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Arab Liberals on Arab Political Life (A)

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[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap] he Egyptian liberal intellectual, ‘Amr Isma’il accuses that the main issue is Arab culture that externalizes the guilt, irresponsibility, and inability to change the culture (www.elaph.com, October 31, 2004 – MEMRI, November 19, 2004, No. 816): “Why can’t the Arabs see things as the rest of the world? Why do we always feel that someone is conspiring against us, and that he is the cause of our problems, our cultural and economic backwardness? Why are we not able to criticize ourselves? Why do we talk by means of bullets, car bombs, and violence of suicide bombing?

Why do we kill and slit throats in the name of Allah and at the same time protest angrily when others depict Muslims as terrorists? Why are we the only nation that still uses religion, Islam, and the name of Allah in everything: politics, economics, and science? We kill in the name of Allah, we blow up people in the name of Allah, and we slit throats in the name of Islam. Why we do not ask ourselves why no other religious group perpetrates these acts of atrocity? Why we do not ask ourselves what are the roots to our extremist thinking and who should be blame for? Why we always blame others of intervening in our internal affairs, and we do not look at our deeds?

Nonie Darwish, an Egyptian American intellectual, declares: ‘Arab’ means never having to say you are sorry (http://www.think-israel.com): “To expect Arab and Muslim leadership to apologize is a reflection of the West Naïve and wrong expectations of Arab culture. In the Arab world, to take responsibility and say sorry is taken as unmanly sign of weakness that means more trouble. Those who admit guilt are given no mercy and end up taking all the blame and being brutally punished. It is a norm for Arabs to deny a fact and blame others, rather than admit to the wrongdoing and apologize.

In our politically correct liberal culture, the media and academia would urge to a collective self-psychoanalysis, to uncover the root causes of how we could have caused such evil behavior. This is not the case of the Arab world. How can anyone expect them to apologize for deep-rooted cultural and religious mission to defeat or kill infidels? Most Arabs still blame Israel for 9/11.

How can we expect these countries to sincerely cooperate with the international community to end terror and its barbaric brutality? Americans should stop judging other countries with the American value system, and especially stop expecting Arab-Islamic culture to respond rationally according to Western standards. Arab media never miss an opportunity to give the masses their daily dose of fear of America. What we see out of the Arab world is anger, hatred, revenge and a culture out of control.

The Tunisian intellectual and thinker, al-‘Afif al-Akhdar, analyzes and criticizes Arab cultural values and characters (www.elaph.com: MEMRI, May 4, 2003. Nos. 439, 499): All the peoples of the world are moving forward along the course of history towards globalization, a society of knowledge, and political modernization – all but the Arabs, who race in the opposite direction. The Eastern European countries have moved peacefully with speed from murderous Stalinist totalitarianism to democracy, from economic backwardness to continuing economic growth.

The Muslims are moving with rapid steps from backwardness into sub-backwardness, and from poverty into sub-poverty. The peoples of mankind are governed by the law of progress, while the Muslims are governed by the law of regression.

The insane obsession with vengeance has robbed the Muslims minds of the ability to think reasonably. That is why they are incapable of identifying their real problems and defining their political, educational and social priorities. In contrast to almost all other societies, Arab-Muslim societies are completely closed and irrational.

Their obscurantist religious culture is a terrible obstacle hindering their transition to a society less closed, less oppressive and less hostile towards the individual, to the woman, to the non-Muslim, towards the rational and the modern. This deep-rooted culture of tribal vengeance in Arab collective consciousness is a fundamental driving force, which has transmuted this consciousness into a fixated, vengeful mentality, instead of transforming it into far-sighted thought and self-criticism.

The culture of tribal vengeance haunts not only in our relations with the outside, but also our relations with each other, between Arab countries and within each country, from honor crimes to tribal and factional strife and state wars. The hysteria of vengeance on the West and on Israel has disastrous results. The policy of vengeance that prevails especially among the influential elites has banished any rational policy from the domestic decision making, just as people afflicted with depression.

al-‘Afif al-Akhdar discusses Arab identity crisis and its education (www.elaph.com., June 15, 2003- MEMRI Special Dispatch Nos. 499 and 518): Why is it that our countries are among the wealthiest in natural resources and poorest in human resources? Why does the world’s human knowledge double every three years while with us, what multiplies several times over is illiteracy, ideological fear and mental paralysis? Why expressions of tolerance, moderation, rationalism, and appeasement horrify us, and in cries for vengeance, we all dance the war dance? Why do other people love life, while we love death and violence, slaughter and suicide, and even call it heroism and martyrdom?

Distorted thoughts lead the Muslim to think that he belongs to ‘the best nation created for human beings’ that Allah designated it to guide and lead humanity. This is the reason why the Muslims find it impossible to imitate others and learn from them. Ethnocentrism leads them to believe that since the language of the Arabs is the mother of all languages, anyone not completely fluent in it considered an animal and a barbarian, and that since its culture is the most divine, and its religion is the only true religion, then the other cultures are unworthy and other religions are mere vanity, and both deserve to disappear or to be subjugated.

Muslims still believe that Islam is the supreme religion, and the Arab nation is the most important of all nations. However, the Arabs’ repeated defeats tell them that they are the last in line among the nations. This contrast-ridden discourse is the source of the Arabs psychological and social ills, and of their grave identity crisis.

The religious media and education to this situation provide an easy answer: Since we have given up our religion, Allah has given us up. Therefore, let us set out on a campaign of return to Allah and to the Golden Age, riding on a belt of explosives. Religious education systematically produces generations of people stricken by the madness of pure religious identity, such as the racial purity madness of the Nazis. For Nazism, this meant that the ‘master’ Aryan race had to destroy the ‘inferior’ races. In Islam, it means that the only ‘true’ religion must triumph over the other religions that are ‘false,’ and their fate is Hell. This belief of Islamic identity led them to megalomania, fanaticism, self-segregation, and terrorism.

The obligation to fight the infidels has created a psychological barrier between Muslim Arabs and modern culture, and has led them to an internalization of the view that modern institutions, sciences, universal values, and technology created by the infidels are heresy too.

Why did Germany and Japan not retaliate for their wounds after World War II with responses similar to ours? The answer is, because religious narcissism was not internalized in their modern cultures and adopting secularism prevented them hallucinatory responses. They imitate the West, assimilating into it, while we fought with it, struggled against it, and became locked in on our own values. The amok-struck Islam, the Islam of ‘conflict with the infidels’ and military vengeance against them, has lost its ability to unfurl the real problems openly and search for realistic solutions. This ‘conflict with the infidels’ is the hard core of Islamic fanaticism and the main reason for the conduct of terrorism.

Arab-Muslims must give up the requirement to confront the infidels, not to use jihad until the Day of Judgment; to abandon the loyalty to the Qur’anic ‘Verses of the Sword;’ to change the attitude towards the rational, the women, and the non-Muslims; to give-up the dreams of liberating Palestine to the last grain of earth, and regaining Andalusia. Yet, the most important is the total change in educational teachings of the youth in which the Arab world remains locked.

The author and journalist, Dr. Shaker al-Nabulsi (www.rezgar.com, August 14, 2004: MEMRI, September 20, 2004. No. 786) condemned the growing support for terrorism and extremism in the Arab world, and the rejection of moderation and reason.

If the Arabs had today a well-burnished mirror in which they can see themselves, they would be stricken by fear and panic at the sight of themselves. The image is that we have become the most terrorist nation and the greatest spillers of blood in the world. The image is that we have become a nation devoid of reason.

What happened to the Arabs in Egypt, Algeria, Saudi-Arabia, Iraq, Palestine, Morocco, Yemen, and in other countries? Why have the Arabs gone crazy in such a manner? Is it a result of pervasive corruption prevalent in governmental institutions? Did this occur because of the dark religious educational system which incites to war against modernity, democracy, and permits the spilling of the blood of its supporters?

Did this occur as a result of the fact that the intellectuals have distorted the truth? Is it a result of the frightening spread of illiteracy and cultural ignorance in the Arab world that the vast majority does not read, does not know, and does not think? Is it a result of the proliferation of political totems in Arab life such as Abd al-Nasser or Saddam Hussein, or in counterfeit religious totems such as Bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, and many others?

Did this occur as a result of the fact that terrorist groups have huge incomes from charity organizations streaming in daily from good Muslims from the world? Did this occur as a result of the huge sums that the terrorists obtain by hashish and opium trade? The Islamists who hijacked Islam are now leading the flocks of Arabs towards the annihilation of human history.

Indeed, the Arabs have turned into slaves of blood-drenched religious totems. The Arabs think in a medieval fashion regarding politics, society, economy, and education. They are still living in the Middle-Ages, and they are slaves to a medieval mentality and to thinkers from the Middle-Ages. The Arabs have distanced themselves from reason, and speak to the world with the sword, the axe, the knife, and armies of masked bandits.

Journalist and former Kuwaiti communications minister Dr. Sa’d bin Tefla (Jordanian TV, June 8, 2004: MEMRI, August 24, 2004. No. 770), rejects the notion of blaming Zionism and imperialism of the Arab harsh and fanatic situation:

Zionism and imperialism have nothing to do with our culture of violence and religious extremism. Slaughter, anarchy, and bloodshed in no way resemble Jihad according to the Shari’ah. The anarchy and terrorism are indications of a culture of collective suicide. This culture of violence emanates from the spread of the extremist religious trend.

We are all responsible for this culture, and that Zionism and Imperialism have nothing to do with it. It is no less wrong to say that violence is the result of occupation, since it has cultural roots. Unfortunately, this culture of violence has existed before the Americans came to Iraq and the Gulf; before the Israeli occupation of Palestine; and before the American occupation of Afghanistan.

The number killed in Algeria surpasses the number of Palestinians killed by Israel. Before Iraq was occupied, there was violence that killed over one million Iraqis, Iranians, Kurds, and Kuwaitis. This was not done by the Zionists or America, but by Arabs and Muslims.

The reformist Arab diplomat who writes under the pseudonym Abu Ahmad Mustafa (al-Sharq Al-Awsat, September 13, 2003) quotes Saudi philosopher Abdallah al-Qassimi, who said many times that ‘the greatest distance between two points in the world is the distance between an Arab’s words and his deeds.’

We have become accustomed to not asking questions and not searching for the truth. We must examine our history, our books, and our stories with an open mind without hatred and blaming of the other. ‘Islam is the solution’, is not true. Islam is not the answer. It is hidden in sick minds brainwashed with hatred for the brethren living nearby and peoples living miles away.

How can an intelligent person state or assert that we are a nation that preaches love among people, when in our own home we carry out ugly deeds and are silent about the disgrace? What is to blame is the culture of submission comes from the clerics of past and the idols of today.

Our struggles are connected to the past, not to health, not to education, not to human rights, not to general freedoms and political reform. We live in a situation in which most of our thinking is directed towards what happens after death, to the next world and not today.

Arab Liberal Columnist, Zuheir Abdallah (al-Hayat, MEMRI, August 12, 2003. No. 551) blames Arab fascism tyranny and Islamism for failing to achieve any accomplishments for the Arab world.

The Arab world were taken over by despotic tyrannical regimes. The economic and scientific growth regressed and reached the bottom level, in comparison to the rest of the countries in the world. Arab fascism and fundamentalist Islam have nothing to offer the people, except empty slogans revolving around themes of resistance and struggle.

Let us ask ourselves what did we offer for ourselves and the rest of the world since the beginning of the industrial revolution to this day, from human sciences and inventions or any other added value to civilization? Unfortunately, the answer is: almost nothing. The Arab world is in deep backwardness.

After the Chechnya terrorists attack in Beslan, Nonie Darwish has published an article (http://www.noniedarwish.com) that she is not surprised of the Arab Islamic behavior.

Unfortunately, the world media is not doing its job in telling the Arab World about it. CNN feels that being “objective” is never to blame Arab culture, and it ends up supportive of Arab views in its delivery of news in the Middle East and around the world.

The horrible news from Chechnya, the Philippines, India, the Sudan or Pakistan, were always covered up and twisted to portray Muslim terrorists as innocent victims of terrible discrimination. These murderers were always portrayed as “freedom fighters” who needed to rise against the majority Christian or non-Muslim population. My culture of origin turns into robotic monsters with a wish to destroy life on earth in order to go to heaven. This is the basic of Arab-Islamic culture and religion.

Where are Muslim demonstrations against terror? All I’ve ever noticed following 9/11 were celebrations throughout the Arab world. I decided to make a stand against the Islamic culture of terror. It is time for the world media and the UN to take a serious stand against Islamic, yes, Islamic, terror. Oil rich Arab countries finance terrorism or teach that terrorists are heroes going to heaven. No “ifs,” “ands” or “buts” and no diluted language by the international media.

The out-of-control culture in the Middle East needs a wake-up call and a dose of reality. What is needed immediately is a united world stand against the Arabs’ stagnant and barbaric view of the world. We should demand from our media to report the truth and not stand as an obstacle in facing and fighting danger. The world cannot stand by, confused and equivocal about 9/11 and Islamic terrorism any more. Please, America and the good people of the world, save my Arab culture of origin from itself.

Nonie Darwish has ongoing criticized Arab-Islamic culture (http://www.noniedarwish.com):

Once beautiful culture has now decayed, very sick, and unable to accommodate other religions or cultures. This sickness is now contaminating the West through the terror of jihad. People who criticize the current culture of Islam are not the threat to Islam; rather, the silence and justification of 9/11 by Muslims is Islam’s true enemy. The Arab-Islamic world has lost its moral equilibrium, added to their paranoia and obsession with Israel.

Islam is cracking out from its core. This is a culture in convulsions, using anything and everything as weapons against the rest of the World. Instead of using reason to reform their religion and join the rest of the civilized world in a peaceful co-existence, they choose violence through their ancient doctrine of jihad. The end result is masses submitting to the terror of dictatorships in an oppressive social structure.

There is no tolerance in Islamic society to differing views, and freedoms are rare assets. In Islamic culture, one is accountable to everybody for one’s behavior. This is a collective culture. Paradoxically, submission is that it creates people who are extremely sensitive to criticism and with chauvinistic impulses. You thus see a loyal, submissive polite Muslim turn violently angry over the slightest differences of opinion. People explode in illogical overreaction to trivial disagreements.

The mothers of suicide bombers are speaking and living a life that is against the normal impulses of Motherhood. The religious and political indoctrination through tyranny pushed them against themselves and their child into insanity. Hate is a motivation for jihad and also helps unite the Muslims, in compliance. The use of fear and hatred is a very primitive but very effective tool. This manipulation of human beings has reached an art form in Muslim culture. The enemy of Islam becomes a very necessary part of the religion, since it contributes to the unity of Muslims and ensures compliance. This unity has to be fed, cultivated and nourished constantly at all levels of education and the media through hatred to the other.

The infidels are extremely useful in Arab-Islamic culture. There is less cohesion between Muslims as a result of love, compassion, constructive activities for the common good and working together for improving society and economy. Image and reputation is of utmost importance between Muslims and especially in front of foreigners. Their first instinct is always to lie, even in situations that do not require lying, to show only the good side and shame those who don’t go with the lie for the sake of saving face.

Oil money from Saudi Arabia got more and more influential in reviving the more extreme form of Islam among more moderate and poorer Muslim countries. That same Wahhabi sect was responsible for 9/11. It was a call of warning from Saudi extremists to Western civilization. They announced to us loud and clear ‘we are coming to Islamize you the same way we did to moderate Arab countries.’ All the Saudis want is to spread Islam and to be the Mecca of the World.

Arab columnists have published articles critical of the view that the main motivation to terrorism is poverty or despair. The main reasons and most important factors in motivating terrorism are cultural and religious. The incitement by religious and political leaders encourages conducting terror operations. Muhammad Mahfouz, a Saudi columnist claims (Saudi Gazette, December 30, 2004: MEMRI, January 26, 2005, No. 853):

The only way to end violence and terrorism is to fight a cultural and ideological battle. Terrorism is one of the most dangerous problems encountered in recent times, for it undermines the stability and security of all human societies. An external and superficial probing of the problem will not be effective until we delve deeply into its Islamic cultural and ideological roots. The relationship between the phenomenon of terrorism in Islamic society and culture is like the relationship between the cause and consequence. This may explain the reason why youths belonging to rich families and others from well position in society are implicated in terrorist crimes.

This means that financial and economic factors cannot be associated with this fanatic ideology and terrorism. It is cultural and religious factors that motivate to murder innocent people and not poverty. The only way to put an end to the wave of violence and terrorism is to fight ideological cultural battle against terrorism carried out by a group of brain-washed youth, influenced by glamorous slogans. Without fighting this fateful battle, we will never succeed in eliminating the menace on civilization. Any delay in fighting this ideological cultural battle will drag us to the abyss of instability. We need more than ever to dismantle the cultural and ideological incubators which feed this phenomenon and mold it socially and culturally.

The elimination of terrorism and violence are associated with uprooting the culture of violence which promotes killing, justifies terrorism, and provides it a legitimate cover. The security battle will not help much in putting an end to this phenomenon. On the contrary, it may give it a justification to continue. We need transparency and courage to put an end to this poisonous menace, and any laxity in this matter will cost more lives and destruction. Thus, the coming battle is the battle of culture, to fight and defeat terrorism in all its stages.

For ‘Abdallah Rashid (al-ittihad, January 10, 2005: MEMRI, January 26, 2005, No. 853) it is clear:

The greatest mistake of social and political commentators is their attributing the cause for the spreading of terrorism in the Arab and Islamic world to the lack of social justice, the situation of poverty, and the harsh social conditions in most of the Arab and Islamic countries. The socio-economic situation of most of the terrorists who participate in the criminal operations around the world is very good. They are from well-off families, with high education and good jobs, and many of them are even married with children.

Most of the volunteers who went to Iraq to join al-Qaeda terrorist groups are from Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf States [61%!]. They come from families that are not poor and from a social environment that does not suffer from economic problems and wretchedness. The simple reason is the terrifying brainwashing suffered by most of the Arab youth at the hands of ‘religious clerics,’ the media, and particularly at the hands of the extremists with backward views. They nourish the Muslim youth with various kinds of racist views, destructive extremist principles, and nurse them with hostility, hatred, and resentment towards others.

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Saudi religious soft power diplomacy eyes Washington and Jerusalem first and foremost

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Geopolitics is written all over Saudi religious soft power efforts. Nowhere more so than when it comes to Israel and Jews because of the growing importance of security cooperation with the Jewish state and the influence of the Israeli lobby in the United States, the kingdom’s most important yet problematic security partner.

In the latest move, Saudi Arabia ensured that it would be the first stop on the first overseas trip by Deborah Lipstadt as US special envoy to combat anti-Semitism.

“Lipstadt intends to build on the profoundly important Abraham Accords to advance religious tolerance, improve relations in the region, and counter misunderstanding and distrust,” the State Department said in a statement. The department was referring to the accords by which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan established diplomatic relations with Israel in the waning days of US President Donald J. Trump’s administration.

Ms. Lipstadt said that Saudi religious soft power diplomacy had created an atmosphere in which she could discuss with government officials and civil society leaders, who in the kingdom inevitably are likely to be linked to the government, “normalising the vision of the Jews and understanding of Jewish history for their population, particularly their younger population.”

Saudi Arabia has had a particularly troubled attitude towards Jews even though an older generation of Saudis in regions close to Yemen recall a Jewish presence in the first half of the 20th century.

Moreover, in the days when Israelis were barred from travelling to most Arab countries, Saudi Arabia also tailored its visa requirements to bar Jews.

European foreign ministers planning at the time to pay official visits to the kingdom would at times confront demands that Jewish journalists be dropped from the group accompanying the official.

Some American Jews who had filled out Jewish as their religion on Saudi immigration forms would have them returned with the word Jewish replaced by the term Christian.

That began to change long before the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Mr. Bin Salman has accelerated the policy change. Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia announced that Israeli business people would be granted entry into the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has also allowed Jacob Yisrael Herzog, a US-born rabbi resident in Israel, to visit the kingdom several times to attempt to build Jewish life publicly. Some Jewish critics have charged that his bombastic approach could backfire.

Moreover, in a slow two-decade-long, tedious process, Saudi Arabia has made significant progress in scrubbing its school textbooks of anti-Semitic and other discriminatory and supremacist content.

To project Saudi Arabia as a moderate forward-looking nation and improve the kingdom’s tarnished image, particularly in the United States, Mr. Bin Salman has met with American Jewish leaders. Many of those leaders are willing to give Saudi Arabia a pass on its abuse of human rights and still weak track record on religious tolerance to advance the cause of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The crown prince has also turned the Muslim World League, once a prime vehicle for the Saudi government funding of Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism globally, into a public relations tool for propagating Saudi religious tolerance.

The league’s head, Mohammed al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders on a ground-breaking visit in January 2020 to Auschwitz, one of Nazi Germany’s foremost extermination camps for Jews.

Earlier this month, he organized a Forum on Common Values among Religious Followers in Riyadh. Participants included 47 Muslim scholars, 24 Christian leaders, 12 rabbis, and 7 Hindu and Buddhist figures.

The timing of Ms. Lipstadt’s visit is significant. It comes weeks before an expected pilgrimage to Riyadh by President Joe Biden to tackle strains in the strategic relationship between the two countries.

Tensions have emerged over the degree and reliability of the US commitment to Gulf security, Saudi oil production policy in the wake of US and European sanctions against Russia for invading Ukraine, Saudi technological cooperation with China, and Mr. Biden’s belief that Mr. Bin Salman was responsible for the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Moreover, the visits of Mr. Biden and Ms. Lipstadt come as hopes are fading that talks in Vienna between world powers and Iran will succeed in reviving the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme. A failure is likely to increase regional tension.

The spectre of a failure has driven increased regional cooperation between Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Israel.

At the sharp end of confronting Iran, Israel unveiled its newly adopted Octopus Doctrine this month. The doctrine expands Israel’s aiming at Iran’s nuclear, missile and drone programmes by increasingly attacking targets in Iran rather than primarily on battlefields like Syria.

Barbara Leaf, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, put Ms. Lipstadt’s visit in perspective when she told Congress last week that Mr. Biden hoped to achieve agreement on a roadmap for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel during his visit to the Middle East this month. US officials admit that it will be a lengthy process rather than a head-on lovey-dovey affair, as was the case between Israel and the UAE.

Saudi Arabia has signaled for some time that it would like to formalize its expanding informal relations with Israel but needs a cover to do so. The kingdom has emphasized this in recent weeks as it sought Israeli acquiescence in the transfer by Egypt to Saudi Arabia of sovereignty over two islands at the top of the Red Sea and prepared for a possible visit by US President Joe Biden.

Saudis want to meet us, talk, and rub shoulders with us. They want to learn. I kept getting inquiries. There is incredible potential for cooperation between the Saudi people and Saudi companies and Israel,” said Israeli businessman Eyal Waldheim who visited the kingdom in May travelling on a non-Israeli passport.

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China and the Middle East: Heading into Choppy Waters

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China could be entering choppy Middle Eastern waters. Multiple crises and conflicts will likely shape its relations with the region’s major powers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey.

The laundry list of pitfalls for China includes the fallout of the Ukraine war, strained US relations with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Turkish opposition to Finnish and Swedish NATO membership, the threat of a renewed Turkish anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria, and the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program.

Drowning out the noise, one thing that becomes evident is that neither the Gulf states nor Turkey have any intention of fundamentally altering their security relationships with the United States, even if the dynamics in the cases of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey are very different.

Saudi Arabia recognizes that there is no alternative to the US security umbrella, whatever doubts the kingdom may have about the United States’ commitment to its security. With next month’s visit to Saudi Arabia by President Joe Biden, the question is not how US-Saudi differences will be papered over but at what price and who will pay the bill.

Meanwhile, China has made clear that it is not willing and not yet able to replace the United States. It has also made clear that for China to engage in regional security, Middle Eastern states would first have to get a grip on their disputes so that conflicts don’t spin out of control. Moves to lower the tensions between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt by focusing on economics are a step in that direction. Still, they remain fragile, with no issue that sparked the differences being resolved.

A potential failure of negotiations in Vienna to revive the Iran nuclear deal could upset the apple cart. It would likely push Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to tighten their security cooperation but could threaten rapprochement with Turkey. It could also heighten tensions in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq, where Iran supports a variety of political actors and militias. None of this is good news for China, which like other major players in the Middle East, prefers to remain focused on economics.

The dynamics with Turkey and Iran are of a different order. China may gleefully watch Turkish obstruction in NATO, but as much as Turkey seeks to forge an independent path, it does not want to break its umbilical cord with the West anchored in its membership in NATO.

NATO needs Turkey even if its center of gravity, for now, has moved to Eastern Europe. By the same token, Turkey needs NATO, even if it is in a better position to defend itself than the Gulf states are. Ultimately, horse-trading will resolve NATO’s most immediate problems because of Turkish objections to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership.

Turkey’s threatened anti-Kurdish incursion into northern Syria would constitute an escalation that no party, including China, wants. Not because it underwrites Turkish opposition to Swedish and Finnish NATO membership but because with Syrian Kurds seeking support from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish and Iranian-backed forces could find themselves on opposite sides.

Finally, Iran. Despite the hot air over Iran’s 25-year US$400 million deal with China, relations between Tehran and Beijing are unlikely to fully blossom as long as Iran is subject to US sanctions. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement guarantees that sanctions will remain. China has made clear that it is willing to push the envelope in violating or circumventing sanctions but not to the degree that would make Iran one more major friction point in the already fraught US-China relationship.

In a world in which bifurcation has been accelerated by the Ukraine war and the Middle East threatened by potentially heightened tensions in the absence of a nuclear agreement, Gulf states may find that increasingly the principle of ‘you are with us or against us’ becomes the norm. The Gulf states hedged their bets in the initial months of the Ukraine war, but their ability to do so may be coming to an end.

Already Saudi Arabia and the UAE are starting to concede on the issue of oil production, while Qatar is engaging with Europe on gas. Bifurcation would not rupture relations with China but would likely restrain technological cooperation and contain Gulf hedging strategies, including notions of granting China military facilities.

Over and beyond the immediate geopolitical and security issues, there are multiple other potentially problematic issues and powder kegs.

A prominent Saudi-owned newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, recently took issue with an increasingly aggressive tone in Chinese diplomacy. “China isn’t doing itself any favours … Chinese officials seem determined to undermine their own case for global leadership … Somehow Chinese officials don’t seem to recognize that their belligerence is just as off-putting…as Western paternalism is,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

China’s balancing act, particularly between Saud Arabia and Iran, could become more fraught. A failure to revive the nuclear agreement will complicate already difficult Saudi Iranian talks aimed at dialling down tensions. It could also fuel a nuclear, missiles, and drone arms race accelerated by a more aggressive US-backed Israeli strategy in confronting Iran by striking at targets in the Islamic republic rather than with US backing in, for example, Syria.

While Chinese willingness to sell arms may get a boost, China could find that both Saudi Arabia and Iran become more demanding in their expectations from Beijing, particularly if tensions escalate.

A joker in the pack is China’s repression of Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang. A majority of the Muslim world has looked the other way, with a few, like Saudi Arabia, openly endorsing the crackdown.

The interest in doing so goes beyond Muslim-majority states not wanting to risk their relations with a China that responds harshly and aggressively to public criticism. Moreover, the crackdown in Xinjiang and Muslim acquiescence legitimises a shared opposition to any political expression of Islam.

The problem for Muslim-majority states, particularly those in the Middle East, is that the era in which the United States and others could get away with the application of double standards and apparent hypocrisy in adhering to values may be drawing to a close.

China and, for that matter, Russia is happy to benefit from the global South’s reluctance to join condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine and sanctions against Russia because the West refuses to apply the principle universally, for example, in the case of Israel or multiple infractions of international and human rights law elsewhere.

However, China and Middle Eastern states sit in similar glasshouses. Irrespective of how one judges recent controversial statements made by spokespeople of India’s ruling BJP party regarding the Prophet Mohammed and Muslim worship, criticism by Muslim states rings hollow as long as they do not also stand up to the repression of Muslims in Xinjiang.

For some in the Middle East, a reckoning could come sooner and later.

Turkey is one state where the issue of the Uighurs in China is not simply a far-from-my-bed show. Uighurs play into domestic politics in a country home to the largest Uighur exile community that has long supported the rights of its Turkic brethren in China and still boasts strong strands of pan-Turkism.

These are all elements that could come to the fore when Turkey goes to the polls next year as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of the Turkish republic.

The question is not whether China will encounter choppy waters in the Middle East but when and where.

Author’s note: This article is based on the author’s remarks at the 4th Roundtable on China in West Asia – Stepping into a Vacuum? organised by the Ananta Aspen Center on 14 June 2022 and was first published by the Middle East Institute in Washington DC.

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Recognising Israel: Any Asian volunteers?

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The question for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is not whether either country will recognise Israel but when and who will go first.

For the past two years, Saudi Arabia was believed to want a Muslim state in Asia, home to the world’s three most populous Muslim majority countries, to recognise Israel first. Asian recognition would give the kingdom, home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, a welcome fig leaf.

Numbers, as expressed by population size, were one reason. Compared to Saudi Arabia’s 35 million people, Pakistan has a population of 221 million, Indonesia 274 million, and Bangladesh 165 million.

That was one reason Saudi Arabia preferred an Asian state to take the lead in following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, who recognised Israel in the least two years.

Likely more important was the expectation that potential mass protest against a move toward Israel was more likely to erupt in Asia, where the margin for expressing dissent is greater than in much of the Middle East. Such protests, it was thought, would distract attention from the Custodian of the Holy Cities taking similar steps.

Saudi Arabia has signaled for some time that it would like to formalize its expanding informal relations with Israel but needs a cover to do so. The kingdom has emphasized this in recent weeks as it sought Israeli acquiescence in the transfer by Egypt to Saudi Arabia of sovereignty over two islands at the top of the Red Sea and prepared for a possible visit by US President Joe Biden.

The visit is designed to improve relations strained since Mr. Biden came to office over Saudi doubts about US security commitments, US demands that the kingdom increase oil production in a bid to reduce prices and limit Russian energy exports, Saudi acquisition of Chinese missiles, and the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In advance of a visit, Saudi Arabia has not rejected a US proposal for a regional Middle Eastern air defence system that would include the kingdom and Israel.

Mujtahid, an anonymous tweeter who has repeatedly provided insights into the secretive workings of the House of Saud in recent years, reported that Saudi Arabia and Israel had created a “situation room” on the 14th floor of an Istanbul office building to advance the establishment of diplomatic relations. He said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s close aide, Saud al-Qahtani, headed the Saudi side.

Despite rampant speculation, Mr. Bin Salman is unlikely to see Mr. Biden’s visit as a capstone for recognition of Israel. More likely, he will continue to insist on a fig leaf in the form of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or a major Asian Muslim-majority state going next.

Much of the attention focused in the almost two years since the UAE-led quartet forged relations with Israel focused on Indonesia. Not only because Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority state and its foremost Muslim democracy but also because it is home to the world’s most moderate mass Muslim civil society movement, Nahdlatul Ulama.

Heads of Nahdlatul Ulama have visited Israel and met Israeli leaders multiple times in the past two decades, even though Indonesia and Israel have no diplomatic relations. The movement also has close ties to various American Jewish groups.

Similarly, the absence of formal relations between Israel and Indonesia has not prevented Israeli diplomats, scholars, and journalists from maintaining contact with Indonesian counterparts and travelling to the archipelago nation or Indonesian pilgrims from touring the Jewish state. Nevertheless, Indonesia has rebuffed both the Trump and the Biden administration’s requests to move towards recognition.

Indonesia’s refusal may not come as a surprise. However, suggestions that Pakistan, despite its close ties to Saudi Arabia, may strike a deal with Israel come out of left field. Religious ultra-conservatism is woven into the fabric of society and at least some state institutions. Moreover, anti-Semitism is rampant in Pakistan.

Nonetheless, a recent visit to Israel by a delegation of Pakistani activists seeking to promote people-to-people contacts has sparked anger and debate in Pakistan. The group, which met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, included American and British Pakistanis, prominent Pakistani journalist Ahmed Qureshi, and Fischel BenKhald, a Pakistani Jew.

Without at least an overt nudge from powerful quarters, no Pakistani journalist could make this public trip to Israel and return safely, reflecting how attitudes pertaining to Israel have evolved in the world’s only Muslim nuclear power,” said London-based Pakistani journalist Hamza Azhar Salam.

That did not stop Pakistani state television from firing Mr. Qureishi.

“The good news is, we today have the first, robust and rich nationwide debate in Pakistan on establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. This is hug,” Mr. Qureishi said.

Many Pakistanis, led by ousted prime minister Imran Khan, saw the visit to Israel as part of an effort by Pakistan’s powerful military to forge closer ties to the Jewish state – a move Mr. Khan appears to have considered when he was in office.

His aide, Zulfi Bukhari, reportedly visited Israel for a meeting with then head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen. Mr. Bukhari has denied travelling to Israel.

The visit by the Pakistani activists came two years after two Pakistani academics called in an op-ed in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper for Pakistani-Israeli cooperation in resolving the South Asian state’s water stress and upgrading its agriculture sector.

Similarly, Pakistani political analyst Saad Hafiz recently argued that Pakistan’s recognition of Israel would earn it the support of the Biden administration and the Israeli lobby in Washington for continued International Monetary Fund (IMF) aid for his country’s battered economy. Mr. Hafiz also reiterated that Pakistan could benefit from Israeli water conservation technology.

“The US leadership, Congress, and the powerful pro-Israel lobby could support the resumption of financial assistance to Pakistan as an incentive if it agrees to normalize ties with Israel, “ Mr. Saad said.

Pakistanis and Israeli have links in other ways. For example, many Pakistanis offer their services on Fiverr, an Israeli marketplace for freelance professionals.

Degrees of Saudi cooperation with Israel and Pakistani feelers contrasted starkly with legislation passed in the last two weeks by the Iraqi parliament criminalizing contact with Israel and by the Houthi government in Yemen that outlawed contact not only with Israel but also with Jews.

Pakistan is unlikely to follow Iraq or the Houthis. Even so, “it is unlikely that Pakistan’s fragile coalition government has the credibility and time to take the politically risky decision to open dialogue with Israel, especially with (Imran) Khan snipping at its heels,” Mr. Saad said. “Yet, bold decisions are needed for Pakistan to compete in a changing world.”

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