The twists and turns of political developments in the Middle East largely stem from the rivalry between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey. While Iran seeks greater influence in countries with significant Shiite populations, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are sparring on one territory, both claiming leadership in the Sunni world: Turkey by “birthright,” and Saudi Arabia – by the “right of the strongest,” i.e. of the most economically advanced actor boasting the strongest army in the region.
All this, coupled with Turkey’s ongoing efforts to crush radical Kurdish nationalism, has resulted in a certain degree of rapprochement between Ankara and Tehran, which views the Saudis as its main rival in the Middle East. The two countries are closely intertwined economically and this also contributes to this process with Ankara and Tehran planning to ramp up their annual trade turnover to $30 billion. And this without mentioning the “gray” commodity turnover between the two, which many Turkish experts believe is almost commensurate with the official one as Turkish companies are actively helping their Iranian counterparts to overcome sanctions.
With all this being said, the two empires’ centuries-old rivalry for the status of the defender of the “only right” trend in Islam is still being felt today. The mere fact that Shiite clerics in power in Tehran, and “moderate” Sunni Islamist ones with close affinity for the Muslim Brotherhood calling the shots in Ankara, any significant foreign policy cooperation between the two countries is simply out of the question.
Moreover, in Syria, Iran and Turkey have in recent years been pursuing diametrically opposite goals, with Tehran trying to keep the Alawite leadership in power (for reasons of preserving the country’s territorial integrity), and Ankara trying to overthrow it, albeit under the very same slogan. Even though Turkey has recently softened it anti-Assad rhetoric, its officials still stick to its hardline position during media interviews.
Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia equally dislike Israel and, to varying degrees, the United States, despite the fact that Riyadh and Ankara are “strategic allies” of Washington, which views the Middle East as a very important region, regardless of whatever political or economic fluctuations may be happening there. Small wonder that this situation helped propel Islamic radicals to the political foreground. Russia’s military and political activity in the region was dictated by the need to keep these jihadist extremists away from its borders. With relations between Tehran and Ankara on the one side, and Washington on the other being strained as they are, this helped Russia to gain a foothold in the Middle East as a counterweight to the United States, and act as an intermediary between the conflicting parties.
In Syria, Russia is coordinating its moves with both Iran and Turkey. Even though President Bashar Assad remains in power primarily thanks to Russia’s assistance, Iran’s influence on Damascus is hard to overestimate.
Indeed, Tehran has spared no effort to support the current Syrian government, and with pretty good reason too: with Sunni Muslims making up the majority of the Syrian population, their coming to power, hypothetical as it may seem, would almost certainly block Iran’s access to the Mediterranean Sea by breaking the “Shiite axis” of Iran – Iraq – Syria – Lebanon.
In their bid to check Turkey’s military activity in Syria, Tehran has repeatedly signaled its desire to help establish a dialogue between Damascus and Ankara. With little success though, because Turkey rejects any contacts with Damascus. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once branded Bashar Assad as a “bloody tyrant,” whose days were numbered, and he just can’t retract his words now because this would put him in a “face-losing” position. Besides, admitting mistakes is not the best-known trait Turkish mentality is famous for.
More recently, at a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart in Ankara on April 16, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif supported the idea of “liberating” northern Syria (apparently from Kurdish units and US forces).
“The only way to ease Turkey’s concerns about the terrorist threat in the border zone with Syria would be to deploy government (i.e, Syrian – A. I.) forces at the border,” he said in a statement that reflected Tehran’s demand for a withdrawal of Turkish troops from the neighboring country’s territory. Apparently surprised by such an openly “unfriendly” declaration, the Turkish Foreign Ministry left this statement without comment.
Emboldened by its closer alliance with Russia, Turkey is going ahead with its task of neutralizing the “Kurdish threat” from the south and support the Syrian Turkomans. Simultaneously, it keeps a certain distance with Russia by flirting with Washington, despite the US’ support for the Syrian Kurds’ military-political structure, its refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, and even vague hints made by some Turkish politicians about Washington’s alleged backing for the 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey.
Meanwhile, the United States has been working hard not to “lose” Turkey, which boasts the strongest army in the region and a unique geopolitical position. As for Turkey, despite its “blusterous” rhetoric, it apparently seeks no serious quarrel with Washington.
Indeed, Ankara’s relations with Washington, which have recently been pretty unstable, are looking up now with President Erdogan and members of his inner circle recently making conciliatory statements and telling the US not to look for political motives behind the planned delivery of Russian air defense systems to Turkey, and being ready to discuss with the US military the possible risks of adopting these systems, and, if necessary, “to change the parameters of S-400 missiles” (the Americans have yet to respond to this proposal), assurances that these air defense systems will cover only Ankara and Istanbul (in case of a new coup attempt by the military using NATO planes the Russian missiles would target as a “foe”? – A. I.). Moreover, Ankara is ready to consider a new US proposal for the sale of Patriot missiles, and is looking forward to continued cooperation in the joint production of F-35 fighters.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar summed up his recent visit to the United States on a conciliatory note, essentially blaming non-specialists for the current tensions in his country’s relations with Washington.
“Yes, we have problems. But no one will solve them for us. I hope that a solution, in one way or another, will be found shortly. Sometimes we have a serious misunderstanding, misrepresentation of information… Politicians, senators do not know the details of some of the topics being discussed. And some details have an impact on decisions that are being made.”
Treasury and Finance Minister Erdogan Berat Albayrak’s visit to Washington where he took part in IMF- and G20-organized events was one in a series of fence-mending steps. During his April 16 meeting with President Donald Trump, Albayrak handed him a personal message from President Erdogan, which didn’t go unanswered. According to Turkish media reports, during the meeting with Trump, Albayrak raised the issue of the S-400 missile systems (and this at a time when the Turkish defense minister was right there in Washington!). Albayrak described the meeting as a success, adding that President Trump had responded to the arguments in favor of acquiring the Russian air defense system with understanding. Later on, however, The World Street Journal cited its sources as saying that the sides had “failed to break the impasse on the Russian missile-defense system.”
It looks like journalists will hardly be able to learn the content of President Erdogan’s personal message to Trump any time soon, but the mere fact that the Turkish president could entrust the transfer of the letter only to his relative (son-in-law) gives ample food for speculation.
Realizing that Ankara would not budge on its plans to purchase the S-400 missiles from Russia, Washington replaced the stick with a carrot, with the US Special Representative for Syria, James Jeffrey assuring Turkey that Washington was fully aware of Ankara’s security concerns about the latest threats emanating from northern Syria, and that Washington would work together with Ankara to create a safe zone in Syria next to the Turkish border, without the presence of the [Kurdish] People’s Protection Units (YPG).
“We will work with Turkey to ensure that zone remains free of any threat to Turkey, and introduces stability,” Jeffrey said.
Jeffrey emphasized that the two countries have been and continue to be geostrategic partners.
In conclusion, the US diplomat flattered Ankara by saying that “Turkey is the voice of about half of the Syrians who are opposition-minded (in relation to the current regime – A. I.).
After Washington said it would withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria, Ankara stopped announcing its imminent military offensive in this region, apparently hoping that with the European allies relinquishing their responsibility for the region, the Americans would hand their command over to Turkey. Something apparently went wrong though, and so Ankara confirmed its intention to acquire the S-400 air defense system from Russia. What we see now is a renewed attempt by Washington and Ankara to settle their differences, but on conditions that favor Turkey more than they do the United States. If this attempt succeeds, then the other participants in the Syrian “Big Game” may need to change their tactic and bring itin line with the new reality.
First published in our partner International Affairs
The Forgotten African Slaves of Lebanon
In April 2020, authorities in Lebanon arrested one Wael Jerro after posting an advertisement to sell a Nigerian lady, Peace Busari, for a $1,000 on a popular ‘Buy & Sell in Lebanon’ Facebook group. In the post which had a screenshot of the 30-year-old lady’s international passport, Wael described Peace as “…very active and very neat.” He was subsequently charged to court for human trafficking while his victim was repatriated by the Nigerian authority.
Peace may be considered a lucky soul if her case is compared to other African migrants, who mainly work as maids, in the gulf country. For instance, back in March 2020, 23-year-old Faustina Tay from Ghana committed suicide after weeks of sending out several voice notes complaining of being molested by her employers. Her body was found in a car park in her employers’ storey building in Beruit. Faustina’s search for the proverbial greener pastures to Lebanon only lasted 10months during which she shared pictures of her bruised face and audios of her ordeal with family members back home. In an investigation by media outfit Aljazeera, her employer, Hussein Dia, whom Faustina had accused of beating her, refuted such claims. Ali Kamal, the man whose recruitment agency facilitated Faustina’s journey to Lebanon, also denied the lady was ever physically abused.
In 2018, the body of a 26-year-old Ethiopian was discovered drowned in a swimming pool within the premises of her agent in the town of Dweir only days after a baby delivered of her died due to birth complications. These cases represent a fraction of what many of the estimated quarter of a million Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) in Lebanon often experience and the story may, unfortunately, not change for the better anytime soon as highlighted by recent happenings.
Social Media to the Rescue
One of the incidents pushed to the front burner in the aftermath of the August 4 massive explosion which claimed 200 lives at a Beirut seaport storage facility is the maltreatment of foreign maids. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an approximate eight percent of the 300,000 people affected by the incident are MDWs. Before the cataclysmic occurrence, the 6million Lebanese population had come under severe living conditions occasioned by a strained economy (with an estimated 25% inflation rate) compounded by the stringent measures of the Covid-19 pandemic. The dire situation is said to have equally taken a toll on employers of MDWs many of whom were reportedly sent parking from their temporary homes with nowhere to go. Reports claim many of the stranded aliens resorted to passing the nights on the sidewalks in the Lebanese capital.
One of the 5,000 wounded in the devastating blast is Nkiru Obasi from Ebonyi in Nigeria. While getting ready to be evacuated to Nigeria alongside others on August 12, she and four others were stopped from embarking on a Lagos-bound airplane after her ‘madam’ interjected unmindful of the fact that the young lady was nursing wounds. The demeaning lifestyle of most migrant workers in Lebanon is bundled into an archaic tradition known as the ‘Kafala’ system that allows a domestic worker’s wholesome subjugation by his/her ‘masters.’ The practice is traced to the era of slave trading in many parts of Arab land, and – perhaps – explains the reason why it is largely sustained till date in Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), and so on. Human rights abuses such as sexual molestation, denial of movement, working long hours, and physical assaults are some of the trademarks of the physical-cum-psychological trauma which foreign domestic employees are subjected to by their employers with no legal reprieve. It is a system that has continued to consume generations of young, unsuspecting souls from Sub-Sahara Africa – and parts of Asia – lured with the prospect of a non-existing rosy life far beyond their abode.
For most non-Lebanese migrant workers, the harrowing experience of suffering neglect, abuse, and ill-treatment by unsympathetic employers is rather endured if the other available option of approaching the authority is taken into consideration. Amnesty International says in trying to enforce the extant laws of the land, undocumented MDWs are intermittently rounded up and herded into detention by Lebanese General Security. Few days before the ratification of the UN’s Adoption of the Global Compact on Migration in November 2018, the Lebanese government released 35 foreigners from prolonged detention for lack of residency papers. This is the treatment likely to be faced by any daring migrant worker who attempts to unilaterally exit his/her Lebanese employer as he/she may lose the legal residency status which makes their stay valid in the first instance. The Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a September 2020 report titled “Without Protection: How the Lebanese Justice System Fails Migrant Domestic Workers,” criticized the exemption of MDWs from Lebanese labor law despite the huge economic importance of these individuals to their original and host societies. While calling for the abolishment of the kafala system, the HRW reveals that more than $90million was sent overseas by MDWs from Lebanon in the first six months of 2009, hence the imperative of providing legal cover for these individuals.
The First Bold Step Towards a Lasting Reform?
Despite the ongoing social unrest on the local scene since August 4 which had forced the political leadership in the country to resign its appointment, the implication of the plight of MDWs in Lebanon on the image of the country abroad seems not lost on Beirut and its government is responding to the challenge.
In what is seen as a cheering development, the Lebanese Caretaker Labour Minister, Lamine Yammine, recently announced the launch of a new standard unified labour law which “enshrines the rights” of foreign employees in the country. Yammine adds that, with the new contract law, MDWs would be able to “obtain all their contractual rights and benefit from the broadest social protections.” Similarly, while hosting top officials from the Nigerians in Diaspora Commission (NIDCOM) last June, in Abuja, the Lebanese Ambassador to Nigeria, Houssam Diab, claims that his government has suspended the issuance of working visas to Nigerians seeking to work as domestic workers in Lebanon to rid the current system of exploitation and abuse.
However, many activists accused the government of cheery picking and opine that the new labour law appears to have fallen short of expected cancellation of the Kafala system which they view as the major stack against the MDWs. Nonetheless, one can applaud the initiative as a positive step (albeit trifling) towards guaranteeing a better future for foreigners working as domestic employees in Lebanon.
Going forward, one key area which authority should not overlook is the role being played by recruiting agents like Ali Kamal who told Aljazeera that his firm accounts for the entrance of 1,000 foreign workers into Lebanon, each year. A constant searchlight must be beamed into the activities of such companies if the life of the enrollees is, indeed, fancied beyond lip service as worth more than that of mere ‘slaves’.
Israel and its Image After the 1967 War
The war of 1967, or the Six Day War as it has come to be known, was a war which came with immense, geo-strategic and political consequences. The Middle East, was the arena where it played out and fifty years later the reverberations continue to be felt in the region and beyond. This is reflected in the words of, the then Israeli Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, who said, “Nothing will be settled by a military victory. The Arabs will still be here” (Colonel Stephen S. Evans, 2008 ). His words have proved to be prophetic, for Israel has metamorphosed in this timespan, and the Arabs are still there though they are a house divided and peace is still elusive. The conflict between, Arab and Jewish identities over Palestinian land now has a regional as well as an international dimension. In this rite of passage, Israel’s relations with many nation-states have matured from nascency to maturity and much of this finds its origins in the aftermath of the 1967 war between Israel and the three states of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. It is this transformation in Israel’s stature in International Relations, that is to be examined.
In the run up to the war of 1967, the events were moving in a manner that can best be described as fast and furious. With the Syrians being routed by the Israelis in April 1967, Nasser was under pressure to restore Arab prestige, when he was warned by the Soviets in May, that Israel was planning to invade Syria. In spite of having half his forces entrenched in a conflict with Yemen, Nasser reacted by asking UN peacekeepers to leave the Sinai Peninsula, and began massing troops in to the Sinai Desert. With no Israeli reaction forthcoming, Nasser then closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, on May 22, and challenged Israel to engage in conflict. The Iraqi President Abdel Rahman joined this tirade of threats against Israel and it was under these extenuating circumstances, Israel launched a pre-emptive strike on the morning of June 5, 1967, with ‘Operation Focus’. It simply had no choice but to do so.
Six days later, Israel emerged victorious, against the defence forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and surprisingly enough, its territorial gains included, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank of the Jordan River (including East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights. Clearly, this was not an act of pre-meditation as this operation was supposed to be have been a “48-hour surgical strike” to neutralise Egypt and nothing more(Oren, 2005). Israel’s geographic spread now, was three times what it was before the war. Both Israel and Egypt were quick to approach the UN in quick succession, at the outbreak of the war and UN Resolution 242 resulted many weeks after the war, in November. In the aftermath of the war, it is really not possible to analyse Israel’s international relations in a linear manner as events and relationships tend to dovetail, converge and diverge at the same time. Clearly, Israel as a country went through a transformative experience from within and without after this war. It transcended the stage from where it was struggling to maintain it its territorial integrity in 1948, to a stage where it had won a decisive victory, albeit with American aid and French armaments. With control over the Sinai Peninsula, which overlooked the Suez Canal, and the Soviets stepping in reinforce their support to the Egyptians, Israel, now unwittingly became a player in the Cold War. In this context, from being in a situation where it was viewed as a burden by the U.S., Israel had now became an “imperative significant asset”(Kardo Karim Rached Mohammad, The Six-Day War and Its Impact on Arab and Israeli Conflict, 2017). Having proven its military might, U.S.-Israeli relations underwent a sea change, for now this relationship was of potential benefit. This was a far cry from 1956 when America had called Israel an aggressor when it had attacked Egypt as part of a secret pact with Britain and France.
The symbiotic relationship between the U.S. and Israel, consequently assumed an overall upward trajectory with some periods of lull. Even the retributive oil embargo against the west, by the Arab world after the Yom Kippur war, did not derail this relationship and Reagan named Israel as a strategic asset, in 1979. Israel was now the beneficiary of considerable military supplies and treated as a proxy for the U.S. in the region. After the end of the Cold War, Israel was no longer a U.S. proxy but a strategic partner nevertheless and a “democratic anchor”. Since then, starting with the Clinton Administration, support for Israel has been unequivocal, with Trump’s presidency going beyond mere re-affirmation. One noteworthy, pattern till now, is the implicit understanding of faith between the two countries, that Israel’s nuclear armament cache would never be a subject of discussion and there would not be any talk of signing the Non- Proliferation Treaty(Entous, 2018).
Another key relationship affecting Israel’s very existence, in the same time frame, was one of extreme challenges and continues to be so, till now. At the time of the 1967 war, sponsored by the Arab League, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation was already in existence, and destruction of Israel, was one of its goals. After the war, Yasser Arafat and the Fatah, gained dominance within the PLO and led attacks against Israel which were to turn more and more violent over the years. It was only in1993, with the Oslo Accord, that PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist and accepted, UN resolutions 242 and 338, Israel in turn was to withdraw from key territories and PLO was to govern parts of Gaza, Jericho and the West Bank. The fragility of this peace process gave rise to the Second Intifada and Hamas now came to control the Gaza strip in 2007, leaving Fatah with the West Bank. Though the Fatah and Hamas have since reconciled, Israel views Hamas as a “hostile entity” for its acts of terror (Encyclopedia Britannica , n.d.). As a corollary, there is the issue of continuing build-up of Israeli settlements on the West bank which have been deemed illegal by the United Nations (UNSC 446). This notion of “creeping annexation” in the West Bank, is in defiance of all international laws and opinion (Cohen, 2019). Clearly, this was a manner of securing Israel’s boundaries, leaving the Palestinians, subjects, of an occupying force. There are an estimated,141 Jewish settlements, in the West Bank and upwards of 300,000 Palestinians are said to have been displaced. President Rivlin, in this context, even said belligerently, “it was their land that they were building” (Remnick, 2014).Undoubtedly, Palestine’s inability to eschew violence and its inability to embrace the two state solution, have repeatedly made peace elusive. Matters have now come to a head and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has rendered all agreements with the U.S. and Israel, void, in view of the threatened West Bank annexation, by Israel. Clearly, this may be another chapter in this uneasy relationship (Holmes, 2020).
In this entire flow of events, the paradoxical endurance of UNSC 242, as a “pivotal point of reference”, at first looks, is puzzling and intriguing at the same time (Mazur, 2012). Israel was seen to accept the resolution because it called upon the Arab states to acknowledge Israel’s right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force. Egypt, Jordan (from the outset) and the other Arab states (eventually) accepted it because it had a clause which called upon Israel to withdraw from territories occupied in the recent conflict. With this UN resolution, the equation had changed overnight, Israel became an ‘occupying force’, with the burden of withdrawal subject to its being able to attain “secure and recognized boundaries” (United Nations , 1967). Deliberately incorporated phraseology, by Lord Caradon, meant that Israel would not be required to vacate all territories. Palestinians were just a refugee problem to be resolved, with no status of nationality or nationhood being discussed, they were left to be ‘generic’ refugees.
With the passing of years after UN 242, Israel and the Arabs, clashed repeatedly, including the War of Attrition and the Yom Kippur War, but it was as if the Arabs were coming off weaker, each time. Egypt was the first to make peace with Israel in 1979 under the land for peace initiative, and the return of the Sinai Peninsula was the key deal maker. This was followed long after with the Jordan peace settlement in 1994, wherein, the international boundary was delimited and waters from Jordan River and Yarmouk River were now to be allocated between the two countries. Thereafter, the Arab League has been rendered increasingly ineffectual due its own internal contradictions and issues like the Hamas are no more than a thorn in Israel’s flesh, while its engagements with Syria have been no more than border skirmishes. Palestine, the biggest loser in this development, stands marginalised by both.
Interestingly enough, in this changed Arab-Israeli equation, as a first responder, Israel under Netanyahu is now moving bilaterally within the Arab states, in a bid to find “peace out of strength” (TOI STAFF, The Times of Israel ). Clearly this strikes a common chord with the Arab states whose needs for Israel’s offerings of security and surveillance platforms align with the overriding need for security in the region due to America’s fading hegemony. So much so, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the recent past has been quoted as saying, “Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land” (Goldberg, 2018). Until now this is one threshold, which had not been crossed by Saudi Arabia, the second largest Arab nation. The reason is not far to seek, as the Crown Prince and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a common enemy in Iran and of just as much importance, are the common security interests that are shared by the trio of, Israel, U.S. and the Arab States. In fact, recently Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, admittedly said, “We do believe that Israel is a country to stay, and we want better relations with it, and we want peace with it” (Ragson, 2019). On the other hand, the opening of new synagogues in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is another indicator of this ‘Arab Thaw’, if one were to invent a phrase. Interestingly, an added dimension to these initiatives, is the pursuit of public diplomacy by Israel, where the Foreign Ministry is using digital platforms to connect with Arabs, the goal being to showcase the shared common values and similarities, of two ancient cultures (Eglash, 2019 ).
Moving back to matters of nation states, Israel has all along been moving ahead in affairs of political economy and knitting ties, which are strategic, political, military and economic. With its expertise in high technology extending even beyond conventional areas to armaments, Israel is globally the eighth largest exporter of armaments and its ties with India have deepened measurably, as it has contributed to India’s military modernisation needs, especially in times of conflict. On the other hand, Israel’s ties with its largest trading partner, EU, are a mixed bag, as Europe is wary of its Palestine policies. With Anti -Semitism rearing its head in Europe, EU is trying to ensure that its funds do not reach the ‘settlement areas’ and has threatened to escalate diplomatic initiatives if Israel goes ahead with its West Bank takeover initiatives. In parallel, Israel is constantly exploring new relationships, and recently it has tied up an energy partnership with Greece and Cyprus, for the ‘Energy Triangle’, in a bid for ensuring Energy Security. From the kibbutz configured economy in 1967, Israel is now avowedly, a technological powerhouse for the world, where GDP per capita is twice that of the Saudi Arabia. Even with China, Israel enjoys a significantly strong economic relationship, though differences have started to surface off late.
In conclusion, it may be said that, many have spoken of this briefest of wars as a pivot or a turning point but it might be more correct and accurate to term it as a fulcrum, for it is Israel which now forms the lever that turns the geo-politics of the region that it inhabits. Even as Israel preserves the geo-strategic strengths of its gains from the Six Day War, the Arabs are disempowered in this Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinians are dis-enfranchised, like never before. As a nation it has worked like a true realist, giving credence to the realist credo that, “it is important not only to have a substantial amount of power, but also to make sure that no other state sharply shifts the balance of power in its favour”(Mearsheimer, 2013). Clearly, Israel has succeeded, in this objective.
UAE and Israel: Nothing to See Here
Across the world, the August agreement between the UAE and Israel, signed in September in Washington, to normalize their bilateral relations has been hailed as revolutionary. Certainly, it is a diplomatic triumph for the administration of US President Donald Trump which, in the face of criticism, continued with its “Deal of a Century” settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict despite its absolute rejection by all Palestinian parties. Then, Trump’s son-in-law and special advisor on Middle Eastern affairs Jared Kushner continued to claim that like-minded Arab states would seek to cooperate with the Israelis, support the administration’s proposal, and ultimately normalize their relations with Israel.
Now, that the UAE has agreed to just that, Kushner has certainly been vindicated. Already the UAE’s decision has precipitated Bahrain’s normalization of relations with Israel with Oman likely to follow. But was this as decisive a decision as Abu Dhabi has led many to believe? Supposedly, the UAE finally agreed to normalize its bilateral relations with Israel as the first Arab country to do so since the Oslo Accords in order to halt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to annex the West Bank and specifically the western banks of the Jordan Valley. However, that later claim that the UAE somehow prevented annexation seems unlikely to have been a real motivation, and rather a means of justifying the UAE’s decision as acting on the behalf of the Palestinians. In fact, Netanyahu quickly responded to criticism by Israeli settler groups of the deal declaring that annexation remains on the table, clearly negating this as a possible justification by the UAE for normalization. In fact, recent reporting suggests the US only promised the UAE it would not support unilateral annexation until 2024, only long enough for the UAE to save face.
There are better theories that explain the UAE’s normalization than the looming West Bank annexation. Over the past few weeks many have argued that this is just the next logical step by the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) an organization of six oil-rich Sunni Arab monarchies, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), to ally with Israel and deter the mutual threat of Iran. Indeed, the United States has openly supported the creation of an “Arab NATO” that would align the Sunni Arab states and Israel against Iran’s “Shia Crescent” of allied militias and states across the Levant. Iran and its ally in the Lebanese Hezbollah are staunch advocates of the Palestinian cause and military and financial allies of the Gaza based Hamas. Yet, the UAE in particular has always taken a more conciliatory stance towards Iranian expansionism, as demonstrated by its overtures to Tehran as tensions heated up in the Persian Gulf region over the safe passage of oil tankers in the summer of 2019.
Others have pointed out (more convincingly) that this is about deterring Turkey. Both the UAE and Israel now feel threatened by Turkey’s projection of power across the Middle East’s maritime environs. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, Turkey has become a close ally of the UAE’s arch-nemesis Qatar, and deployed thousands of troops to defend the microstate after Saudi Arabia and the UAE blockaded it in 2017. Recently, Turkey is now facing off against a coalition of Greece, (Greek) Cyprus, Israel, Egypt and France in the Eastern Mediterranean as it looks to secure its own zone of military and economic influence in the region. It has also intervened directly in the Libyan Civil War, saving the Tripoli based government from the warlord General Khalifa Haftar and his Russian, French, Egyptian, and UAE backed forces. Moreover, Turkey is now fast becoming the leading advocate for the Palestinian cause in the Sunni Muslim world, a role that has worried Israeli policymakers for some time.
Yet, the UAE’s security collaboration with Israel (let alone Saudi Arabia’s) is well documented to have been occurring covertly for some time now. Israel’s intelligence services have cooperated with the UAE in Syria, Libya, and now Sudan. Infamously, the UAE hired ex-Israeli and American special forces operatives to assassinate its opponents in the Yemeni Islah Party, an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood and the two states may have a joint intelligence base on the Yemeni island of Socotra. Emirati diplomats are in close collaboration with pro-Israel think tanks and lobbyists in Washington, and the UAE (along with Saudi Arabia)personally pressured Palestinian factions to support the US “Deal of a Century” –and that is only what is public. So, is this decision so surprising or shocking?
A simple metaphor is useful. If two lovers sneak off together every night for months, is anyone surprised when they announce their engagement? Not especially. The UAE and many other Arab-Muslim nations have flirted with recognizing Israel for years, if not decades. Initially, support for the Palestinian cause was an enticing prospect to unite Arab countries morally and politically in the quest for Palestinian liberation and resistance to the West. But the power and prestige invested in any country that could lead the Arab World by taking upon itself the mantle of defender of Palestine quickly evaporated with the end of the Arab Cold War and the beginning of the Oslo Peace process. Now, the mantle of “peacemaker” is more profitable and more powerful for any country in the Arab World seeking to lead the reshaped post-Arab Spring Middle East.
A Cause Abandoned Long Ago
Frankly, it is the Egyptian decision to normalize relations with Israel that began this inevitable trend in the Arab World. After watching its military destroyed in detail and the Sinai Peninsula occupied by Israel during the 1967 war, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat rebuilt his nation’s armed forces and fought the Israelis to the negotiating table in 1973. Once Egypt agreed to the Camp David Accords, that year the most capable advocate for the Palestinian cause was removed from the game. The Palestinians were also expelled from Jordan in 1971 during the events of Black September into Lebanon, where they were received not with open arms. Internationally, without Egypt, the only possible defenders of Palestine left were Iraq and Syria.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein took upon this role with relish, but instead of using Palestine to rally the other Arab states, its invasion of Kuwait left Iraq devastated and isolated by American bombings and sanctions. The fall of Saddam in 2003 and the collapse of the country into civil war ended its role as a patron of the Palestinians. Finally, Syria under the then youthful President Bashar al-Assad was the only major supporter of the Palestinians left standing, and it soon became the external location for the Hamas political bureau, that is, until the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.The explosion of Syria into a sectarian conflict split both the nation and the Palestinians between pro-Assad nationalists and leftists in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and pro-opposition Islamists in Hamas. With Syria devastated and now an international pariah, Palestinians were left without a leading Arab state to take on their cause.
With the Iraq and the Levant in ruin, the Palestinians turned towards the GCC. The GCC has always offered an economic lifeline to Palestinian parties and militant organizations, both overtly and covertly, in their resistance struggle against the Israelis. This is not to mention the millions in remittances sent back to Palestine by diaspora workers in Kuwait, Riyadh, Doha, and Dubai sent back home to those living in Gaza and the West Bank. In the 1970’s Saudi Arabia in particular rallied the Islamic World to support the Palestinian cause after the al-Aqsa mosque fire, when a Jewish extremist attempted to burn down the Muslim holy site in Jerusalem. Then, the inveterate anti-communist King Fahad led Muslim countries from across the world to form the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in 1978, dedicated firstly to the support of the Palestinians and the preservation of the al-Aqsa Mosque, and other Islamic causes more broadly.
But despite this support, the GCC states have always been a natural partner of Israel. A collection of small states, if not micro-states, threatened by larger powers on every side, the impetus for normalization with Israel has always existed. Just consider the entire citizen population of the GCC (thus not including foreign guest-workers) is on par with that of pre-civil war Yemen at approximately 26 million people. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the kingdoms of the Persian Gulf have relied heavily on external powers, like the United States, Great Britain, the Shah’s Iran, and even Pakistan, in order to provide for their national defense and the protection of their oil and gas reserves. The list of threats is long, and includes at various times, the Soviet Union, Egypt, Iraq, South Yemen, Syria, and since 1979 the Islamic Republic of Iran, whose regional power and ambition to dominate would lead to the creation of the GCC in 1981.
Moreover, the economic impetus for normalization remains strong, especially as the world faces the possibility of permanently low oil prices. As such, all of the GCC states are facing the difficult question of how to diversify their oil and gas economies. Although GCC states like Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE now rely more on the income generated from investing their oil and gas revenues abroad rather than the extraction of natural resources itself, the GCC nations’ best hope for diversification lies in the development of high technology sectors. Such industries can utilize their small affluent societies and provide employment for a well-educated youth population. Israel, as a technology leader and with a robust financial sector, offers to be a strong economic partner of the GCC states, that is if they commit to normalization, and abandon the Palestinians.
A Battle for Prestige
Hence the practical rationale of current political normalization has been building up since the 1970’s, but why has the UAE in particular chosen this path? The answer is not in Abu Dhabi but Doha. In the 1990’s a new phenomenon emerged in the Middle East with the rise of Qatar. In 1991 Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani overthrew his father to become the county’s emir. Al-Thani looked to assert Qatar as the first of the smaller GCC states with a foreign policy in the region independent of its larger neighbor Saudi Arabia. With a population of little more than a quarter-of-a-million citizens, Qatar could not deploy the military implements of its national power to gain influence and prestige.
Instead, Qatar used its financial wealth to raise its stature as a regional peacemaker. It mediated conflicts between local actors and nation states in Lebanon, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea, and Libya, and famously offered the Taliban an “embassy” in Doha, at America’s request, to begin peace talks in 2014. Most of all, Qatar quickly provided US Central Command the al-Udeid airbase in 1996 to maintain thousands of forces in the region after the post-Gulf War withdrawal from Saudi Arabia. Notably, Qatar was also the first Arab Gulf state to begin normalizing its relationship with Israel when it opened a trade office in Doha in 1994, although it was soon closed with the al-Aqsa Intifada. Instead, it captured the 1990’s explosion in Arab media with the state-supported Aljazeera network, and later the political tsunami of the Arab Spring by allying and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and associated Islamist political forces across the region.
In this sense, the UAE is really playing catch up to its regional competitor Qatar. In the 1990’s the UAE, like Bahrain today, closely followed the foreign policy of Saudi Arabia. This was since the UAE, as a small confederation of seven rival states, was historically threatened by its larger neighbor. From 1952-1955 Saudi attempts to assert their control over the oil rich Buraimi Oasis led the British to militarily intervene to secure the borders of the Trucial States (now the UAE) and Oman. This border dispute would last after the British withdrawal from its engagements East of Suez and the independence of the UAE in 1971. Although the two countries concluded a treaty in 1974, it was never confirmed until 1995, and never completely ratified by the UAE.But the UAE still looked to placate Saudi Arabia by following its foreign policy leadership. For example, the UAE joined Saudi Arabia and regional states Pakistan and Turkmenistan as the only countries to ever recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 1996.
However, the development of the UAE into the modern financial center it is today began to change this historic power dynamic. The UAE first began asserting its independence with the expansion of Dubai into an international center of business and commerce, but while the emirate of Dubai grew to become an internationally respected state let in its own right, the UAE’s largest emirate, Abu Dhabi, was overshadowed by its gaudier, although less economically stable sister. As much as UAE foreign policy is national, it still remains a hotly contested union of microstates.
This changed with the rise of Abu Dhabi’s influential crown prince Muhammad bin Zayed, the infamous “MBZ.” Prince Zayed attempted to raise the stature of Abu Dhabi using the political and military tools under the control of Abu Dhabi as the state chiefly responsible for the governance, administration, and foreign policy of the UAE. He quickly brought the UAE in as a major leader and financer of the Arab counterrevolutions against the 2011 Arab Spring, bankrolling the government of President Abdul Fatah el-Sisi in Egypt, and anti-Islamist parties and forces from Mauritania to Jordan, along with Saudi Arabia and its ally Bahrain.
The war on the Muslim Brotherhood is both a personal crusade by MBZ and an attempt to undercut Qatar’s regional sphere of influence. The UAE has always felt al-Udeid would be better located in their country and was particularly incensed after it was passed up by the US to host the Taliban “embassy.”Yet, the UAE has had success in denting Qatar’s influence. Not only did it remove Qatari allies from power across the region, it has successfully raised the suspicion in Washington of Qatar as a state-sponsor of terrorism in the region and as a destabilizing force. This attempt to weaken Qatar’s influence in the region culminated in the UAE and Saudi Arabia leading a coalition of states to blockade Qatar in summer 2017 unless it agreed to abandon its independent foreign policy, including the Aljazeera network and its location as a haven for Hamas. While Qatar has survived the blockade, the UAE did succeed in dislodging its position as a regional power.
What has changed in the past three years is that the UAE has begun to strike out and pursue its own foreign policy goals separate from that of Saudi Arabia. Although the UAE originally entered the war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels as another ally of Saudi Arabia, it quickly looked to carve out its own sphere of influence. Beginning by reemphasizing historic ties with the tribes of South Yemen, it came to patronize and support the South Yemen separatists that provided the UAE an ally but undermined Saudi Arabia’s support of the internationally recognized government of President Abdul Mansour Hadi. In fact, the UAE’s support for the dramatic rise of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) is itself a sign of the UAE’s outsized diplomatic influence over the kingdom and the changing nature of their bilateral relationship.
Moreover, the UAE took the unprecedented step of deploying its own military forces to obtain its strategic objectives. The UAE suffered a relatively large amount of battlefield casualties in Yemen that helped united the country around a national cause and propelled the further modernization of the armed forces, with the support of western officers and American and Israeli security firms. It also allowed Abu Dhabi to bring the other emirates in line behind its policies, exiling opposition princes, and thus bringing the country closer towards internal political unity. Now a veritable nation in war, deploying forces, cultivating allies, and building bases in Yemen allowed the UAE to construct its own, distinct security architecture to control the Yemeni coast, the port of Aden, and the strategic island of Socotra that commands the entrance of the Bab el-Mandab strait. In addition, it has looked to construct bases and invest in strategic ports along the East African coast in the port of Berbera in Somaliland, and Bosaso in Puntland, and has shown interest in acquiring the management of Massawa and Assab in Eritrea for Dubai Ports World.
A New Leader?
After consolidating its position in the Arabian Peninsula, the UAE has moved up one more logical step to try to become a regional power. Although its military forces are probably the most professional in the GCC, the UAE is still too small to compete militarily with the likes of Turkey let alone Iran. This became all too clear when tensions exploded in the Persian Gulf in Sumer 2019 between Iran and the US after Iran began targeting international shipping in the Straits of Hormuz and possibly coordinated a missile attack with the Houthis on a Saudi oil-refinery that cut the kingdom’s oil production in half. Among the incidents was a most-likely Iranian bombing in May on tankers stationed at the major Emirati port of Fujairah in the Gulf of Oman. After this direct threat to its critical infrastructure, the UAE quickly dropped its aggressive rhetoric towards the Iranians and secretly sent its national security advisor to Tehran. The UAE is still a microstate, Abu Dhabi, let alone Dubai, would not survive a regional war as any larger country could. Thus, the maritime tensions of 2019 were as a rude awakening to the UAE as the blockade of 2017 was to Qatar.
It is in part and for this reason that the UAE has now scaled back its aggressive military deployments. It now looksto displace Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman for the favor of the United States as a regional “peacemaker.” Therefore, the UAE has billed itself as America’s greatest ally in the region as a patron of “Moderate Islam.” It has cultivated a diverse group of supportive Muslim scholars internationally whose unifying theme is a generic message of tolerance. The UAE has also implicitly contrasted itself with the “Qatari” or “Turkish” Islam as political and “Saudi Wahhabi Islam” as ultra-conservative. Of course, this is political semantics, intellectually all modern Sunnism in the Persian Gulf region derives from a similar (Wahhabi) source.
Regardless, the UAE has received international acclaim for this Islamic role around the world. It has been recognized for its leadership in the Muslim world by the likes of former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and, importantly, Pope Francis. The later conducted the first papal mass ever to Christian migrant workers in the Arabian Peninsula in 2019. The UAE has further leaned into the image as a “tolerant” country domestically through a “Ministry of Tolerance” and the construction of the first Hindu, Sikh, and Mormon temples in the Middle East. It has leveraged this image bilaterally to develop bilateral ties with China, India, and now with Israel.
Therefore, the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel is the logical conclusion of that groundwork built over the past few years. Normalization allows the UAE to unambiguously and unilaterally claim its role as a leader in the Middle East and moreover the Islamic World. It can position itself to be a bridge between the United States, the West, and other Arab Muslim countries, by demonstrating a vision of peace, cooperation, and harmony between all religions. It fits well into its narrative as a collection of cosmopolitan, high-technology city states. It’s the culmination of its regional ambitions, and probably signals its new hopes to escape the Earth and explore space.
In other words, there was nothing surprising about the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel. The only question that remains is “Will it matter?” Even if every state in the world recognizes Israel, it is unlikely the Arab Muslim street will ever totally abandon the Palestinian cause. The UAE may be part of a diplomatic coup that will sustain its rising international status, but as long as Muslim populations themselves remain committed to the Palestinian cause it will not disappear. It remains to be seen whether the “Deal of the Century” can change that fact.
As for the UAE’s regional ambitions, it still remains a small state. The UAE has effectively used the diplomatic tools at its disposal to become a regional power in the Persian Gulf region. But there is little precedent in history for small states outliving large empires. Many have affectionally called the UAE “Little Sparta” in recognition of its power. But while Sparta may have overcome Athens during the Peloponnesian War, it could never match the power of Macedon. While the UAE’s recognition of Israel may be significant, it is still a small state in a world of some 450 million Arabs and 1.7 billion Muslims. Can it really hope to become the political leader of an entire region in the international system, let alone a civilization?
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