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An Islamic perspective of Qatar diplomatic crisis

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Authors: Ahmad Turmudzi and Dr. Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat

On June 5, 2017, the Middle East region was shocked by Saudi Arabia’s decision to cut diplomatic relations with its neighbor, Qatar. The decision was followed by other countries in the region including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. After ending diplomatic relations with the tiny Gulf nation, these countries also agreed to impose a sea, land, and air blockade on Qatar.

The factors causing the blockade are partly because of Qatar’s proximity to Iran, a country that has been a long-time enemy of Saudi Arabia, as well as Qatar’s support of “terrorist” groups including the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar has rejected the claims and said there was “no legitimate justification” for the severance of relations.

The blockade of Qatar certainly has various implications, including politically, economically, and socially.

The political impact can be seen from the participation of the four Arab countries in severing diplomatic relations with Qatar and participating in imposing a blockade. In addition, Saudi Arabia’s claim against Qatar as a terrorist-supporting country has also tarnished the country’s good name in the eyes of the international community.

Despite not very significant, implications are also felt in the economic field, where Qatar has lost its closest trade partners. Trade cooperation between Qatar and those four countries make up 86 percent of the total trade Doha undertakes with Arab countries.

Not only that, the blockade policy also has social implications, where the land, sea and air blockade on Qatar has made difficult the movement of Qatari people to its neighbouring countries. For example, Qatari nationals and residents have been denied the right to perform Hajj and Umra because of the blockade. In addition, Saudi authorities have imposed further constraints on Qataris wish- ing to perform hajj and umrah, including closing electronic registration, suspending payments, and refusing to coordinate with the Qatari Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs.

Looking at the blockade from an Islamic perspective

Saudi Arabia’s blockade policy towards Qatar is an irony, because as a country that is often referred to as the centre of Islam, it fails to become an example for other Muslim countries.

If we look at the Islamic traditions, there is a strong prohibition on mutual hostility and division among the people. Prophet Muhammad, for instance, states that: “Do not cut ties with each other and do not hate each other. It is not lawful for a Muslim to not greet his brothers or sisters for over three days.

The Prophet’s statement is also reinforced by the verse in the Qur’an, specifically in Chapter Ali-Imran verse 103 which reads:

“And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allah upon you – when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favor, brothers.”

The main lesson is that Islam forbids disputes, animosity and divisions that occur between fellow human beings, and it actually calls upon the people to unite with each other. That is the true teaching of Islam.

This is what Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries should remember in their policy towards Qatar. These countries should remind themselves that cutting ties with Qatar is something that is strongly prohibited, more so restricting them to worship.

If viewed from an Islamic perspective, these countries’ actions towards Qatar is unjustified, whatever the reason is. This is due to the existence of religious ties between these countries.

This is strengthened by a Hadith narrated by Bukhari and Abu Musa, Prophet Muhammad said: “A believer with another believer is like a sturdy building that reinforces one another.” This message calls the people to help one another, instead of making each other difficult. Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries should understand that the blockade has imposed various difficulties on Qatar.

There are several Islamic principles that have been denied by these countries: First, the prohibition to cut ties. Instead, they have not only cut diplomatic relations with Qatar since June 2017, but have also restricted Qatar to carry out worship. Secondly, the prohibition to impose difficulties on other people. In this crisis, some Gulf countries have put hardship on Qatar with the blockade. Lastly, the prohibition to have envious trait. In this case, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain based their decision on their hatred of Qatar’s closeness with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The above prohibitions are rules in Islam that have been violated by Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations. To maintain its good name as a model for all Muslim countries in the world, Saudi Arabia must change its attitude towards Qatar and it must stop the blockade, because it greatly affects the lives of Qatari society in general. It also needs to encourage other countries to end its action.

Saudi Arabia as a country that is often recognised as the center of Islam should not set a bad example by breaking diplomatic relations with Qatar and imposing a blockade. Saudi Arabia should understand that Islam does not justify hostility between fellow Muslims as stated in several Qur’anic verses and Hadith.

If it continues with its policy, Saudi Arabia will definitely tarnish its good name. In this case, the Kingdom must exert any effort to end its blockade on Qatar and re-establish diplomatic relations with the country.

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Israelis and Palestinians agree on one thing: Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity

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Much of Gaza City has been damaged as a result of Israeli air strikes. (file photo) © UNRWA/Mohamed Hinnawi

If there is one thing that Israelis and Palestinians agree on and religiously adhere to, it’s Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Israelis have long believed that overwhelming force, collective punishment, denial of rights, rejection of identity, humiliation, and a devastating Egyptian-supported 15-year-long blockade of the Gaza Strip would persuade Palestinians to surrender their national aspirations, accept a rewriting of history, and settle for Israeli control in exchange for economic opportunity.

Israeli officials hailed the decision by Hamas, the Islamists who control Gaza, not to become militarily involved in this month’s fight with Islamic Jihad, a militant Palestinian organization based in the strip, as evidence that the government’s strategy was working.

However, there is little reason to assume that Hamas has suddenly changed its leopard spots and surrendered the principle of armed struggle. On the contrary, it is more likely that Hamas wants to decide on the timing rather than let Islamic Jihad or Israel drag it into a conflict at a moment that suits their agendas.

The Israeli military said this week that it had sealed an attack tunnel Hamas dug from northern Gaza into Israel. It noted that an underground defensive barrier Israel completed in December had blocked the tunnel.

Even so, Israeli officials believe that Hamas’ refusal to join the fray constitutes proof that Israel’s strategy is working.

“What is happening now between Israel and Hamas is a de facto (ceasefire). It is a system of big sticks and sweet carrots. Hamas is receiving what it never got from Israel before and delivering the goods to residents. They understand the price they are paying, but realize the alternative is worse,” a senior Israeli military source told Al-Monitor.

With the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) estimating youth unemployment at 75 per cent, Israel is expected to incentivize Hamas by allowing thousands of Gazan workers return to work in Israel.

Israel is also considering increasing the number of Gazan work permits from 14,000 to 20,000. Furthermore, Israel may allow Gaza residents vetted by security to travel abroad on flights from an airport in southern Israel.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz argued in recent days that “for the past year, Israel has had a clear policy. On the one hand, a heavy hand against all violations of sovereignty and offensive and defensive efforts to prevent (attacks) on all fronts. On the other hand, a responsible civil and humanitarian policy strengthening moderate forces over terrorist organizations.”

It’s a strategy built on Israeli scholar Micah Goodmen’s notion of “shrinking the conflict.”

Mr. Goodman argued in a 2019 New York Times oped that this “wouldn’t solve or end the conflict… It would contain it, it would lessen it. It would broaden the Palestinians’ freedom of movement, their freedom to develop and their freedom to prosper — all without an Israeli military withdrawal, and therefore no security dangers for Israeli civilians.”

Perhaps most importantly, Mr. Goodman suggested that shrinking the conflict “would mitigate the risk of a deterioration into a one-state reality” in which Israeli Jews would likely no longer be a majority.

Mr. Goodman’s notion constitutes an acknowledgement that Israeli policy has not worked, even if Hamas appears to have become more selective in picking its fights.

The experience of the Palestinian Authority that has been rendered powerless because of Israel’s refusal to push for a definitive resolution of the conflict and the Authority’s mismanagement, corruption, and rivalry with Hamas, is likely to serve as a red line for the Islamists. They will want to ensure political, not just economic benefits.

Moreover, more than seven decades since the establishment of the State of Israel, Palestinians continue to cling to their national identity and aspirations. Yet, many implicitly acknowledge that ordinary Palestinians pay the price for violence that is not getting them closer to a solution.

“At the end of the day, the ones who lose are the people. Rockets fired into Israel don’t change anything. All they do is ensure that more civilians and children are killed. We have rights, but we have to find another way of securing them” said a West Bank resident.

Israel’s dilemma is that its future as a Jewish state and democracy may today be as threatened as it was in the early years when Arab armies were determined to wipe it off the map.

Today’s decreasing options for a solution to the century-old conflict constitute the most serious existential threat facing Israel rather than Palestinian violence, despite the wounding earlier this week of eight people when a Palestinian gunman attacked a bus in East Jerusalem.

To be sure, Israeli officials have linked the Gaza operation to stepped-up Israeli countering of Iran, widely viewed as the greatest threat to the existence of a Jewish state.

Israel’s increased focus on Iran comes at a time when the revival of the 2015 international agreement that curbed the Islamic republic’s nuclear program hangs in the balance.

Islamic Jihad maintains close ties to the Islamic republic. Ziad al-Nakhalah, the group’s top leader, was in Tehran meeting Iranian officials when Israel began its three-day operation against Gaza on August 5.

“Islamic Jihad has an open tab in Iran… Islamic Jihad in Gaza is a violent Iranian proxy,” Mr. Gantz said. He asserted that the group received tens of millions of dollars a year from Iran.

Journalist Ben Caspit noted that the assault on Islamic Jihad “was Israel’s first military operation against Gaza terrorist groups since 2009 from which it emerged with a sense of strategic victory” by “keeping Hamas out of the fighting, cutting Islamic Jihad down to size to contain its threat, and restoring its deterrence. On the other hand, metaphorically, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) as the neighborhood bully took on the weakest kid on the bloc.”

With or without Iranian support, Palestinians have fared no better than Israelis by adhering to Mr. Einstein’s definition of insanity.

Palestinian violence in the 1970s and 1980s served its purpose by putting the Palestinian issue on the world’s agenda. However, it has since contributed to taking it off the agenda of some Arab states like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain that in recent years established diplomatic relations with Israel and downgraded the issue’s importance to others like Saudi Arabia.

Add to that, a United States that has all but given up on pursuing peace between Palestinians and Israelis with no one willing to seriously replace America as a mediator, albeit a flawed one.

Palestinian Islamists continue to cling to the principle of armed resistance that primarily targets civilians in the illusion that violence will again succeed or in the hope that violence will keep Palestinians in the international public eye.

Meanwhile, despite making concessions such as recognizing Israel’s existence and abandoning the notion of armed struggle, moderates have failed to halt Israeli settlements and achieve a modicum of independence.

Moderation also has not prevented the hardening of Israeli public opinion and marginalization of the country’s dovish left.

Israel’s attack on Gaza in a bid to deal a fatal blow to Islamic Jihad, a group that rejects a negotiated resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a coalition of armed groups on the West Bank, serves as the latest affirmation of Mr. Einstein’s definition.

The attack and the Palestinian response have done little more than widen the gap between Israelis and Palestinians, entrenching self-serving positions at a time of Israeli election maneuvering and mounting Palestinian frustration and lack of confidence in leadership.

The international community, as does the Palestinian Authority that administers parts of the West Bank, cling to the notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in areas conquered by the Israelis during the 1967 Middle East war even if the presence of 670,000 Israeli settlers in 152 settlements in the territory as well as East Jerusalem makes partition extremely difficult, if not impossible.

In the final analysis, the de facto removal of the two-state option as a viable solution, turns solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by opting for one state for both Palestinians and Jews into an existential threat to Israeli democracy if both groups do not enjoy equal rights or to the Jewish nature of the state if they do.

In theory, the only other option would be a three-way solution involving some sort of federation, including Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians. But that may not go down well with Jordanians and could potentially aggravate the demographic threat to Israel.

In sum, failure to implement a two-state solution when possible may have made a solution to the conflict more intractable and perpetuated cycles of violence that undermine Israel’s social fabric and democracy.

“If there is one thing completely missing from the public agenda in Israel, it is the long-term view. Israel does not look ahead, not even by half a generation… There is not a single Israeli, not one, who knows where his country is headed,” noted controversial Israeli columnist Gideon Levi.

Mr. Levy could have said the same about Palestinians who know what they want, have no idea how to get there, and, true to Mr. Einstein, stick to strategies that, at best, are unproductive and, at worst, counterproductive.

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Assyrians are Not Refugees Who Settled in Iraq

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In recent years, some Kurdish and Arab politicians and wanna-be historians have been making statements that the Assyrians of Iraq were refugees from Hakkari, Turkey and that the British brought them to Iraq. This absurd and misleading statement spread as Assyrians were trying to find their place in the new Iraq post 2003 US invasion.

On October 3, 1932 Iraq became the 57th member of the League of Nations (replaced by the United Nations on October 24, 1945 post World War II). On December 15, 1932, an article titled “Iraq and the Assyrians” was published in the periodical The Near East and India. The article addressed the settlement of the Assyrians in Iraq. The Assyrian leaders have been pleading to solve the settlement issue before ending the British mandate over Iraq and before admitting Iraq into the League of Nations as a sovereign and independent state (planned for 1932). The Assyrian leaders warned the West that Iraqi leaders could not be trusted and that Assyrians are not safe under the rule of Arabs and Kurds.

Before going further into the article aforementioned there is an important point that the readers must understand. The Assyrians did not fall from Mars onto northern Iraq. The Assyrians have been living in Northern Mesopotamia from time immemorial and their dynasties established one of the greatest civilization and empire in the Near East. The fall of the last Assyrian dynasty, i.e., the Neo-Assyrian Empire, in 612 BC and the last capital in Harran in 609 BC did not mean the disappearance of the people. This is similar to the fall of the Roman, Greek, Persian and many other empires. The people of those empires survived. The Assyrians continued to live in and around the historic Assyrian capitals of Ashur (Qal’at Sharqat), Kalhu (Nimrud), Dur Sharukin (Khursabad), Nineveh (Nebi Yunis) and Harran in upper Mesopotamia or lived in new settlements near by those capitals, such as Mosul, Arbil, Kirkuk, Urfa (Urhai or Edessa), Nisibin, etc. that were centers of the Assyrians’ Christianity.

Assyria was occupied by several nations including the Medes, Greeks, Parthians, Romans, Sassanids, Arabs, Mongolians, Ottoman Turks and others in between. The Assyrians adopted Christianity during the time of the Apostles and remained Christians ever since. The Christological controversies that followed the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451) isolated these Assyrian denominational communities from each others. As the Church established further structure and hierarchy, the Churches of the Assyrians kept the various Assyrian communities together, each under its leader, the patriarchs. The Assyrian denominational terms Nestorian and Jacobite were born. Later, in 1681 in Diyar Bekir (Turkey) and in 1830 in northern Iraq (Alqosh) the conversion of Assyrians to Catholicism isolated more Assyrians as the term Chaldean was given to these converts.

With the clear establishment of these denominations, a clear distribution of the Assyrian population was shaped. The Nestorian Assyrians lived as a concentrated region of the Hakkari Mountains (Van Province) and Urmia region in Persia, Jacobite Assyrians in the Tur Abdin/Diyar Bekir region (Sandschak Zor and Diyar Bekir Provinces) and Chaldean Assyrians in Nineveh region/Arbil/Kirkuk (Mosul Province); however, these various denominational groups were intermixed in some locations. Despite this denominational separation, they all continued to refer to themselves as Suraye, which is Asuraye or Assuraye, meaning Assyrians.

The genocide of World War I (1914-1918) committed against the Assyrians by Turks and Kurds in Hakkari and Tur ‘Abdin (today both in modern Turkey) forced the Assyrians out. One escape route ended the Assyrians first in the camp of Baquba (1918 near Baghdad) and then in the camp of Mindan (1920 near Mosul) via Urmia, Persia.

Map of the Ottoman Empire divided by provinces Before its Fall in 1922

The other route ended up in Qamishli and Aleppo as genocide continued even after the Ottoman Empire had collapsed and the Turkish State was created in 1922. Therefore, the Assyrians were basically displaced because of genocide from one province to another within the same Ottoman Empire, i.e., from Hakkari to Mosul and from Diyar Bekir/Tur Abdin to Qamishli/Aleppo. Those displaced refugees from Hakkari and Urmia joined their Catholic brethren, the Chaldean Assyrians, in Mosul Province. Therefore, the Assyrians did not migrate from some foreign planet to Mosul Province considering also that there were Assyrians in Mosul region since the fall of the Assyrian Empire and these Assyrians after converting to Catholicism became known as Chaldeans.

Another important issue is the similarity in the geographical terrain. One of the principle Assyrian regions was the highlands that starts from Mosul (today in Iraq) and extends all the way to southern Lake Van (today in Turkey). The Assyrian people lived throughout these highlands. This continuation of topography was not divided politically until the official fall of the Ottoman Empire in November 1, 1922. After many disagreements, protests and negotiations, the British and the Turks finally signed the Treaty of Ankara on June 5, 1926 by which both states recognized the Brussels line (with some minor modifications) as the frontier between the two new created states of Iraq and Turkey. Even if we consider this new frontier, we need to understand that the large Assyrian region of Lower Barwar was always part of the Ottoman’s Mosul Province (Iraq) – the Assyrians of Lower Barwar did not migrate from Turkey to Iraq per se, unlike those of Upper Barwar.

During World War I, British and French representatives, Sir Mark Sykes and Francois Georges Picot, authored a secret agreement (concluded on May 19, 1916 ) regarding the future spoils of the Ottoman Empire that was expected to lose the war. After few modifications and incidents, the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq was created from the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra and immediately placed it under the British mandate. Modern Turkey, Iraq, Syria and other states in the region did not exist before 1921/22. Therefore, we cannot say that in 1918 people moved from Turkey to Iraq because Turkey and Iraq did not exist at the time.

Now back to the December 5, 1932 The Near East and India article, which stated that the Council of the League of Nations considered the question of the settlement of the 40,000 [Nestorian] Assyrians in Iraq. At the council meeting, Nuri al-Said, the prime minister of Iraq stated: “The government of Iraq is determined to assure the prosperity, the happiness and the tranquility of all inhabitants of Iraq. It is following the best and most practical path to this end, allowing itself to be guided by the most human principles, by considerations of the general interest and by respect for existing laws.”

It took only few months later from the promise of the Iraqi prime minister that 3,000 Assyrians were massacred in the state-sponsored Simele Genocide in August 1933. The Assyrians continue to be persecuted and oppressed in Iraq by the Arab and the Kurdish authorities as the leaders and historians of Arabs and Kurds continue to claim that the Assyrians were refugees from Turkey and Persia (later Iran) and needed to be relocated or settled outside Iraq, if they had any conditions or hard to meet conditions, regardless how reasonable.

One important note, Kurdish nationalists and writers claim that the Allies post WWI divided Kurdistan into north, south, east and west Kurdistans. Such wild claims must never be allowed to spread. Unlike the well established and historic Assyrian Empire, there never existed an official state or country on the world map under the name of Kurdistan. After European travelers and missionaries visited the Middle East region, they encountered the nomad Kurds and soon a border-less and unofficial region under such name began to be inserted on certain Middle East maps to reflect the presence of these stateless people. In 1946, a Kurdish state under the name of Mahabad Republic was established in west Iran, but it was crushed by the Iranian army after 11 months. The Kurdish nationalists have promoted an aggressive Kurdification campaign to erase the Assyrian history from northern Iraq and replace it with Kurdish history.

Education empowers people – it enables them to understand. When they understand, they discuss issues affecting them with confidence, logically and accurately. Assyrians and other undermined people around the world must participate in this great battle of survival armed with education, because they must not let the murderers or oppressors write the history. The Assyrians are the indigenous people of Iraq – history and archeology proves that. Throughout history, many Assyrians were forced to flee their homes and lands of northern Iraq (occupied Assyria) because of massacres and persecution.

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U.S. Policy Case for Middle East under New Conditions

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Image source: twitter @POTUS

In contrast to the presidential elections of the past two decades, the new White House administration has faced great difficulties in shaping its Middle East policy. With internal division, polarization, political system failures and the unwavering pandemic, the Middle East has largely dropped out of U.S. foreign policy priorities. Shortly after his election, George W. Bush came up with the ambitious initiative of a Greater Middle East which entailed a democratic restructuring of the region; Barack Obama quickly sent a special envoy for the Middle East to mediate between Israel and the Palestinian Authority; and Donald Trump, by contrast, dashed a number of traditional constants in the policies of his predecessors. It took Joe Biden’s administration a long time to realize the place of this troubled region in the U.S. grand strategy. Trump left Biden a heavy and intricate legacy, with no room for continuity or a sharp change of course on all fronts.

The continued policy of confrontation with Russia and China, framed ideologically as that of a democracy vs. autocracy, implied a revision of the approach towards the Middle East and a need to restore trust globally, taking into account all the painful experiences of the U.S., especially after the fiasco in Iraq and Afghanistan. How to achieve this amid a shifting global balance of power—clearly, not in favor of the United States—and striking changes in the region where the U.S. is increasingly seen as a key regional player was exactly the question. As early as by President Obama’s second term, a kind of consensus had been reached in the U.S. after long discussions. Trump was also guided by it, although one of his first trips abroad was to Saudi Arabia. U.S. policy in the Middle East is overly militarized, while meddling in the region’s internal affairs and the resources invested do not yield proper political impact. This leads to the conclusion that the U.S. military presence and political commitments should be reduced, avoiding overstretching in the face of emerging global threats and challenges.

The president and the secretary of state were critical of their predecessors, while devising their own approach to the region, with its unresolved conflicts and socio-political cataclysms, was clearly delayed. There has been a sense of uncertainty in the Arab world as to how and when Joe Biden would set a course for the Middle East. Questions arose as to whether one should prepare for a U.S. withdrawal from the region and Washington’s search for foreign policy alternatives. There were growing security concerns in the Gulf, which viewed Iran as a real threat. Namely, they believed that the U.S., having lost interest in the region, would decide to abandon its traditional guarantor role in the face of ongoing course corrections. Washington’s general words about “recalibration,” “redeployment,” and “reorientation” evoked mixed feelings: On the one hand, a desire for America to somehow define itself; on the other, a loss of confidence in it. The prolonged lack of progress in reaching agreement on the terms of a U.S. return to the JCPOA and the uncertainty over the parties’ future intentions were perceived with concern by Washington’s regional partners; not only by the Arab monarchies but also by Israel. The complicated domestic situation in Israel after the establishment of a shaky two-headed coalition and the prospect of a fifth edition of parliamentary elections in the last two years have put U.S. diplomacy in an ambiguous position.

The negative for the United States impact of the Ukrainian crisis on global energy as well as predominantly neutral attitudes towards the crisis in the non-Western world, which is somewhat closer to understanding Russia’s motives, seemed to serve as a stimulant that prompted Washington to shift its attention back to the Middle East—especially since the current conditions on the oil market have led to a significant increase in fuel prices in the U.S., which could have an adverse impact for the U.S. administration in light of the approaching midterms.

In this environment, the announcement of Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East on July 15-16 was met with a lot of skepticism, especially within America. The visit to Saudi Arabia came in for particular criticism because Biden promised to make Riyadh a “pariah” after the brutal assassination of Saudi journalist Khashoggi, and he was now planning to rehabilitate it in favor of domestic interests. Biden himself was forced to speak publicly to put the purpose of his visit to the Middle East in a broader global and regional context.

The pessimistic sentiments in the U.S. expert community were vividly expressed by Daniel Kurtzer and Aaron David Miller, two retired senior diplomats who worked for years in the Middle East and at the State Department under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The essence of this image, translated into political language, is as follows: “If you plant a garden and go away for six months, what have you got when you come back? Weeds.” Biden deprioritized the Middle East for sixteen months, and the weeds have grown in the meantime. And so the president was sent on a “diplomatic foray into the region to plant U.S. flags and start to repair the damage done to the flowers and greenery.” The conclusion is that the pivot to the Middle East will not last long, and one should not expect quick pay-offs.

The itinerary from Tel Aviv to Jeddah, where, alongside with the bilateral U.S.-Saudi negotiations, the U.S. president met with a number of Arab leaders in the GCC+3 format (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan) is quite telling. This list indicates the states the Biden administration intends to bet on as well as the range of oft-interrelated problems, the approaches to which the administration considers necessary to clarify and harmonize. These include regional security, continued normalization of the Arab-Israeli relations, the issue of a U.S. return to the JCPOA, warning signals to Iran, a new understanding of the nature of allied relations, conflict resolution with a focus on Yemen, continued Palestinian-Israeli contacts, etc.

The Israeli part of Biden’s trip showed that the United States was not going to revise the legacy of the previous administration, which formally declared Israeli settlements in the West Bank not contrary to international law and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. By and large, the status of Jerusalem, like the issue of Jewish settlements, is a fait accompli for the United States. At the same time, Biden reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—it was a purely formal gesture, though: more of a tribute to his election campaign. This position is also enshrined, albeit one-sidedly, in the Jerusalem U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Joint Declaration. Apart from passing remarks about his intention to promote dialogue with the Palestinians and provide humanitarian grants, the American president’s visit to the Palestinian Authority was more of a touristy, humanitarian nature. The text of this widely circulated declaration leaves no doubt that the U.S. continues to pursue the principled policy of ensuring Israel’s security and military dominance as “strategic commitments that are vitally important to the national security of the United States itself.” In this regard, we have seen additional measures of cooperation in air defense and laser technology development. Another important point of the declaration was the message to the U.S. partners in the region that America will “never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and will work with them “to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities.” Finally, the U.S. and Israel praised the Abraham Accords as a critical addition to Israel’s strategic peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and an important starting point for building a new regional security system.

The most complicated and sensitive part of the president’s Middle East tour—the trip to Saudi Arabia—had two dimensions to it. First, a normalization of the long-struggling bilateral relations with a new focus on the policies of Trump and Obama; and second, a presentation of the U.S. administration’s vision of the Middle East strategy.

On the bilateral agenda, Biden tried to find some middle ground in the eternal conflict between “American values” and “national interests,” between respecting human rights and supporting rigid autocracies, which in the United States, i.a. among Democrats, include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There has been a heated debate in the United States over the dilemma where the prestige of a powerful figure in the kingdom, like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been directly affected by Khashoggi’s assassination. Did the U.S. president raise human rights issues with the Crown Prince and what was his reaction? Responding to the numerous questions, the president confirmed that he had discussed this issue “directly and openly,” though there remained great doubt in U.S. domestic political discourse about the administration’s determination (and that of Biden personally) to put ideological values above practical considerations. The reaction of the Saudi leadership was no less direct. As it became known in the Arab world, Mohammed bin Salman replied briefly: “And what about Shireen Abu Akleh?” (a journalist of Palestinian origin murdered in Israel). In general, the contrast between the way Americans “defend” democracy and human rights in Ukraine and the way they do it for the Palestinians in the Arab world has not gone unnoticed. This partly explains no mention of the Ukrainian conflict from the Arab side during the talks.

The U.S. president’s trip to the Middle East was the occasion for the public announcement of a revised foreign policy in its regional dimension. Biden thought it was symbolic that he was the first U.S. president to come to Saudi Arabia from Israel and the first to visit the region at a time when the U.S. has no military personnel engaged in military operations there. Thereafter, the U.S. emphasized intensive diplomacy with the caveat that the use of force is seen as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted.

The U.S. Middle East strategy is presented in five main areas. First, the U.S. will not leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia, or Iran, so it is not withdrawing from the region. Washington will bolster partnerships with countries that subscribe to the rules-based international order, making sure these countries can defend themselves against foreign threats. Second, security cooperation. The U.S. will pledge determination to ensure the freedom of navigation through the Middle East’s waterways, including the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb, to prevent dominance by any country. Third, de-escalation and termination of regional conflicts. The U.S. is ready to work with the partners to counter threats from Iran by forcing it to curtail its nuclear program. Fourth, the development of bilateral political, economic, and security connections, and the promotion of regional projects in energy, free trade and investment. Fifth, the U.S. commitment to human rights, fundamental freedoms and the values enshrined in the U.N. Charter.

It remains a matter of debate how the American president’s significant statements in the Middle East with a leadership bid can convert into practical policy. At the same time, growing tensions in Europe and Asia are gradually pushing this into the background. Assessments of the prospects for achieving the goal in practice are rather restrained, ranging from a complete disbelief in the U.S. ability to achieve ambitious goals in a rapidly changing region to assertions that Biden should be given time and that America still has chances to adjust its Middle East policy to the new realities in the world and in the United States itself. Looks like Biden took some not-so-heavy political baggage from the Middle East. U.S. attempts to present Saudi Arabia’s consent to overflight of its airspace by Israeli civilian aircraft as a breakthrough were quickly devalued by the Saudis’ official explanations that it was only about facilitating international air communications, not about normalizing relations with Israel. The Saudis have also made adjustments to the definition of the U.S. role in lowering oil prices. Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Al-Jubeir hastened to declare that the decision will be based on market assessments, and Saudi Arabia intends to continue consultations with OPEC members as well as within OPEC+, i.e. with Russia. The Saudis oppose the politicization of the global financial system and do not support calls for an oil embargo. According to experts, if the decision to further increase oil production was made, such an increase wouldn’t be so critical that the U.S. could take the credit.

Biden’s post-Bush, post-Obama and post-Trump Middle East strategy looks like a desire to find a middle ground between two extremes: over-involvement in the regional set-up coupled with military intervention or a complete turn toward the Indo-Pacific. That is, there is an understanding that the U.S. cannot change the Middle East, nor can it afford to withdraw from it. At the same time, the focus on countering Russia and China, which allegedly took advantage of the vacuum in the region, remains part of this adjusted strategy, much as the pivot to mobilize traditional Arab partners to achieve U.S. goals. And that is where the main contradiction lies. The U.S. plan for a regional alliance of democracies has no real prospect in the Middle East. The results of Biden’s Middle East trip clearly showed that, in contrast to the times of the Soviet-American confrontation, the Arab countries pursue a diversified policy, avoiding a strictly one-sided orientation on the principle of “the enemy of my friend is not my enemy.” With a new round of global confrontation, the leaders of these countries tread carefully, without closing foreign relations on unstable alliances and believing that their national interests in the new geopolitical and regional realities are more consistent with maintaining a situational partnership with the major powers.

Strengthening the U.S. strategic partnership with Israel at the expense of the right of the Palestinian people to their statehood is unlikely to advance further normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab world, but rather will complicate the country’s integration into the region. As a result, one can expect a sharp rise in radical sentiment among the Palestinians, with the support of the resistance front by Arab states. This is evidenced by the restoration of Hamas’ relations with Syria, as well as the meeting of all Palestinian factions in Algeria facilitated by the movement. In security issues, the Gulf monarchies are looking for opportunities to defuse tensions with Iran through regional mediation as an alternative to U.S. guarantees.

One should not expect a dramatic turnaround in the U.S. Middle East policy. The incumbent president will have to reckon with the balance of power in Congress, which cannot be changed by executive orders. The Middle East will remain a focus of the Democratic administration, albeit not a top priority. The new style, with its emphasis on multilateral diplomacy, will help set a more balanced course toward key regional issues. At the same time, the Biden administration will not be able to ignore that Russia’s multi-vector policy has shown its relevance over the past two decades. The new reality in the Middle East will force American diplomacy to seek interaction points with Russia through overcoming the credibility gap, even in the face of tense bilateral relations. The question is whether it is possible to separate the Middle East from the context of the real geopolitics unfolding at odds. In this sense, Syria will be an important indicator of U.S. intentions, being a country where both Washington and Moscow, like in Europe, are in direct military contact.

From our partner RIAC

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