents who have fled to Turkey. There are a few intellectuals who are also hesitant but this is mostly driven by Arab nationalism. Dr. Al Sarrah explained that Arab nationalism is now outdated and does not exist among the younger generations because their priority is their country and they believe in their leaders. He thinks that the main challenge in solving this conflict is radicalism, both Islamism and Arab nationalism.
Dr. Al Sarrah highlights the importance of conveying the right information to people, especially students. For example, all the suffering that delegates learned about in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, should be taught in schools and universities to make more students part of the peace model. He also urged researchers and experts to scrutinize a people-to-people approach in solving conflict and whether it is more effective than the “cold” peace approach in Egypt and Jordan. Dr. Al Sarrah also added, “The bottom-up approach has not been applied in the past and we’ve now seen the results, especially the degree of acceptance we experienced in Israel. All of these great outcomes have to be measured by experts”.
Dr. Al Sarrah supports the Emirati leadership’s ambition for a two-state solution as people deserve to have their own land but this cannot be achieved without building a nation and developing an economy free from hateful ideologies. He said, “If the main focus is only on politics, we are not going to get anywhere. If you focus on the economy, the whole formula will change”. He also highlighted that this will never happen under the current Palestinian leadership because they have operated in the same way for more than 70 years and do not want to change. The management of this whole issue has to be changed otherwise nothing will be solved.
A hostile media
Al Jazeera is playing a destructive role in the region and it operates a glaringly obvious double standard: In English we see headlines of Israel developing, say, a new technology and on the same day we see in Arabic that Israeli occupiers have killed innocent Palestinians. It presents itself to non-Arabic speakers as a channel promoting moderation and tolerance while it provokes anger and hatred among Arabs.
Dr. Al Sarrah reiterated that what is needed is a media that brings people together in talk shows and discussion. Also, Palestinians who believe in peace should have more exposure and they should be given the opportunity to speak. Some live in the UAE and have expressed their support for the Abraham Accords because they are weary of conflict. Dr. Al Sarrah also said the voices of the Arab Israelis who support the Abraham Accords have to be heard and they have to be more visible.
Dr. Al Sarrah also made the important point that those who run the media should themselves believe in the peace treaty. The problem with the Arab media, including the Arabian Gulf media, is that it is staffed by Arab media professionals who are motivated by Arab nationalism and Islamist ideologies, which is inconsistent with the visions of the Arab Gulf countries such as the UAE and Bahrain. Dr. Al Sarrah also added that he noticed the same challenge within the Israeli media, especially the Arabic-language media. He recognized that some Arabs who work in the Israeli channels are not genuine. They pretend that they are supporting the Abraham Accords, while they are not truly. He recalls clashing with one staff member and had to report him.
Dr. Al Sarrah also suggested a joint media venture that includes both Emiratis and Israelis to engender better dialogue and mutual understanding among people. He recognizes that this may seem a shocking idea in the beginning, but with time people will adjust and change. He also highlighted the importance of social media because it is interactive and people can express their thoughts openly.
Israeli point of views
Impressions from the Israeli delegation’s visit to the UAE
Dr. Moran Zaga explained that this visit was not her first and she had visited the UAE several times since October 2016; this was her fourth visit. On her previous visits before the Abraham Accords were signed she used her French passport, and only once she had started talking to people did she reveal her actual Israeli identity. Even before the Abraham Accords came into being, people accepted her dual citizenship.
However, things are different now. Dr. Moran Zaga said, “Before the Abraham Accords, we used to talk in code, like referring to ourselves as a ‘cousin’ to avoid the word Israeli. Also, we didn’t say Israel, we said ‘the country’”. Now people are talking about Israel more openly and are less afraid.
Dr. Moran reflected on the peace treaty in Jordan. She mentioned that in Amman, the capital city of Jordan, there is a deep Palestinian narrative that predominates. She said that even 20 years on from the peace treaty being signed she is not comfortable introducing herself as Israeli. But the attitude of the Bedouin Jordanians in the rural areas is completely different. It is similar to that of the Emirati people.
What struck Dr. Moran is that Emiratis and Israelis are extremely interested in learning about each other. The Emirati side were keen to show their high standards of hospitality and are interested in learning about the Israelis. The Israelis are interested in learning about the Emiratis to differentiate between who is sincerely interested in dialogue, and who is not. The Israelis were positively surprised by such warm hospitality because they are not used to it in the region, even in the countries that signed the previous peace treaty years ago. Israelis were surprised to meet quite so many Emiratis because usually they are not accessible due to the large numbers of expats in the country.
Looking more broadly at her experience with Emiratis, she did not see any differences among Emiratis across the different emirates of the UAE. She and the Israeli delegation visited Dubai, Ra's al-Khaimah and Sharjah, but there was no difference in their attitudes towards the Abraham Accords. The difference lay between the locals and the expats. Emiratis were much more genuinely welcoming while non-Emiratis were more interested in seeing what they could gain from interacting with Israelis. Mostly, expats welcomed Israelis from a potential business point of view, while Emiratis hosted without any expectations or ulterior motives.
However, she recognized that there are a lot of differences between the generations among Emiratis. She can see the older generations willing to accept the Abraham Accords, but with reservations. They are more hesitant and try to make Israeli visitors see the peace treaty from their own point of perspective. For example, they gave the Israeli delegation the impression that this is not a bilateral relationship between Israel and the UAE, but one that concerns the wider region. In other words, they are telling the Israeli delegation not to get their hopes up because the Accords are not only between Israel and the UAE, but depend on engagement across the Middle East. Their attitude serves to undermine this warm peace approach. Those older generations, to whom the delegation talked, are mainly from the media and academia. On the other hand, the younger generation are more innovative and more ambitious in their thinking, wanting to interact with the Israelis directly to see what they can achieve, rather than feeling disempowered by a distant regional framework.
The UAE peace agreement with Israel does not only have specific strategic or economic objectives but it is part of an Emirati model for development and modernization.
Dr. Moran mentioned that the peace treaty in Egypt began with warm peace. There were several projects but after two years they began to disappear. The main reason for this is that the hostile voices got louder. With the Abraham Accords, governments have a crucial role to play in shaping the minds of the people especially here in the UAE but also in Israel. In the past, the Israeli government was not concerned with warm peace and did not coordinate with both Jordan and Egypt to support such initiatives.
A hostile media
Now that the Abraham Accords have been signed, a friendly Israeli media outlet or at least a neutral one is needed; however, recent coverage by Israeli media has come out against the Abraham Accords and has also been derogatory towards the UAE. Dr. Moran’s insights into this matter are that these articles have nothing to do with the UAE and are driven by internal political conflicts; they are targeted at the architects of the Abraham Accords and specifically against the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. She also thinks that this hostile media is dominated by the liberal left, such as Haaretz, and the moderates reject this negative and hostile attitude against the peace treaty.
She explained that this is one of the reasons that Israeli delegates are in the UAE and involved with this cultural education. They want to be unofficial ambassadors for the UAE and that is the reason they are learning about its complexities, so that they can go back to Israel and offer a fact-based picture of the country to counter the op-ed articles about human rights by journalists who have never visited the UAE and have not checked their sources. According to Dr. Moran, this is not journalism because it is one-sided and there is a lot of ignorance.
The fact that most of these delegates are professionals means they can write their own op-ed pieces to challenge biased articles and present the UAE in another light. After COVID-19, more Israelis will be visiting the UAE and accordingly, attitudes will change. In addition, social media has a significant role to play in showing different perspectives to balance out bias in the traditional media. Social media has played a huge part in building warm peace due to its interactivity and engagement among people and across civil society.
The UAE peace agreement with Israel does not only have specific strategic or economic objectives but it is part of an Emirati model for development and modernization. The UAE has ambitious development plans and global aspirations embodied in the UAE’s Vision 2021 and the UAE’s Centennial Strategy 2071, which is keen to build relations with more developed countries. Israel cannot be excluded from this equation, especially given Israeli superiority in certain industrial and technical fields and sectors. Therefore, it is not in the UAE’s interest to keep this agreement on paper alone or to limit its approach to one of “cold peace” like the peace treaties in Egypt and Jordan.
The Emirati leadership supports a two-state solution but it is also keen to build a nation and develop an economy that is free from hateful ideologies. Accordingly, there should be a resolute rejection of all hostile media that seeks to promulgate extremist ideologies that inflame tensions and keep people apart. The media should seek to clarify the facts and bring people together, realized through a joint media venture and also through social media. It is also important that this media reaches the Palestinians, who support the Abraham Accords, to counter any accusations by hostile media that the UAE has forgotten about the Palestinians and once commitment to the Palestinian people is shown, such accusations will be neutralized.
Also, warm peace or a bottom-up approach, especially among the young generations, has to be measured by researchers and experts because it has not been applied in the past and its results in this peace treaty have been quite positive so far, so it is worth investigating further. If it turns out to be successful, the old formula might be changed to: normalization for a two-state solution instead of the other way round.
Najat Al-Saied is a Saudi-American independent academic researcher in political communication and societal development based on productivity rather than religion or race.
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