The disconnect between the past and the present in the Middle East is growing fast. Consider the anachronism called the Arab League.
In December, after an “emergency meeting” called by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby declared that “not one” Israeli soldier could remain in the territory of Palestine. An Arab League report condemning American support for “Israeli security expansionist demands” was also cited in Middle Eastern news sources but made little impression in the West.
The statement made little impression on US Secretary of State John Kerry who was “grateful that the Arab League as a whole and Saudi Arabia individually will be significantly involved in helping build support for this effort.” He also promised to update “our Arab League partners.”
The very idea that the Arab League is a ‘partner,’ and the League’s recent pronouncements, are reminders of the Arab-Israeli conflict as it once was; an era when furious expressions of “unity” over Palestine were taken seriously, and which mostly excluded the Palestinians.
The Arab League was formed in March 1945, its charter filled with boilerplate about the strengthening, safeguarding and coordinating of between member states. But the founding treaty’s annex stated while that Palestine’s “international existence and independence in the legal sense cannot, therefore, be questioned,” “outward manifestations of this independence have remained obscured for reasons beyond her control” and that “until that country can effectively exercise its independence, the Council of the League should take charge of the selection of an Arab representative from Palestine to take part in its work.” The League’s raison d’être was control of the Palestine question.
The pan-Arab takeover had actually begun earlier, with the Bludan conference of 1937 “to study the duties of the Arabs in their respective countries and to agree on effective measures to resist the dangers posed by the Zionists.” There the Peel Commission’s recommendations on partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states were rejected and a boycott of “all Jewish goods and activities” was proposed.
But Palestinians and certain Syrians were unsatisfied since, as a British report put it, “They had hoped, it appears, so far to stir up public opinion as to obtain from an excited mob a declaration of the Jihad.” Existential fear and loathing of Jews – not Zionists – in Islamic terms was pronounced even then.
After World War II the Arab League’s contradictions became more pronounced. At the Inshas conference of 1946 Arab rulers declared “Palestine is Arab and cannot be separated from the rest of the Arab states, for it is the center of the great Arab nation and its destiny rests with that of the Arab states.” But the next year in London Arab League delegates accepted the idea of a unitary Palestinian state in which Jews would be a recognized minority with representation. The Palestinians under Haj Amin al-Husseini, the “Grand Mufti” and leader of the Palestinian nationalist Arab Higher Committee, refused to even participate.
The Mufti’s aspirations to rule Arab Palestine also clashed with those of Abdullah of Transjordan, who sought to annex it to Transjordan. In 1947 the League formed the “Arab Liberation Army” that invaded Israel upon independence, while keeping Husseini and his military force in marginal roles. Abdullah’s Arab Legion operated independently, while he met secretly with Zionist representations. Upon defeat the League authorized a provisional government for Gaza, which was barely symbolic before being dissolved by Egypt.
The League’s most notable achievement was the boycott against Israel. This prohibited direct economic relations, as well as with countries and firms that did business with Israel. Though the boycott limited investment and economic relations, it hardly achieved its goals of bringing about “the eventual collapse of the State of Israel.” The boycott may have hurt Arab countries more than Israel, scaring off investors from the Middle East and damaging regional economies. The 1966 decision to kick Ford Motors out of Arab countries following a trade agreement with Israel cost 6000 jobs in Lebanon alone.
On the issue of Palestine the League has always taken extreme stances. It suspended Egypt in 1979 after the Camp David Accords and rejected the Gulf Cooperation Council’s decision to lessen trade restrictions on Israel in 1994. Even the League’s endorsement of the much-vaunted Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 was predicated on reading UN Resolution 194 to mean the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.
Only in fostering creation of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in 1964 did the Arab League inadvertently advanced the Palestinian cause, albeit through an irredentist entity dedicated to violent “resistance” that preyed on Arab states almost as much as Israel. The PLO and its culture have reliably enforced extremism ever since.
The Arab League’s other activities have been incoherent and hopelessly divided. It did not defuse the 1958 Lebanon crisis, although it played a larger role in the Yemen civil war from 1962 to 1970, in effect a proxy war between member states Egypt and Saudi Arabia. It supported Iraq against Iran but was split over the first Gulf War, and its solution to the Lebanese Civil War was to license the Syrian takeover and almost three decades of occupation. The list of failure goes on until today’s Syrian crisis.
The Arab League’s usurpation of Palestine served higher purposes, Arab national integration around the twinned themes of protecting Palestine and hating the Jews. Palestine was a fetish but this was never the same as advancing the Palestinian national project. As with all fetishes it became a trap. Shared outrage helped generate a common sense of ‘Arabness’ as well as distinctive Syrian, Iraqi and other national identities but contributed little positive except to continually focus attention outward from corrupt, repressive regimes. But once ignited, the flame could not be ignored lest outrage be redirected inward towards regimes whose obsession wavered.
The Arab League’s routine continues but the Palestinian fetish has been taken over by UN and EU apparatchiks and US diplomats. With more than a little antisemitism (on the UN and European sides), they have institutionalized Palestinianism and the “peace process” in ways the Arab League, forever banging the tables at “emergency meetings” or even at the UN, could only have dreamed. Perhaps the Arab League succeeded after all.
But ceding control of their national fate is now also part of Palestinian culture. Sometimes Palestinians genuinely think they are the paramount pan-Arab or pan-Islamic cause. Other times it just gives Palestinians cover for being indecisive, divided, or merely to go about business as usual.
This is immensely profitable for Palestinian elites who make money from legal and illegal business deals, who skim or divert Western aid, less so for the enormous Palestinian public and NGO sectors. The status quo and “occupation” rhetoric keep money flowing and postpones hard-decisions about self-governance and self-responsibility. The Arab League gives the Palestinians rejectionism plausible deniability, and helps put peace impossibly, but profitably, out of reach.
But state failure, the ‘Arab Spring,’ and now the Shia-Sunni civil war, have disrupted the cycle, at least for now. And in a supreme irony, the Jews are temporarily more useful as Sunni allies than cosmic enemies, while the Palestinians are neither especially relevant nor interesting.
The sooner everyone, including the US and especially the Palestinians themselves, admit that the Arab League is an impediment the sooner a negotiated peace with Israel may actually arrive.
China-US and the Iran nuclear deal
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.
A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.
During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.
The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said:
‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’
The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.
During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.
The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC, Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.
In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.
Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.
The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.
Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?
“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!
The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force!
Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.
The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.
Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.
The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.
The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.
The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.
Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility
Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.
Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.
This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.
The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.
IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”
And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.
In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.
IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).
The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.
The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.
Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.
Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).
And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).
There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.
But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions.
Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.
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