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The UAE-Israel deal’s historicity is in the fine print

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A close read of the agreement between the United Arab Emirates and Israel suggests that the Jewish state has won far more than diplomatic recognition. It won acknowledgement of its claim to historic Jewish rights. By the same token, the UAE has received a significant boost to project itself as a leader in inter-faith dialogue.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed walked away from this month’s White House signing ceremony with more than just an agreement to establish diplomatic relations.

Included in the agreement are references that are key to foundational Israeli arguments asserting the right of the Jewish people to a state on what was once predominantly Arab land rather than simple recognition of the fact that the Jewish state exists.

Recognition of Jewish rights has long been a demand put forward by Mr. Netanyahu.

In talks with the Palestinians as well as the building of relations with Arab states over the years, the Israeli leader asserted that mere diplomatic acceptance of Israel’s existence was not good enough. And yet, that was the basis of earlier peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan as well as Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Yasser Arafat’s 1988 recognition of Israel and the subsequent 1993 Oslo accords.

From the outset, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been as much a dispute about control of land as one of perceived rights.

Recognition of Jewish rights in Palestine bolsters Israeli assertions that its claims to territory occupied during the 1967 Middle East are legitimate rather than a land grab resulting from military conquest.

To be clear, it does not by definition endorse annexation, but it constitutes Arab acceptance of Israel’s position that any compromise between Israelis and Palestinians, a sine qua non for a resolution of their dispute, would involve mediation of claims that are historically and morally on par.

Arabs in the past have projected solutions as the need to address Palestinian rights while accepting Israel’s existence.

The agreement did not explicitly recognize Jewish rights, but enabled Israel to interpret the deal as doing so by stating that “Arab and Jewish peoples are descendants of a common ancestor, Abraham.”

The text of the agreement suggests that the reference was primarily related to allow the UAE to boost its efforts to project itself as a leader of inter-faith dialogue and a moderate interpretation of Islam – a pillar of the country’s well-funded soft power campaign that paints the Emirates as a militarily capable, forward-looking, religiously tolerant and technologically savvy, cutting edge state.

The interpretation of the phrasing as recognition of Jewish rights may have been an unintended consequence or icing on Israel’s cake.

It was a bonus that David Makovsky of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy — widely viewed as leaning towards Israel — was quick to point out. Mr. Makovsky noted that the reference implied that “both (Arabs and Jews are) indigenous to the Middle East.”

Mr. Makovsky suggested that the phrasing “is important because it clearly refutes longstanding allegations in the Arab world that Zionism is alien to the region.”

It puts past to Arab and Palestinian arguments that the long-touted two-state solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one of dividing up land claimed by two parties driven by facts on the ground rather than consideration of legal and moral claims.

This is not just of esoteric significance. It bolsters Israel’s long-standing rejection of Palestinian insistence on the right of refugees, including those who left during the 1948 war, to return to their homes and lands in what is now Israel.

Israel’s reading of the agreement as endorsement of its assertion that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about equally valid rights is likely to be interpreted differently on both sides of Israel’s right-left divide.

The country’s weakened left will see it as highlighting the need for territorial compromise. Significant segments of the Israeli right will view it as validation of its belief dating back to the period prior to the 1948 creation of Israel that the clash of Jewish and Palestinian rights is irreconcilable. That is a view that has historically also resonated among elements of the labor movement.

That may be what makes the UAE-Israel deal truly historic.

The icing on the UAE’s cake, beyond the significant geopolitical, military, security, technological and economic benefits of the agreement, is the stress on inter-faith dialogue.

Under the agreement, the UAE and Israel “undertake to foster mutual understanding, respect, co-existence, and a culture of peace between their societies in the spirit of their common ancestor, Abraham, and the new era of peace and friendly relations ushered in by this Treaty, including by cultivating people-to-people programs, (and) interfaith dialogue…”

The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, one of its multiple autocratic religious soft power rivals, has gone in recent years to great lengths to cultivate ties to Jewish and Evangelist communities and to position itself as a sponsor of an inter-faith dialogue in which Islam is represented by Muslim scholars who preach absolute obedience to the ruler and reject endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its an interpretation of the faith intended to ensure regime survival and counter allegations of violations of human rights in the UAE.

The signing of a Document on Human Fraternity by the imam of the Al-Azhar Grand Mosque in Cairo, Ahmed El-Tayeb, and Pope Francis I during his 2019 visit to the UAE, the first by a head of the Vatican to the Gulf, served to offer an alternative to the Universal Declaration that allows the Emirates to pick and choose which rights it accepts.

The emphasis on inter-faith dialogue is bolstered and conditioned by the agreement’s implicit condemnation of political Islam, a key driver of UAE policy that is shared by Israel.

The agreement rejects “political manipulation of religions and…interpretations made by religious groups who, in the course of history, have taken advantage of the power of religious sentiment…in a way that has nothing to do with the truth of religion.”

Omar Ghobash, UAE Assistant Minister for Culture and Public Diplomacy, speaking in a US-UAE Council webinar, noted that one driver for the conclusion of the agreement was “what happened around the so-called Arab Spring and then the rise of vicious groups like ISIS, let alone Al Qaeda.”

Mr. Ghobash was referring to the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the autocratic leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen as well as the rise of the Islamic State in the aftermath of the uprisings, which was a product of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq rather than the rebellions.

He projected the agreement as part of the UAE’s institutionalization of its values.

“There is a distortion that has taken place over the last few decades…represented by groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS … There is a recurring theme in conversations with my leaders and that is that Islam has been hijacked by these groups. The reality is that in taking Islam back, you need to free it from those constraints. You free it by presenting a different expression of Islam,” Mr. Ghobash said.

Critics suggest that the agreement’s formalization of Israeli support for the UAE’s propagation of a state-controlled Islam fails to tackle a core issue: the need to address religious concepts that are either outdated or outmoded or require reconceptualization and reinterpretation.

Those concepts legitimized decades of Muslim demonization of Israel as well as Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims.

The UAE took a first major step to address the issue by distributing to schools barely two weeks after the announcement of the establishment of diplomatic relations textbooks that cite the agreement with Israel as an expression of fundamental Islamic and Emirati values.

However, the ultimate litmus test of the UAE’s effort to shape moderate Islam will be if and when it loosens the state’s grip on religion and allows for free-flowing, credible theological debate in which scholars tackle problematic religious concepts that have served their purpose but are out of place in a modern, forward-looking society.

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

Gender in the GCC — The Reform Agenda Continues

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In my previous Op-Ed about the road map for reforms in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), I talked about the importance of the human capital. Today, and as the world celebrates International Women’s Day this March 8th, it is a good moment to take stock of the impressive progress that some countries in the GCC are making in expanding opportunities for women in order to utilize all their human capital to achieve the developmental goals that they set for themselves. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have emerged over the last couple of years as the region’s leaders in this effort. Along with Bahrain, they have introduced groundbreaking reforms that are allowing women to more fully participate in economic activities, as they also support equal treatment for women in their personal lives.

The benefits of such trendsetting reforms for the societies and economies of these three countries cannot be overstated. Furthermore, a spillover effect is being seen in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. The reforms focused on gender not only allow reforming countries’ economies to tap into the productivity of 50% of their populations, they also contribute to poverty reduction, sustainable growth and, most importantly, gender equity for women in both the public and private spheres. To ensure the maximum impact of these benefits, those GCC countries that have introduced reforms must keep a laser focus on effective implementation, while those in the region that have yet to expand opportunities for women can look to their neighbors for inspiration.

In 2019, Saudi Arabia’s ranking in the World Bank Group’s Women, Business and the Law report jumped by the largest number of points of any country in the world, as compared to its 2018 ranking. This was in large part due to Saudi Arabia’s historic enactment in July 2019 of a raft of measures to expand women’s roles in Saudi society and give them unprecedented economic freedoms. The reforms included increasing freedom of travel and movement by giving women the right to obtain passports on their own; enabling women to be heads of households in the same way as men and allowing them to choose a place of residency; a prohibition on the dismissal of pregnant women from the workplace; a mandate of non-discrimination based on gender in access to credit; the prohibition of gender-based discrimination in employment; the equalization of retirement ages between women and men; and a removal of the obedience provision for women. A year later, amendments to the Labor Law followed, which lifted restrictions on women’s ability to work at night and opened all industries to women, including mining.

As for the UAE, in September 2020, it became the first country in MENA to introduce paid parental leave for employees in the private sector. This historic reform was part of a broad package enacted by the UAE to support women’s labor force participation, which, at 57.5%, is one of the highest in the MENA region. The 2020 reform package builds on work the UAE has engaged in since 2019 to prioritize gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. In 2019, the UAE introduced a first set of reforms, including guaranteeing equality between women and men in applying for passports; allowing women to be heads of households like men; passing legislation to combat domestic violence and impose criminal penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace; prohibiting gender-based discrimination in employment and the dismissal of pregnant women; and removing job restrictions for women in specific sectors such as mining. These reforms were recognized in the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2021 report, in which the UAE was the highest-ranked country in the MENA region.

The additional reforms introduced in 2020 address persistent legal inequalities, including those related to women’s mobility, their rights within the marriage and with respect to parenthood, and their ability to manage assets. Specifically, the reforms include the amendment of the Personal Status Law to remove the provision on women’s obligation to obey husbands and to lift restrictions of women’s ability to travel outside the country, new provisions to allow women to choose where to live and to travel outside the home in the same way as men, and an amendment to the Labor law that mandates equal pay for work of equal value across different industries and sectors.

Lessons Learned and Ingredients for Success

Three common elements underpin the success of these reform efforts: strong government commitment, effective collaboration across ministries, and the deployment of information campaigns supporting the reforms.

Strong government commitment is crucial because it ensures not only that reform-minded legislation is passed in the first place, but that it is underpinned by tools to ensure implementation. In the UAE for example, the government updated the Explanatory Note of the Personal Status Law to support the effective implementation of family-related reforms in the courts and to ensure accurate interpretation of new provisions by judges. To support implementation in Saudi Arabia, the government updated all employment regulations to reflect the new legislative reforms.

Effective collaboration and cooperation among government ministries is also key. In both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the recent reforms were championed by a broad swath of government entities. And in Saudi Arabia specifically, a June 2019 royal decree established the Women’s Empowerment Committee, which includes representatives from a wide range of ministries and has as its mandate the coordination of efforts to achieve women’s empowerment through legal reforms.

Such cooperation among ministries is important because it can help support governments’ effective decision-making going forward. Specifically, all ministries whose mandates touch on issues related to women can collect reliable, uniform data to be used to support policy choices aimed at helping both women and the economy. In the UAE, for example, ministries are collecting gender disaggregated data on topics ranging from women’s opportunities for entrepreneurship to their dropout rate from the labor market to the incidence of domestic violence.

Effective implementation efforts have also included strong communication and information dissemination campaigns. The governments of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have placed great emphasis on raising awareness of the new provisions to ensure compliance with the legal framework and to show the economic and social benefits of these reforms. The reforms were widely covered by local and international media. The government also used social media, government websites, and government-sponsored seminars and workshops with various stakeholders to spread the word.

Throughout history, women have played a critical role in economic recovery following global crises. As the world continues to adapt to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal reforms in the Gulf are enabling women to contribute more effectively to recovery this time, as well. The role of regional leaders like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain will be critical going forward, not just for inspiring reforms, but for sharing reform experiences, success factors and lessons learned from the reform effort. These three countries can play a transformational role in the MENA region and beyond in encouraging and supporting the implementation of gender-neutral laws.

World Bank

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Turkey signals sweeping regional ambitions

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A nationalist Turkish television station with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dug up a 12-year-old map that projects Turkey’s sphere of influence in 2050 as stretching from South-eastern Europe on the northern coast of the Mediterranean and Libya on its southern shore across North Africa, the Gulf and the Levant into the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Buoyed by last year’s Azerbaijani defeat of Armenia, TGRT, a subsidiary of Ihlas Holding, a media and construction conglomerate that has won major government tenders, used the map to advance a policy that has long constituted the agenda of some of Mr. Erdogan’s closest advisors.

The broadcasting of the map, first published in a book authored by George Freidman, the founder of Stratfor, an influential American corporate intelligence group, followed calls by pan-Turkic daily Turkiye, Ihlas’ daily newspaper that has the fourth-largest circulation in Turkey, to leverage the Azerbaijani victory to create a military alliance of Turkic states.

In a country that ranks only second to China as the world’s foremost jailer of journalists, Ihlas Holding media would not be pushing a pan-Turkic, Islam-laced Turkish regional policy without tacit government approval at the very least.

The media group’s push reflects Turkish efforts to capitalize on the fact that Turkey’s latest geopolitical triumph with Azerbaijan’s Turkish-backed victory is already producing tangible results. The military victory has positioned Azerbaijan, and by extension Turkey, as an alternative transportation route westwards that would allow Central Asian nations to bypass corridors dominated by either Russia or Iran.

Turkmenistan, recognizing the changing geopolitical map, rushed in January to end a long-standing dispute with Azerbaijan and agree on the joint exploitation of Caspian Sea oil deposits. The agreement came on the heels of a deal in December for the purchase from ENI Turkmenistan of up to 40,000 tonnes of petroleum a month by the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR).

The agreement could boost the completion of a Trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline (TPC) that would feed into the recently operational Southern Gas Corridor (SGC), bypass Russia and Iran, and supply Greece and Bulgaria via the former Soviet republic.

Last month, Azerbaijan agreed with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan to develop the Lapis Lazuli transport corridor that would link the war-ravaged country to Turkey. At about the same time, Kazakhstan began exporting copper cathodes to Turkey via Azerbaijan in a first step intended to capitalize on the Caucasian nation’s position as a transit hub.

Azerbaijan and Turkey’s newly found advantage has rung alarm bells among Russian and Iranian analysts with close ties to their respective governments even though the TGRT broadcast may have been primarily intended to whip up nationalist fervour at home and test regional responses.

Russian and Iranian politicians and analysts appeared to take the broadcast in that vein. Nonetheless, they were quick to note that Friedman’s projection includes Russia’s soft underbelly in the northern Caucasus as well as Crimea while Iranians took stock of the fact that the Turkish sphere of influence would border on Iran to the north, south and west.

Turkey and Ukraine have in recent months agreed to cooperate in the development of technologies with military applications related to engines, avionics, drones, anti-ship and cruise missiles, radar and surveillance systems, robotics, space, and satellites. Turkey has refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, home to Crimean Tartars, and criticized Russian support for Ukrainian rebels.

Most Russian commentators sought to downplay the significance of the map, leaving Andrei Krasov, deputy chairman of the defence committee of the Russian parliament’s lower house to warn that “if they (the Turks) want to test the strength of the Russian spirit and our weapons, let them try.”

With Iran excluded from TGRT and Stratfor’s projection of Turkey’s emerging sphere of influence, Iranian officials and analysts have largely not responded to the revival of the map.

Yet, Iran’s actions on the ground suggest that the Islamic republic has long anticipated Turkish moves even though it was caught off guard by last year’s Azerbaijani-Armenian war.

For one, Iran has in the past year sought to bolster its military presence in the Caspian Sea and forge close naval ties with the basin’s other littoral states – Russia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

Viewed from Tehran, TGRT’s broadcasting of the Stratfor map was the latest in a series of provocative Turkish moves.

They include Mr. Erdogan’s recital of a nationalist poem while attending a military parade in Azerbaijan that calls for reuniting two Iranian ethnic Azeri provinces with the former Soviet republic and publication by state-run Turkish Radio and Television’s Arabic service of a map on Instagram, depicting Iran’s oil-rich province of Khuzestan with its large population of ethnic Arabs as separate from Iran.

The Instagram posting came days after the disclosure that Habib Chaab, a leader of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz, or ASMLA, had been kidnapped in Istanbul by an Iraqi Kurdish drug baron in cooperation with Iranian intelligence and transported to Iran.

While senior Iranian officials talked down the Turkish provocations, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency left little doubt about what Iran’s true sentiments were.

“Those who have greedy eyes on the territories this side of the Aras River had better study history and see that Azerbaijan, specifically the people of Tabriz, have always pioneered in defending Iran. If Iran had not helped you on the night of the coup, you would have had a fate like that of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi,’ protesters chanted in front of the Turkish consulate in Tabriz, the capital of Iran’s East Azerbaijan province.

The protesters were responding to Mr. Erdogan’s poem recital and referring to the failed military coup against him in 2016 as well as the toppling of Mr. Morsi in 2013 in a takeover by the Egyptian armed forces.

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Notes on Turkish Politics (5): The Need for a Vibrant Civil Society

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This is the last piece of my “Turkish politics” article series. In this piece, I will try to address the role of civil society in Turkish political life and democracy in a brief way.

The role of civil society is very important in shaping the democratic institutions and processes in a polity. Turkish political culture has long been characterized by having a weak civil society and strong state mechanism. As noted in my earlier piece titled “Notes On Turkish Politics (I): Strong State Tradition”Turkey has a “strong state tradition” as first stressed by distinguished Turkish academic Metin Heper. The non-state units and grass-roots movements have been weak in Turkish political life due to a number of reasons which also lead to democratic erosion.

Civil society is related with autonomous social units and organizations like voluntary associations, private companies, private associations etc. These social units or organizations that make up civil society are based on the principle of recognition of basic human and civil rights. It is known that civil society is seen as one of the basic social bases of  liberal democracy.

The historical background of Turkey from the very beginning of the Republic experienced an evident antagonism between the state and the society. The military, the high bureaucracy and some academics along with some particular media actors used to show a certain amount of distrust towards the society until the multi-party politics.

In the post-1980 period, a revival of civil society was witnessed. Turkey went through important changes in the 1980s as the free market economy policies were accepted. One of the most important consequences of this change was the development of the systems of communication and information and this development empowered civil society actors as well. Turgut Özal has been one of the influential political elites paving the way for the strengthening of Turkish civil society. Özal challenged Kemalist state tradition to some degree. As an extension of Özal’s liberal policies, a free market economy was formed and legal obstacles to political freedom were also removed by abolishing Articles 141, 142, and 163 of the 1982 Constitution, which prohibited the free expression of thought (Çaha, 2001).

The 1990s witnessed a military intervention and this “post-modern” coup narrowed the arena for civil society associations and certain identities like that of Islamic identity were vilified by the state elites.

In the early years of the AK Party rule (up until 2010 referendum) Turkey saw positive developments in terms of democratization and this played a positive role for civil society as well. However, in the last years, Turkish civil society has begun to weaken once again. A recent example of this is Turkey’s NGO bill that was introduced in late 2020. In a news article published by Duvar English, the warnings of Human Right Watch were addressed. According to HRW, the bill introduces “annual inspections of nongovernmental groups, which will severely affect their activities since the inspections frequently last months and reduce the group’s capacity to operate. It introduces severe fines if the Interior Ministry deems a group’s online fundraising unlawful.”

In one of my articles titled “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?” published in 2011, I wrote the following about the relationship between civil society and political culture for Turkish context:

“The Turkish case indicates that the advancement of civil society is closely related to the function of and the role of state. The governance of state in accordance with the rule of law and its neutrality is necessary for the advancement of a competitive social environment where social groups can freely compete. Also, it is important to note that there is almost a direct relationship between civil society and democracy.”

Turkey needs a vibrant civil society to have a working democracy and of course civil society is only one piece of the prerequisites for democracy!

Cited resources

  • Burak Begüm, 2011, “Turkish Political Culture and Civil Society: An Unsettling Coupling?”  19264 (dergipark.org.tr) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)
  • Çaha Ömer, 2001, “The Inevitable Coexistence of Civil Society and Liberalism: The Case of Turkey”, Journal of Economic and Social Research 3, 2.
  • Duvar English, (Dec. 24, 2020), “Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW” Turkey’s NGO bill threatens civil society, says HRW (duvarenglish.com) (Access Date: 20.02.2021)

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