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UAE Geopolitical Gamble Keeps Palestinian Peace Prospects on Life Support

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The decision by the UAE to establish diplomatic relations with Israel keeps a negotiated solution with Palestine on life support. There is no indication that forging relations with Israel will be more successful in nudging the Jewish state towards peace with Palestine on mutually acceptable terms than the failed formula of offering Arab recognition in exchange for peace was.

Like it or not, the United Arab Emirates may have done the Palestinians a favor by forging diplomatic ties with Israel. On the face of it, the agreement deprives the Palestinians of a perceived trump card: Arab recognition in return for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied during the 1967 Middle East war even if it has not proven to be much of an asset.

Historically, forging diplomatic relations with the Jewish state has not been a magic wand to resolve a seemingly intractable dispute.

The carrot of recognition has not helped solve the Palestinians’ problem 72 years after they were first displaced by Israeli occupation and independence and despite the conclusion of peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan—two states that, unlike the UAE, had and still have a direct stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Nor did it stop US President Donald J. Trump from accepting the legitimacy of annexation of occupied Palestinian land.

Nevertheless, the UAE move contributes to salvaging options for a peace settlement that could be acceptable to both Palestinians and Israelis.

Most importantly, it has helped take immediate Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank off the table by giving Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu the opportunity to temporarily set aside his pledge to incorporate Palestinian land before the November US presidential election without being seen as caving in to American pressure.

To be sure, Mr. Netanyahu has suspended not cancelled plans for annexation in exchange for UAE recognition.

The reality is, however, that Mr. Netanyahu or whoever will eventually succeed him will unlikely get a US green light in the foreseeable future irrespective of who wins the American presidential election.

Neither Mr. Trump nor his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, will want to jeopardize evolving relations between Israel and Arab states that annexation no doubt would disrupt.

What that does is keep options open; it does not open doors, nor does it create the basis for renewed peace negotiations. The UAE has all but officially embraced Mr. Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that explicitly endorses the principle of annexation – a non-negotiable non-starter for Palestinians.

In other words, Israelis and Palestinians will have to resolve their dispute themselves. External powers cannot do it for them. However, external powers can help ensure that Israelis and Palestinians have options and shape an environment that would be conducive to a peace process.

And that is where the problems start. Four decades of primarily US-led mediation efforts, often involving non-starters, have produced at best a seemingly intractable stalemate in which Israel has the upper hand.

Blame for the failure goes round.

Successive US administrations have favored Israel and been reluctant to sufficiently pressure it to enable a viable solution.

Israeli governments diverged in their sincerity in adopting a two-state solution, with Mr. Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving head of government, making it clear that he does not want a truly independent Palestinian state to emerge. In fact, he has redefined the concept as one perceived by Palestinians as a Bantustan at best.

Similarly, Palestinians proved to be their own worst enemies. A corrupt Palestine Authority prioritized its own vested interests.

Palestinians, moreover, were divided between Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas’ Fatah movement — that clings to the hope of some miracle that will get decades of peace talks back on track — and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip.

Stripped of its rhetoric, Hamas essentially argues that the Palestine Authority’s strategy of surrendering its trump cards – recognition of Israel and abandonment of the legitimacy of political violence – has not persuaded Israel to make the minimal concessions needed.

Those include an end to Israeli settlement policy in the West Bank, a Palestinian administrative stake in East Jerusalem, and an agreement on the final borders between Israel and Palestine based on the pre-1967 war frontiers, albeit modified by land swaps that recognize facts on the ground.

The UAE’s halting annexation for now and keeping the door to negotiations open constitutes a gamble. The primary risk is grey swans or predictable disruptions, not black swans or unpredictable events.

The biggest risk beyond an Israeli decision at some point to move forward with annexation is West Bank protest against Israeli policy to which Israel responds with a heavy hand and military escalation in Gaza.

Palestinian protest is almost a given in a world that has just ended a decade of defiance and dissent, with the 2011 and 2019/2020 popular Arab revolts as its centerpiece and the prospect of global social unrest in the 2020s as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the worst worldwide economic downturn since World War Two. Add to this the worldwide awareness of entrenched social injustice and racial inequality.

Protest is likely whatever happens. With hope for a two-state solution fading, the alternatives are a one-state solution or continued occupation. Both are potential drivers of social unrest.

Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza, one of the world’s most densely populated regions blockaded by Israel as well as Egypt, on a nightly basis as Israeli and Emirati diplomats finalized terms of their establishment of diplomatic relations. The bombings were in response to the firing of rockets and flying of balloon bombs from Gaza into Israel.

Potentially, heavy-handed Israeli responses to Palestinian protest and Gaza attacks could put the UAE in an uncomfortable position.

With freedom of expression in the UAE and much of the Gulf severely repressed and in the absence of credible public opinion polls, it is hard to assess public empathy for the Palestinians.

A rare poll in Saudi Arabia by a credible non-Saudi polling company showed that the Palestinian issue ranked second after Iran among foreign policy concerns of the kingdom’s public. It is fair to assume that the UAE would not be much different.

While UAE-based tweeters overwhelmingly welcomed the UAE’s outreach to Israel, it was left to Emiratis abroad to be more critical.

“The dustbin of history accommodates all traitors, whatever their names and the names of their families,” tweeted an Emirati activist in exile.

The UAE may hope that diplomatic relations will enable it to nudge Israel towards credible peace negotiations with the Palestinians, in part by empowering Palestinian leaders beholden to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

It is a strategy that the United States adopted for much of the past four decades with little result. It’s not clear why the UAE would succeed where others have failed.

Author’s note: An initial version of this story was first published by Inside Arabia

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

China-US and the Iran nuclear deal

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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amirabdollahian that Beijing would firmly support a resumption of negotiations on a nuclear pact [China Media Group-CCTV via Reuters]

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with  Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province.  Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.

A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for  strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.

During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.

The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement.  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said

‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’

The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.

During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.

The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC,  Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.

In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.

Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.

The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.

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Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?

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Image source: atalayar.com

“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!

The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force! 

Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.

The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.

Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.   

The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.

The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.

The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.

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Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility

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Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.

Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.

This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.

The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.

IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”

And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.

In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.

IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report  and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).

The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.

The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.

Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.

Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).

And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).

There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.

But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions. 

Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.

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