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Why is Iran meeting with Arab Gulf States?

Irina Tsukerman

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KSA and UAE differences on Syria and Yemen: Reasonable Differences or a Clash?

How the Media Created an Impression of a Major Rift and Widened Misunderstandings

In recent months, Western media has bombarded the policymakers with rumors about an alleged divide inside the Arab Coalition, the supposedly irreconcilable differences that are driving UAE and KSA towards an inevitable and irreversible drift, dooming their effort in Yemen.  Indeed, the countries have individual national security concerns that have at times pushed them to focus on some issues while others remained an apparently more urgent concern for their counterpart.

However, much of the current discourse about divisions between the Gulf states has been fueled by a campaign focus on exploiting and exaggerating real divisions to the detriment of all, rather than bringing the countries back to the same page and strengthening their partnership with the United States. That goes against the Iran and Muslim Brotherhood agenda in driving the Coalition – and especially the US – out of Yemen, as soon as possible.

For that reason, mutual recriminations and attacks have been encouraged, and the situation has been portrayed in the most dire terms. Indeed, if the divide continues, it will only strengthen t he Muslim Brotherhood influence in Yemen, and give further fodder to assorted terrorist groups and Iran-induced chaos. To avoid that possibility, the US government should stop listening to what appears to be a clearly divisive political campaign and instead take the time to understand the positions of each country.  US leadership may soon discover that the apparent differences are far from irreconcilable, and that UAE and KSA ultimately wish for a stable region and are both against any sort of radicalism or fanaticism.

The Arabic language media wars between the various columnists from the two states has not been helpful either. Rather than attacking each other and mounting potentially baseless accusations, these analysts would do well to emphasize common ground as well as use the power of their keyboards to clarify the nature of the misunderstandings and to elucidate their countries’ positions in a rational way that will help arrive at common sense solutions – already evident in some of the discourse emerging from both sides.

Perceived Differences,  Unexplained, Are Played Up Causing Confusion

In the midst of tensions between Iran and the United States in the Gulf – tensions which involve oil smuggling, attacks on and hijacking of tankers, and the downing of drones – Iran appears to be pursuing a parallel diplomatic track with some of the regional stakeholders.

Iran’s recent meeting with UAE’s Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed generated a great deal of discussion and controversy; meetings with Qatari officials, on the other hand, went by largely unnoticed. Is UAE really looking to abandon Saudi Arabia in its stand off against the ayatollahs?  And what is Tehran ultimately seeking to accomplish?

The rare visit by UAE officials to Iran came in the context of other developments, which have raised questions about the possible fissions within the Anti-Terrorism Quartet.

While visiting Moscow after the May attacks on Emirati and Saudi oil tankers, Abdullah bin Zayed refused to name Iran as the culprit, which to many signaled UAE distancing itself from the more confrontational position taken by the United States and Saudi Arabia, as reported by Tom O’Connor in Newsweek on June 26, 2019.  This development came after UAE and Bahrain split from Saudi Arabia in reestablishing diplomatic relations with Syria’s pro-Iran Bashar al-Assad; although even with Russia’s lobbying on Syria’s behalf, there was not enough support to readmit Syria into the Arab League as explained by Youssef Igrouane in Inside Arabia on February 27, 2019. The discussion on whether reopening embassies in Damascus would “normalize” al-Assad, and whether al-Assad, who already was receiving limited political support from Egypt vis-a-vis Turkey, as explained by the author and Mohammed Maher in Modern Diplomacy on May 6, 2019,  was considered a fait accomplit for Syria for the time being by some of the pragmatists in the Arab world and thus the reestablishment of diplomatic relationship was at that point merely a formality acknowledging that Assad is there to stay remains an open question. Was Saudi Arabia being “unreasonable” in refusing to restore relations with Assad, where the other three members of the Anti-Terrorism Quartet chose to pursue a different path? And did that decision create or further divisions between Riyadh and the other three countries? Or was this step merely a reasonable and agreed upon approach given the differences in the countries’ interests, that did not affect much their cooperation on other points?

The reality is, in fact, it was a bit of both. For Saudi Arabia, Iran is a central and existential danger. Although KSA’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had articulated that Iran, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Turkey are part of a triangle of evil, in terms of policy, Saudi Arabia clearly has prioritized opposing Iran over complete eradication of the other two “sides” of the triangle. Although the Saudi government has gone to great lengths to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood from within the country, it has cooperated with the Islamist brigades that are fighting on behalf of the Yemeni government as a a part of the Arab Coalition against the Houthi terrorists in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia, despite tensions with Turkey, which escalated after the death of Jamal Khashoggi, retained diplomatic relations with Ankara, and although there has been a limited boycott of some Turkish products, the majority of Saudi investments have remained in place. Turkey remains a political challenge to Saudi Arabia’s interests in Middle East and Africa; Erdogan is looking for Sunni primacy through populist Islamism, and has invested heavily in various operations in Africa and Asia, to counter Saudi soft power with defense and humanitarian investments.

How Turkey and Muslim Brotherhood overshadow Iran threat for UAE

However, Erdogan has also suffered recent defeats and setbacks, primarily through the fall of his ally Omar al-Bashir in Sudan, and through the stalemate in Libya.  Turkey is a political threat to Saudi Araabia’s influence; however, Erdogan has suffered political blows inside the country, such as the loss of his candidate in Istanbul, the economic fallout from the rising tensions with the United States, and other problems. For that reason, while Erdogan may be a longer-term concern, (any nationalist, even without Erdogan’s Islamists connection, in pursuit of a renewed Ottoman empire will not be looked upon kindly), he is not an immediate existential threat. Furthermore, most of his Arab following comes solely on the basis of his strongman, anti-Israel, anti-American image, but will not likely remain loyal to a non-Arab leader with a vision of reimposition of the Ottoman system from which many of their ancestors have suffered.

Saudi Arabia views Erdogan’s incursions into Syria quite negatively; however, Assad has become increasingly dependent on Iran as a result of the civil war, and Iranian presence in Syria has grown substantially.  Where the various jihadist and Muslim Brotherhood factions are mere annoyances used by state actors to attack each other, Assad is opening doors to Iran’s ideological and political influence, in addition to a military build up and the building of “land bridges” that will facilitate the influx of fighters and weapons into the area. From that perspective, and given the Saudis’ concern with countering that threat above all, not cooperating with Assad in any substantial way makes perfect sense. Turkey is unlikely to take over Syria completely; however much damage it can cause with its presence, Assad is likely to retain control over most of the country. Quite simply, Assad and Iranians are the stronger forces.

For UAE, however, the analysis was quite different, as its tensions with Turkey have intensified over time, with the arrests of UAE-based Palestinian workers (one of whom was found dead and disemboweled in a Turkish jail cell), attacks on Emirati bases in Somalia by Turkey and Qatar-backed militias, as explained by the New York Times on July 22, 2019, as well as Turkey’s support for the Arab Spring, which threatened UAE, a relatively small country, as well as Bahrain, which nearly suffered a coup, as well as the view of the UAE, that Turkey’s incursions into Syria represents an attack on the sovereignty of Arab lands, as written by Bilo Biskan for the Middle East Institute on May 1, 2019.

Erdogan’s support for Muslim Brotherhood and his backing of UAE’s regional rival, Qatar, contributed significantly to this deterioration in relations, as well as a perception of an immediate attack on UAE’s interests.  Muslim Brotherhood’s ideological proclivities have received a zero-tolerance treatment from Abu Dhabi, which has supported Southern separatists in Yemen and has had disagreements with Saudi Arabia over cooperation with the Islamist brigades within the Coalition. Furthermore, UAE has spared no expense in lobbying efforts and backing think tanks in the West to counter Qatari and Turkish backing of the spread of ISlamist ideology, whereas Saudi Arabia has taken a step back from involvement in these ideological battles.

By contrast, Dubai has had a sizeable Iranian community and while UAE has sided with Saudi Arabia against Iran politically, its trade relations with Iran are lively and ongoing. UAE was one of the eight countries to receive a temporary waiver for oil trade with Iran from the United States; the exports from UAE to Iran are four times the number of imports.  UAE considers Iran a threat; it has largely withdrawn its forces from Yemen in response to the increasing tensions in the Gulf and to secure its own citizens from any potential attacks by Iranian forces. However, ultimately, countering Turkey and Sunni ISlamists in Syria may simply have been more of a political priority, and if Assad did not present a direct threat to the Arab states, from UAE perspective, having modest political presence in the country could be beneficial to ensuring that other Emirati interests in countering additional primary threats could be protected.

By the same token, Emirati and Bahraini presence in Syria could be the bridge to keep Saudi Arabia informed and its interests observed if only by proxy. In either case, this minor presence inside the country might not ultimately make much of a difference, particularly if Syria remains outside the Arab League and otherwise largely isolated by the coalition members. From the Western perspective, however, these pragmatic differences that ultimately may not matter all that much on the strategic level of countering primary threats by the ATQ may signal to the West a deepening rift within the Quartet, which makes formulating coherent policy by the White House, already fraught with internal controversies  and contradictions, still more difficult. If, for whatever reasons, some of the Arab partners are staunchly opposed to any convergence with Assad, whereas others find any compromise with Turkey unacceptable while limited dialogue with Assad appears to be not only within reason, but essential to making progress, no matter what the White House ends up doing in Syria, one or more of the parties will be dissatisfied with the outcome.

Recent clashes in Aden expose and exacerbate fissions inside the Arab Coalition, alarming the West

Yemen further complicates the situation. UAE withdrawal, although allegedly coordinated, has been largely interpreted by the Western press, the cadre of analysts, and the political establishment as a significant difference, if not a rift, among the Coalition members. Increasingly, from Western perspective, Saudi Arabia appears to be isolated, and the war, at least in the manner it is being handled today, hopeless and chaotic. Although the Trump administration has recognized the dangers from various non-State actors inside Yemen, as well as Iran’s role in backing the Houthis, the White House has not deemed it necessary either to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization, even after multiple, and in some cases, lethal attacks on Saudi civilian sites, nor has it pushed for a new AUMF that would allow combat troops to counter Hizbullah and Houthi forces in addition to Al Qaeda and ISIS.  While the White House appears to count on the Saudis to settle the issue, the situation is complicated by the UAE-backed separatists who have intervened in Aden, demanding independence.

The Houthis, at the same time, demanded the expulsion of the Sunni Islamist fighters and separatists as reported in The Daily Star on August 15, 2019. The talks over managing and settling the new conflict in Saudi Arabia appear to be thwarted by the refusal of the various parties to compromise on the solution. The Islamists, from the Saudi perspective, appear to be a necessary lesser evil to counter the Hizbullah trained Houthis; furthermore, the Yemeni government has taken a step back , with the Saudis shouldering most of the burden.  UAE has attempted to mediate between the Southern Transitional Council writes Bel Trew for The Independent on August 14, 2019, and the other parties in an attempt to avoid further violent clashes.

However, so long as the separatists feel they have backing there appears to be no reason for them not to continue taking advantage of the seeming splintering among the allies to push their own agenda.  The optics of it all are chaotic, and the only party benefiting is Iran, which thrives on mayhem and divisions among anyone who opposes Tehran’s agenda. The natural question of course arises is why would UAE continue backing a group that clearly has less of an interest  in broader agenda of the coalition than pushing for its own bid that could only strengthen Iran’s goal.

The Houthis which largely reside in the lesser developed Northern part of Yemen seek continuity into the South. Dividing the country which had been held together, albeit imperfectly, under Ali Saleh, would not change the goals of Iran, the Houthis, or the various other terrorist groups on the ground, and would only create additional political complexities on top of the existing military and humanitarian difficulties. Furthermore, the unseemly vision of UAE forces clashing with the Saudi-backed forces in Aden and elsewhere are already being exploited by Iran for propaganda value and to create additional tensions and distrust between UAE and KSA.

Contradictory Coverage of the UAE Meeting with Iran Underscores the Role of Information Warfare

Putting aside these considerations for a moment, it is worth examining the dynamics between UAE and Iran outside Yemen. Of course, the meetings between the officials were spun very differently by the pro-Iran media and former Obama officials, now firmly ensconced in the Western foreign policy establishment, and the Gulf responders.  Much of the Western media covered the story as a political rapprochement between Iran and UAE, a political and diplomatic victory to Tehran, and a heavy blow to KSA, which is being stabbed in the back in the midst of a crisis. as reported by Washington Post on July 31, 2019. The Gulf press, on the other hand, disputed the version of significant maritime security agreements that would position UAE as having bought off its own safety in exchange for throwing Saudis under the bus, and instead pointed out that the meetings were routine and focused on relatively trivial fishing issues that do not affect the larger calculus nor change the nature of the relationship.

See for example Khaleej Times coverage on July 31, 2019. One can argue whether such coverage is merely a face saving measure by the ATQ in light of this turn of events; a cynical viewer could even make claim that UAE withdrawal from Yemen had less to do with the apparently hopelessness of the situation or the threat emanating from Iran than with some secret backchannel dialogue with Iran, which would preserve or even grow the trade relationship between the countries in exchange for the PR victory UAE would grant Iran by withdrawing its relatively small forces from Yemen (without necessarily ceasing its backing for the Southern forces). That interpretation would make sense if indeed the more significant nature of the meeting between the two countries were confirmed. However, following the Aytollah Khamenei’s public support for the Houthis, UAE officials publically linked Iran with the Houthis, which Iran had previously denied as Arab News points out on August 14, 2019.

Furthermore, the Emiratis and the Saudis accused Qataris and Turkish media of deliberately fabricating non-existent details to advance Iran’s agenda of creating divisions where there are not any, and fomenting tensions between the close allies, which have consistently pushed for diplomacy and opposed military confrontation with Iran as Radio Farda reported on August 3, 2019. Regardless of what is actually going on behind the scenes, however, neither version of events ultimately answers the question of what exactly Iran is hoping to achieve through this chain of events. Of course, it may have achieved a propaganda victory against the ATQ through the gossipy coverage which exploits or creates differences between UAE and KSA.

How does Iran benefit from the controversy over UAE meeting?

Certainly, whatever the actual reason for UAE’s withdrawal, it is to Iran’s advantage to have fewer people opposing the HOuthis in Yemen, particularly if they do not also change the strategy to become more effective in countering the ground forces with the intimate knowledge of the land and far greater information warfare skills. And most definitely, even a very minor meeting with Emirati officials, sends a strong signal to the rest of the world that Iran is a “reasonable” country that looks to cooperate with its neighbors if not major issues than on routine ones, and that the view of it as a regional aggressor with nothing of value to offer to the region is at the very least exaggerated. In other words, even if from a practical perspective it made sense for the Emiratis to meet with Iranians and to address diplomatically whatever is possible to address, it very likely was a mistake to agree to do so during a public visit to Iran rather than in some neutral and benign location.

The most likely view of the situation by Iran is as follows: regardless of UAE’s interests in the matter, it is clear that Iran has its geopolitical agenda of dominating the region and rebuilding the Persian empire, however long that will take. UAE, most likely, is not its primary target, as Iran has been consistent in pushing for the creation of a “Shi’a crescent”, and UAE simply would not fall into that category. Furthermore, at the current juncture, Iran needs all the financial help it can get, and attacking its trading partner’s territory does not make sense until such point as Tehran has secured its positions sufficiently elsewhere. Attacks on tankers will not warrant much of an international reaction, but a direct attack on UAE could be altogether different.

Likewise, Iran has no intention of stopping Houthi or Iraqi militia attacks against the Saudis; if anything, for the first time Iran’s reach to its proxies is sufficiently strong that it can now coordinate among these different bodies without facing much of a response from the US or anybody else.  However, creating and fomenting distrust among all allies, and making the White House confused and cross with all the parties involved, ruining any possibility of creating some version of an Arab NATO, and ensuring that no coordinated political action, such as a blockade, can be taken against its own interests is the most likely aim of all of this maneuvering.  The meeting with UAE may not have been of much strategic value in and of itself; particularly if Iran had no intention of attacking UAE to begin with, securing maritime agreements would be rather a symbolic and useless step. All agreements can be violated in a blink of an eye if Iran so chooses, as some have discovered through the folly of the nuclear deal.

However, creating the optics of a meeting and a dispute has furthered the tribalist differences Iran has long since alleged against its rivals, ensuring  that any future steps in the Gulf area may not encounter an unanimous response, because some may feel more invested in preserving a potential symbolic defense than others. If UAE believes that the rapprochement with Iran, even a minor one, is to its benefit in protecting it from physical harm, it will be less likely to be vocal in pushing for additional measures against Iran, and could be even used to oppose further tough actions by the United States, if it ever chooses to launch a military strike for instance.

UAE may not view the situation that way at all; for all anyone knows, the sole point of that expedition was to determine that Iran, once again is playing games, check off this last-resort attempt at peacemaking from the list, and go on business as usual in close coordination with Saudi Arabia. But UAE’s intentions here are irrelevant to Iran; most of this charade is aimed at generating panic among the Gulf masses and to for the benefit of the West, that will now be less sure of its Arab allies because they appear to be splintered, hedging their bets in light of Trump’s relative inaction, or else untrustworthy even towards each other, as some are already alleging. Iran may have engineered the entire situation for the benefit of the West and to create further distrust in the Arab allies and their ability and willingness to advance effective anti-Iran agenda and their overall worth to the United States.

Qatar meeting with Iran may underscore Qatar’s support for Iran agenda in Yemen

As for the meeting with Qatar?  FM Zarif, recently sanctioned by the United States, notably visited with Qatari officials right after visit by a Houthi official as reported by The National, on August 11, 2019.. NOt only is Iran flagrantly demonstrating the depth of its relationship with the Houthis, but it is now fairly open about Qatar’s support not merely for some trade with Iran  in light of the boycott by the ATQ, but Qatar’s support for Iran’s political positions and agenda in the region, which includes the backing of the Houthis. The de facto finance minister of the Houthis was killed during the factional clashes in Sanaa, but the HOuthis blamed his death on the US. Houthis, too, appear to be experiencing infighting. One of their leaders may have been killed during a power struggle. Qatar, which is right across from Iran has a front row view of the attacks on the Emirati and Saudi tankers; it also shares a gas field with Iran.

Despite Qatar’s stated concerns over Iran’s supposed threat, none of Qatari sites or tankers have been attacked by Iran or any of its proxies. Left out from the background to the meeting is  that Qatar has retained ties to both the Houthis and the Islah (ISlamist) brigades in Yemen, funding and backing both sides of the war, though ultimately the ISlamists are hostile to Saudi and Emirati interests in Yemen, writes Samuel Ramani in Al Monitor on November 19, 2018. Qatar’s support for the anti-Houthi Islamists has not appeared to have alarmed Iran, because this step ultimately only creates further friction between the Saudis and Emiratis and further advances Iran’s agenda. In other words, Iran is happy to have a fifth column inside the Arab Coalition, without which, nevertheless, countering the Houthis is unimaginable for lack of sufficient forces with knowledge of the physical landscape, especially after withdrawal by many of the other former Coalition members (including Egyptians, Moroccans, and Sudanese, and now the loss of most Emirati fighters).

However, the meeting with Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani has not raised much interest in the Western press, primarily because it is a dog bites man situation and there is less controversy to be explored. The meeting very well may have been planned to coordinate the agenda on Yemen, and certainly on the information warfare campaign in smearing the Arab Coalition members, and setting them up against one another. It is a shame that none in the press have stepped away from sensationalism to ask deeper, more troubling questions about this steadily growing relationship and Qatar’s apparent support and approval of Iran’s backing of the Houthis and their terrorist activity. Instead, they have focused on exploiting perceived divisions and fueling attacks against the allies in Yemen, with the hope of undermining their mutually important relationship and their partnership with the US. 

UAE and KSA should ignore such provocations; instead of playing into the hands of adversarial propaganda, they should issue joint statements emphasizing common goals on the ground; then quietly sit down and hammer out the challenges that have prevented them from unifying behind the same forces. As mentioned above, there is already evidence that much of that has been caused by miscommunication and social pressures of various types, rather than any bad intent or blind unwillingness to embrace the strategically sound positions.  However, if there is anything to be learned from these episodes is that Iran is a ruthlessly deceptive and calculating manipulator which will go to any lengths to clear its path to dominance, and that no matter the priorities and the political differences, the members of the ATQ should not fall for its dirty tricks.

Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney and analyst based in New York. She has written extensively about geopolitics, foreign policy, and security issues for a variety of domestic and international issues and her writing has been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

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Middle East

The new relationship between Israel and Bahrain

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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President Donald J. Trump, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs for the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyanisigns sign the Abraham Accords Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

The issue of the new relationship between Israel and Bahrain, following the agreement already signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, is particularly interesting. It marks a realignment of the Sunni world with the Jewish State, clearly against Iran, and hence indirectly with the West.

 Israel, however, does not always think strategically like its Western allies. This is positive.

 The oil leverage between the Arab East and the Euro-American West is currently changing (although the EU has not yet realized it) given the rise of the U.S. oil power.

Nevertheless, there is a change also in what we could define as the military “protection level” between the Sunni Arab world and the Western defence system, between NATO and the U.S. or Atlantic Alliance specific agreements with Sunni Arab countries. Europe is obviously out of the game.

The primary aims pursued are the following: as to the Arabs, fully playing the Western card with regard to the Russian Federation and, in some ways, also to China; as to Westerners, the game No. 1 is to take back the Sunni world after the jihadist crisis and then to create a new market of crude oil prices just now that the U.S. shale oil is changing the whole price system. Ultimately, however, the United States wants to avoid Russia and China strategically “taking” the Sunni world.

 The Sunni world knows it can never do without the West to seriously oppose Iran and its proxies. It also needs the U.S. and the EU technologies to make the “energy transition” from oil and gas to renewables. It finally needs weapons and technologies, but probably also direct military aid from the United States and NATO – and, in the future, also from the Jewish State.

 Iran is an existential threat also to them. In the Middle East the areas of influence and contact between Iran and the Sunni world are such that they cannot be regulated by some kind of peace treaty. Yemen is a case in point. Every move in the Gulf is a zero-sum game.

 Now, however, we need to take a step back. The “Abraham Accord” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAEs) and then Bahrain is based on future “normal relations” between the Jewish State and the UAEs.

 An agreement drafted in mid-August 2020, but long prepared by the Intelligence Services and subsequently by both parties’ diplomacies, and also by some European Intelligence Services.

 These “normal relations” imply usual business relations, direct flights, tourism, scientific exchanges and full diplomatic recognition.

 It is obvious, however, that the Emirates will not send an Ambassador to Jerusalem.

 It is not envisaged in the agreements, but there is, however, a specific exchange of information between the Intelligence Services, as has long happened also between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

 Again according to the Emirates -but the text is anyway clear in this regard – the Israeli-UAE agreement immediately stops any Israeli attempt of West Bank annexation, but it also envisages a renewal of the negotiations between the PNA and the Jewish State to “put an end to the conflict”.

Vaste programme, as De Gaulle would have said. The core of the issue is that now the Palestinians of the PNA – a badly conceived entity resulting from the end of the Cold War – are no longer of any use to anyone.

 Neither to the Soviet Union, which does no longer exist and no longer needs cumulative training camps for European terrorists or possibly pressure systems for their Arab allies, nor to the European left (and to the EU, although it is not aware of it) that knew nothing about foreign policy, but only wanted Israel’s “reduction”. Least of all to China, which does notknow what to do with them, nor even to the jihadist galaxy, which has scarcely used the old Palestinian guerrilla network.

Currently the prominent role played by Hamas in the Gaza Strip and also in the West Bank – a movement deriving from the Muslim Brotherhood, which explicitly accepts the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in its statutes and which, however, is notoriously now fully supported by Iran, with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad – is a role that is certainly not interesting for the Gulf Sunni countries.

 Probably it is interesting only for Qatar and Turkey, which have much to do with the Brotherhood. Nevertheless, I do not think that Turkey and Qatar want to go all the way in this strategic game, with the risk of antagonizing Saudi Arabia and most of the Emirates.

However, no one wants to bear the high costs for managing the PNA any longer. They are strategically useless and most likely even dangerous.

 Israel and the UAEs already tried to normalise their relations years ago. In 2015, the Jewish State opened a diplomatic office in Abu Dhabi, in relation to the International Renewable Energy Agency. Later there were sports meetings and Israel had also been envisaged as a guest in the 2020 World EXPO, now postponed to October 2021, unless otherwise decided due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 The real sign that the agreement with the Emirates was very important for Israel was the decision taken by Netanyahu to postpone the annexation of the West Bank indefinitely.

 The Palestinians immediately recalled their Ambassador to the Emirates.

Israel cares little about the PNA, the relic of a Cold War that no longer has strategic significance, except for the pro-Iranian role played by Hamas and by a part of Fatah, the old political group of Mahmoud Abbas. Israel is therefore interested only in the West Bank and, in full agreement with Egypt, in the anti-jihadist control of the Gaza Strip and Sinai.

Obviously, neither Saudi Arabia, nor the Emirates, nor Bahrain, nor other States in the Sunni area (even though Bahrain has a Shiite majority, but a Sunni ruling class), and even less Israel want to be associated with a corrupt and totally inefficient political class such as the PNA’s, which is now the glove within which the Iranian hand is extended – and Iran is the only power interested and willing to take the two political areas of the old PNA by the hand.

As mentioned above, the “Abraham Accord” has been accepted also by Bahrain and then by Jordan, which has an old peace treaty in place with Israel dating back to 1994, but burdened by the subsequent severe crisis of 2015-2016 with Israel, at the time of the annexation of East Jerusalem and hence of the Al-Aqsa Mosque (Al-Aqsa means “the farthest”, a reference to the distance of Islam’s third holiest shrine from Makkah and Madinah in Saudi Arabia).

The agreement has also been accepted by Egypt, which sees the jihadist tension in Sinai resolved, in perspective, with the Jewish State’s more direct and explicit collaboration. Finally, the “Abraham Accord” has been publicly praised by Oman, now that the new King,Hatham bin Tariq, wants to keep on modernizing the Kingdom of Oman and Muscat in the wake of the late Sultan Qaboos – whose Guards wore Scottish kilts and played bagpipes – and with greater strategic independence from the other Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

 Who is against the Accord? Obviously Iran, which sees a strategic correlation between Israel and the Sunni world looming large, with the very severe closure of the Emirates’ area to Iran – an area where it could have played the card of influence operations against Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Also Qatar is against it. The country is also militarily tied to Turkey and it is the financial and political base of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is disliked by all the other Gulf Sunni States and, in some ways, is in a process of reconciliation even with the Iranian-Syrian and Lebanese Shiites.

Obviously also Turkey is against the agreement, not for the acceptance of the Jewish State in the framework of inter-Arab relations – a State with which Turkey has had diplomatic relations since 1949, although it has never recognised the UN Partition Plan from which the independence of the Jewish State itself originated.

Turkey has a cold attitude towards the “Abraham Accord” particularly because it will be isolated in the Emirates and in the Gulf area, since it is loosely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, and has a project of Central Asian expansion that will not enable it to maintain the status quo currently favourable to it in the Gulf, nor – in perspective – the good relations with Qatar.

As stated above, Bahrain- and, if all goes well, it will be the turn of Sudan, Oman and Morocco – is accepting and, indeed, has already accepted the Abraham Accord.

 Morocco has already had Jewish Ministers in its governments, and the private affairs secretary of King Hassan II was an Italian, from Ferrara, who had also been the only one to show solidarity with him when the young Giorgio Bassani was expelled from high school due to infamous “racial laws” of 1938.

 King Hamad has already allowed Israeli leaders to participate – in the future – in a regional meeting on Gulf security, the Manama Security Dialogue 2020, scheduled in the capital of the Kingdom for December 4-6.

 Netanyahu already met the late Sultan Qaboos of Oman in 2018.

 Why does Bahrain officially recognize Israel under the “Abraham Accord”?

First and foremost because the Jewish State is a brilliant success story.

 Because of its technology, its stability, its military strength, even its excellent intelligence, Israel allures many countries in the Arab world and in other world regions. Sultan bin Khalifa has always openly expressed his esteem for the Jewish State.

In 2018 Bahrain’s Foreign Minister twitted a message in favour of Israel in its war against the underground channels created by Hezbollah. Later he explicitly expressed his appreciation when he saw that also Australia had recognized East Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State.

  The Sultan of Bahrain has openly put strong pressure on the Gulf Security Council for it to designate Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization”.

Here we are not talking about traditional tensions between Sunnis and Shiites, but about a geopolitical and strategic choice: to make the Emirates and the whole Gulf a peaceful area, so as to start – as soon as possible – the energy and economic transition that will decide the future of the oil States in the region.

 The war freezes positions. It is expensive and does not allow the great economic transition that all the Gulf ruling classes, with the sole exception of Iran, intend to begin as soon as possible.

Obviously Iran does not play its cards so much on oil as on natural gas, which is not envisaged by the OPEC system.

It should also be recalled that Bahrain also hosted the White House’s Peace to Prosperity Workshopin 2019. On that occasion as many as seven Israeli journalists were welcomed to the Kingdom.

 It should also be noted that Bahrain is closely connected to Saudi Arabia with specific reference to the economy and the selection of the ruling class.

Bahrain has a majority of Shiite population, with a Sunni royal House and a Sunni ruling class. Hence, more than for other Gulf countries, Iran, which is in front of its shores, is an existential threat.

The link between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is increasingly strong, especially after 2018, when the small coastal kingdom had to repress – often harshly – the “Arab Springs” which, indeed, had many connections with Iran.

 The greatest mistake recently made by Westerners in the Middle East, the “Arab Spring”, after the Sykes-Picot Treaty, when France lost some of its power because the translator was Luis Massignon, with his very refined Arabic that the desert raiders did not understand, while the interpreter for Great Britain was Lawrence of Arabia, who was used to the Arab streets and plebs.

What about Palestine? On September 3 last, almost simultaneously with the announcement of the “Abraham Accord” by Donald J. Trump at the White House, a videoconference was held between the Lebanon and Palestine, with the participation of Abu Mazen and all the Palestinian factions. It should also be noted that the videoconference had been organised by both Fatah and Hamas- a unique rather than a rare case.

 Ismail Haniyeh, the Chief of Hamas Political Bureau, was in Beirut, together with Ziad Nadalia, the Secretary General of Islamic Jihad, and all the leaders of the factions that are not allowed to operate within the Palestinian National Authority’s territories.

 Mohammed Barakeh, former member of the Israeli Parliament, was in Ramallah.

 For everyone, the strategic key to interpreting the “Abraham Accord” was the breaking of the Arab Peace Initiative, the Saudi Arabian initiative of 2002, then reaffirmed in 2007 and again in 2017 by all Arab League Summits.

 This “initiative” concerns, in nuce, Israel’s withdrawal from all occupied territories, as well as a “just settlement” for Palestinian refugees on the basis of UN Resolution No.194, and the establishment of a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.

What were the videoconference results? The clear and obvious perception of the isolation of the PNA, which no one now wants to maintain at full cost any longer, considering that it is a “strategic relic” of the past; the agreement between Hamas and Fatah, a unique rather than a rare case; the inevitable opening of the PNA’s territories to the declared enemies of the Abraham Accord, i.e. Qatar, which will try to reach a strategic and military correlation between Libya-Tripoli and the Gaza Strip, as well as for the West Bank and then Turkey, with its Muslim Brothers, who are those who founded Hamas. But above all it will be a deal for Iran, which already supports the Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian factions, obviously against Israel and waiting for Hezbollah to make again operations beyond the Litani River.

Hence “people’s struggle”, in the PLO and PNA jargon, but there is no reference to “armed struggle” in the final document of the videoconference, as well as the request for a Palestinian State within the 1967 borders, and then the evident verification of the declining consensus for the Palestinian cause among the Sunni Arab States of the Gulf, from which a further restriction of economic aid to the PNA will result.

Nevertheless, the real danger, which should regard also Israel, is the PNA’s full implosion, which could cause global military, migration and economic phenomena.

 What about the Russian Federation? It must go back being essential in the Middle East. The “Abraham Accord” brokered and mediated by the United States and by some European intelligence services can put an end to the comparative and strategic advantage of Russia’s victory in Syria and the very careful management of military and intelligence relations with Israel.

 Not to mention the refined Russian containment of the Iranian pressure in Syria – one of the real goals of the Russian presence in Bashar el Assad’s republic.

 What cards could Russia play in the new Middle East that is currently being defined? Many cards.

As early as 2018, Russia has started to meet the Islamic Jihad again, while Abu Mazen also met Russian leaders in 2019 to create a new “format” of peace between Israel and the PNA mediated by the Russian Federation alone.

 Then there is the Lebanese card – Russia’s presence is increasingly visible in the Lebanon due to an obvious spillover from Syria.

Hence Russia’s number one game in the new Middle East is to maintain close relations with all the regional, State and non-State actors, so as to get to be the only supreme arbiter (also towards Israel) of the future and now inevitable Middle East peace.

What about China? It does not view the Abraham Accord favourably, considering that for China it is tantamount to an actual withdrawal from the Middle East by the United States –  and therefore an increase in the costs for the strategic control of the region – but also to the return of many important Sunni countries within a U.S. economic orbit, just when China was seducing Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

 The “Abraham Accord” closes the Gulf’s doors to many countries that wanted to enter the region.

China, however, will put on a good face and make the best of a bad situation, by supporting an actual friendly country, Israel, and maintaining the usual excellent relations with the Sunni world, in the hope of soon replacing the United States as the political-military reference point for the region.

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Middle East

Will They or Won’t They? Saudi Recognition of Israel is the $64,000 Question

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Will the Saudis formalize relations with Israel or will they not? That is the 64,000-dollar question.

The odds are that Saudi Arabia is not about to formalize relations with Israel. But the kingdom, its image tarnished by multiple missteps, is seeking to ensure that it is not perceived as the odd man out as smaller Gulf states establish diplomatic relations with the Jewish state.

Bahrain’s announcement that it would follow in the footsteps of the United Arab Emirates was as much a Bahraini move as it was a Saudi signal that it is not opposed to normalization with Israel.

Largely dependent on the kingdom since Saudi troops helped squash mass anti-government protests in 2011, Bahrain, a majority Shia Muslim nation, would not have agreed to establish diplomatic relations with Israel without Saudi consent.

The Bahraini move followed several other Saudi gestures intended to signal the kingdom’s endorsement of Arab normalization of Israel even if it was not going to lead the pack.

The gestures included the opening of Saudi air space to Israeli commercial flights, and publication of a Saudi think tank report praising Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s stewardship in modernizing the kingdom’s religious education system and encouraging the religious establishment to replace“extremist narratives” in school textbooks with “a moderate interpretation of Islamic rhetoric.”

They also involved a sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, the imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca – the world’s largest mosque that surrounds the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest site, that highlighted Prophet Mohammed’s friendly relations with Jews.

Mr. al-Sudais noted that the prophet had “performed ablution from a polytheistic water bottle and died while his shield was mortgaged to a Jew,” forged a peace agreement with Jewish inhabitants of the Khaybar region, and dealt so well with a Jewish neighbor that he eventually converted to Islam. 

The imam’s comments, a day before US President Donald J. Trump was believed to have failed to persuade King Salman to follow the UAE’s example, were widely seen as part of an effort to prepare Saudi public opinion for eventual recognition of Israel.

Criticism on social media of the comments constituted one indication that public opinion in Gulf states is divided.

Expression of Emirati dissent was restricted to Emirati exiles given that the UAE does not tolerate expression of dissenting views.

However, small scale protests erupted in Bahrain, another country that curtails freedom of expression and assembly. Bahraini political and civil society associations, including the Bahrain Bar Association, issued a statement rejecting the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.

“What results from normalization will not enjoy popular backing, in line with what generations of Bahrainis have been brought up on in terms of adherence to the Palestinian cause,” the statement said.

Bahrain has long been home to a Jewish community and was the first and, so far, only Arab state to appoint a Jew as its ambassador to the United States.

The criticism echoes recent polls in various Gulf states that suggest that Palestine remains a major public foreign policy concern.

Polling by David Pollock of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that Palestine ranked second to Iran.

Earlier polls by James Zogby, a Washington-based pollster with a track record that goes back more than a decade, showed Palestine ranking in 2018 as the foremost foreign policy issue followed by Iran in Emirati and Saudi public opinion.

The same year’s Arab Opinion Index suggested that 80 percent of Saudis see Palestine as an Arab rather than a purely Palestinian issue.

Mr. Pollock said in an interview that with regard to Palestine, Saudi officials “believe that they have to be a little cautious. They want to move bit by bit in the direction of normalizing at least the existence of Israel or the discussion of Israel, the possibility of peace, but they don’t think that the public is ready for the full embrace or anything like that.”

Gulf scholar Giorgio Cafiero noted in a tweet that “Israel formalizing relations (with) unelected Arab (governments) is not the same as Israel making ‘peace’ (with) Arab people. Look at, for example, what Egypt’s citizenry thinks of Israel. Iran and Turkey will capitalize on this reality as more US-friendly Arab [governments] sign accords [with] Israel.”

This year’s Arab Opinion Index suggest that in Kuwait, the one country that has not engaged with Israel publicly, Turkey—the Muslim country that has taken a lead in supporting the Palestinians—ranked highest in public esteem compared to China, Russia, and Iran.

A rift in a UAE-backed Muslim group created to counter Qatari support of political Islam and promote a state-controlled version of Islam that preaches absolute obedience to the ruler serves as a further indication that Palestine remains an emotive public issue.

In Mr. Al-Sudais’ case, analysts suggest that the criticism is as much about Palestine as it is a signal that religious leaders who become subservient to the whims of government may be losing credibility.

Mr. Al-Sudais’ sermon contrasted starkly with past talks in which he described Jews as “killers of prophets and the scum of the earth” as well as “monkeys and pigs” and defended Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Iran as a war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The criticism coupled with indications earlier this year that Saudi Arabia’s religious establishment was not happy with Prince Mohammed’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic may be one reason why Saudi Arabia is gesturing rather than formalizing already existing relations with Israel.

Authorities reportedly arrested in March Sheikh Abdullah al-Saad, an Islamic scholar, after he posted online an audio clip criticizing the government for banning Friday prayers. Mr. al-Saad argued that worshippers should be able to ask God for mercy.

An imam in Mecca was fired shortly after he expressed concern about the spread of the coronavirus in Saudi prisons.

Scholars Genevieve Abdo and Nourhan Elnahla reported that the kingdom’s Council of Senior Clerics had initially drafted a fatwa, or religious opinion, describing the closing of mosques as a violation of Islamic principles. They said that government pressure had persuaded the council not to issue the opinion.

Concern among the kingdom’s ultra-conservative religious scholars that the ruling Al-Saud family may break the power-sharing agreement with the clergy, concluded at the birth of the kingdom, predates the rise of King Salman and Prince Mohammed.

Indeed, the clerics’ concern stretches back to the reign of King Abdullah and has focused on attitudes expressed both by senior members of the ruling family who have since been sidelined or detained by Prince Mohammed and princes that continue to wield influence.

The scholars feared that the ruling family contemplated separating state and religion. This is a concern that has likely been reinforced since Prince Mohammed whipped the kingdom’s religious establishment into submission and downplayed religion by emphasizing nationalism.

Ultra-conservative Saudi religious scholars are also certain to have taken note of post-revolt Sudan’s recent decision to legally remove religion from the realm of the state.

Ultra-conservative sentiment does not pose an imminent threat to Prince Mohammed’s iron grip rule of a country in which many welcomed social reforms that have lifted some of the debilitating restrictions on women, liberalized gender segregation, and the as yet unfulfilled promise of greater opportunity for a majority youthful population.

It does however suggest one reason why Prince Mohammed, who is believed to favor formal relations with Israel, may want to tread carefully on an issue that potentially continues to evoke passions.

An initial version of this story was first published by Inside Arabia

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Arabs have abandoned Palestine longtime ago

Shahzada Rahim

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Bethlehem: part of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank. Photo: UN News/Reem Abaza

I don’t understand why the majority of Muslims have reacted so furiously on UAE’s recognition of the State of Israel. Those who are criticizing Arabs are illiterate common people, who even don’t have a slight background of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. If we study deeply the nature of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the very conflict began as Arab-Israeli deadlock first, when the nationalist Arabs started the first War with Israel in 1948.

Similarly, the second war between Arabs and Israel began in 1969, when Israelis set Al-Aqsa Mosque on fire. Likewise, the third war began in 1973, which is often known as Yom-Kippur war in the history books and was the major development in the conflict. Unfortunately, the beginning of 1970s was the turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during which Arabs willfully abandoned the Palestinian cause for good.

A major turning point occurred when the Late President of Egypt Anwar Sadat visited Israeli Knesset and formally recognized the state of Israel. In response, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza strip back to Egypt, which were lost to Israel during the Yom-e-Kippur war. Perhaps, this was the very day, when the Arab leaders began reconsidering their foreign policy approach towards Israel.

Soon after the Egypt’s recognition of Israel, the Palestinian Liberation Organization became a sandwich between the Baathist regime of Iraq and Syria. The major animosity between PLO and Arab petro-monarchies began during the second Gulf War, when the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat visited Iraq and supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Since then petro-monarchies began taking least interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Even the term Arab-Israeli conflict changed into Palestinian-Israeli conflict (please read late American President Jimmy Carter’s book “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid” to understand this analogical transformation).

Another major reason behind Arab Monarchies least interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is Iran. Because, soon after the revolution, the Iranian theocratic regime has taken major interest in the Palestinian issue with metaphorical yet psychological slogan “Death to America and Death to Israel”. The Iranian regime began exporting the revolution to other countries in the region such as Iraq and Lebanon in particular. What Khomeini said on the wake of revolution during his first speech “Islam has no borders”. The message was clear, from now onwards Iran will be the champion of Palestinian cause, which has indeed infuriated Sunni Arabs. (To understand this please read Edward Said’s famous book “Covering Islam”).

Similarly, with Imam Khomeini’s declaration of himself as Vilayat-e-faqi, the Saudi Royal family declared themselves as Huremain-e-Sharifeen, which means the Custodians of two holy mosques. According to Lebanese philosopher and Political scientist Fawaz A Gerges; it was the CIA’s Idea to counter Shiite Iran in the Greater Middle East. Basically, since the revolution in Iran, the Iranian theocratic regime has used Palestinian cause as genuine platform to expand its influence across the Muslim world. (Please read Fawaz A Gerges famous book “America and Political Islam”).

Similarly, with the Iranian establishment of Hezbollah (The party of God) in Lebanon for the Palestinian cause, the situation turned worse. The Arab monarchies declared Hezbollah as Iranian proxy tool to export revolution across the Middle East rather a group fighting for the Palestinian cause. (To understand this please read Professor Noam Chomsky’s famous book “The Fateful Triangle“). Consequently, with the strange assassination of former Lebanese president Rafic Hariri in 2005, the tensions further escalated because he was close ally of Arab monarchies. The Arab leaders blamed Iranian backed Hezbollah in Lebanon for the murder of Rafic Harari. 

Another major reason behind the Arabs losing interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the political and ideological presence of Hamas in Gaza, which is an offshoot of banned Muslim Brotherhood. Ideologically, Muslim Brotherhood headquartered in Egypt is a pan-Islamist party, which since its formation is struggling to establish an Islamic Empire in the Arab world by overthrowing monarchies. In this respect, Hamas as an ideological offshoot of the banned Muslim Brotherhood is threat to Arab Monarchies and hence, a major excuse for Arabs to abandon Palestinian cause.

In contrast, the recent tremendous changes in the foreign policy orientation towards Israel across the Arab world indicates the beginning of new regional peace process. As a matter fact, Israel as a nation state is a living reality, which cannot be ignored and the continuing Arab confrontation with Israel is not in the best interest of Palestinians. The recent diplomatic step taken by United Arab Emirates to normalize relationship with the state of Israel is a positive step towards new regional peace and security architecture.

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